Adopting an Alter Ego: Does It Work?

After a long phone conversation with a friend, during which we puzzled about why we both struggled with sticking to better health and fitness routines, and with making time for our creative pursuits, I plugged into the next podcast in the series I’ve been following: Don’t Keep Your Day Job.

I wasn’t immediately taken with the idea of the guest of the moment, Todd Herman. He wrote the Alter Ego Effect and has a long history of coaching athletes. Two negative strikes for me: I don’t tend to like self-help or “road map to success” books (they are typically WAY too abstract and I especially shy away from the “good for business people” category) and, while I admire athletes in the abstract, sports and athleticism are by no means a close friend.

Still, podcaster Cathy Heller is an enthused interviewer with an eclectic mix of guests. On a more pragmatic note, I also like to use podcasts to help me multitask, in a productive way: be reflective while taking care of nagging tasks like sorting laundry or doing dishes.

Maybe I was more receptive on the heels of my recent conversation about the seemingly un-climbable mountain of weight loss and living in line with my truest, deepest priorities. So when Todd spoke about making up an actual persona, an actual separate person, aka alter ego, to take on when striving for a goal, I paid more attention than I typically would. What if this could work for me?

Everyone has heroes, and I narrowed my potential “clay” for modeling an alter ego down to two of my idols. They were both Pulitzer winners, but so much more. Recently departed and fiercely admired poet Mary Oliver came to mind. She loved the natural world intensely, as I do. She wrote, as I do. But she lived a comparatively reclusive life, spending so much of her time in nature, which would be a tall order for me in my current life phase of working wife, mother, and daughter. I think of Mary as many glorious things, but not as a family person, per se. So adopting a Mary Oliver-like persona didn’t feel spot on.

My next go-to was Edwin Way Teale. What do he and I share? A love for nature, and for writing about it. Connecticut and Long Island ties, too. Also, he was a devoted family person with an only child, like I am. Tragically, he lost his son to World War II, and I can relate to heart-wrenching loss as well (in my case, of a brother). He and his wife Nellie shared an impressive, respectful bond for many decades, both before and after the loss of David. So far, Tom and I have a pretty good track record and Tom, like Edwin’s Nellie, supports my work.

There is so much that Edwin did which I relate to and admire. He worked the daily grind at a magazine job for quite a while, but he also calculated a plan to leave that job forever, buy an old farm, and then spend the rest of his life in nature, and writing about it (my idea of heaven). He called the day he broke away his personal “Independence Day,” for the rest of his life.

Perhaps Teale is also a good model for my alter ego because I got to live at his house for a week a few years ago, as part of an artist-in-residence experience (see link two paragraphs above for my take on the week). I walked the trails he walked. I read what he wrote in the exact setting where he wrote it. I penned my own fascinations, loves, and learnings sparked by my time in field and forest.

I also saw how Teale organized his life. Yes, he had a deep passion for nature. But he also made completely logical, entrepreneurial plans. He did calculations about income and kept detailed accounts of money and goals and deadlines (and made a good living, by the way!). He embarked on book tours even though he might have preferred to chew nails. He took time to be idle and have friendships and visitors, so things were balanced. In short, he “adulted” well — a goal that has been elusive for me.

So, my alter ego is Kathryn Way Teale, some imagined descendant of the man and his stellar life. When I don’t want to get on the exercise bike, I think about how Kathryn (like Edwin before her) would do it for completely pragmatic reasons — you have to be fit if you want to keep returning to the trails. It’s the same approach to eating — less pounds means lighter, more limber steps. I’m still working on the methodical schedule that Kathryn would surely adopt, just like her ancestor Edwin. But then again, I sit writing now even though many tasks await. It’s taken some rediscovered fortitude to brush that other stuff aside.

Psychology is funny, and the same hacks don’t work for everyone. But if you are considering this, it might be worth asking if there’s really anything to lose if it doesn’t work out. I seem to recall Todd saying that for many who embraced the alter ego it worked nearly instantly — that’s why it became a go-to coaching strategy for him.

For me, it’s never been enough to say what my “best self” should or would do. It helps, somehow, to create a whole other individual that I can shadow. I can’t explain why. The mind is a funny thing.

It’s only a couple weeks in and I am fully cognizant of the possibility that Kathryn’s novel powers could lose their sheen going forward. But for me, the beauty is that I can always dust her off, perhaps update her inspiring fictional bio, and pick up the torch of ideals that I have so enjoyed carrying in these recent weeks.

I may have to credit Kathryn (as well as completely NONfictional Edwin, Cathy, and Todd) at the start of my next book.

Katherine Hauswirth walks, wonders, and writes in Connecticut. Her essay collection, The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail, won honorable mention with the American Society of Journalists and Authors last year.

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Katherine Hauswirth

Katherine Hauswirth

Katherine writes mostly about nature and contemplation, but sometimes about food, books, connecting, and other creature comforts. Look her up on Contently.