How to Stop Chasing Your Idealized Self

Imagine you’re at home, it’s quiet, and you’re by yourself. What do you feel in that moment? Do you feel comfortable in your own skin – calm in the eye of the storm that is your day? Or, like many people, do you feel like you should be doing something? You should be cleaning the house. Or working. Or working out. You’re supposed to. And there’s something wrong with you if you don’t.

Too many of the women I see in private practice are immobilized by this idea of “should.” And it’s not just the haunting, tenacious feeling that you should do something, but the feeling that you should be something, namely an idealized version of yourself – the kind of person who would clean the house or work or exercise instead of sitting and being with yourself, relaxing into that moment.

That divide between the person you experience yourself to be and your idealized self is like looking up the center of a stairwell: no matter how fast you climb, the idealized self is always one, two or three flights ahead of you on the stairs. You’d hope that maybe even if you can’t actually catch your idealized self, at least the goal it presents would lead you toward personal growth. But the more you strive for this ideal you create, the more you end up being stuck with the exact negative emotions you imagined this idealized version of yourself would heal, if only you could catch it!

This isn’t a new idea: A 1987 article by Tory Higgins, PhD, in the journal Psychological Review coined the term “self-discrepancy” and showed that, “discrepancies between the actual self-state and ideal self-states are associated with dejection-related emotions (e.g., disappointment, dissatisfaction, sadness).”

In other words, when there’s a gap between your actual self and your idealized self, you feel bad.

Since 1987, research mostly in the field of self-psychology has confirmed these hurtful effects of self-discrepancies. For example, just this week a study at the University of Houston demonstrated that the difference between a subject’s own body weight and the weight of a skinny model predicts how much his or her own body dissatisfaction would change when presented with a picture of the model. It wasn’t necessarily that the overweight subjects started out feeling bad about themselves – it was only in forced comparison with an idealized self that their body dissatisfaction bloomed. The greater the difference between actual self and idealized self, the worse they felt.

This divide – these self-discrepancies – can lead to feelings of paralysis, of being immobilized, ashamed, even disgusted with yourself. It can make the experience of being alone almost too hard to bear.

There are ways to manage this divide, but it’s not easy. That’s because the divide hurts. And this state of hurt along with an idealized self that continues to climb further away means that just chasing that ideal rarely works. Instead, real, substantive, and lasting change comes from working to disengage from the idealized self – the “I should be” self – and working toward acceptance of self, as you are right here, right now. You’re a work in progress, but recognizing and acknowledging your actual self dilutes the power of these emotional obstacles that keep you stuck.

And that, my friends, is a way to make positive change happen.

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