Have you ever wondered who you really are, deep down inside? Who really lives and breathes underneath all of the multi-layers of influence projected onto you over the course of your lifetime; molding you, shaping you, and potentially slotting you into a definition of you that is not your own? We are all influenced by those around us to some degree – in particular by those who help develop us in our most formative years, and whom we love and generally look up to – our parents. We grow up, innocently absorbing and latching onto their values, hopes and aspirations, unwittingly making them our own. But it`s not necessarily just our parents. We can sometimes form relationships where the separation between the two becomes blurred and we inadvertently weave the others` values and expectations into our own. And of course, there`s society`s stronghold which can also strongly influence our behaviours and the way we choose to live our lives.
It`s so easy to fall into the trap. You don`t even know that it has happened until one day you wake up and wonder “who the hell am I“? What do I really want in life? What makes me tick, what makes me happy, what makes me passionate? If you are lucky (and smart), you will start asking these questions early on in life. And, although anytime is a good time to start the journey to self-discovery, the earlier you do it, the more quickly you will come to understand who you really are and the sooner you will aspire to be, accept, and embrace that person.
Unfortunately, it takes many of us much longer. Sometimes it takes a life altering event to force us to look in the mirror and when we finally do, we are often surprised by what we see reflected back.
Humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, believed that we all own a real self and an ideal self. The real self of course is what we are intrinsically. It`s the self that feels most true to what and who we really are; the honest self that leaves us most comfortable in our skin. It may not be perfect, but it`s the part of us that feels most real. And it`s the one we need to learn to love the most.
The ideal self on the other hand, is the self that we think we want to be, that we strive to be, and that we feel we are expected to be. This self is borne out of influences outside of us. It is the self that holds values absorbed from others; a culmination of all those things that we think we should be, and that we feel others think we should be. We want to accommodate those expectations because we believe we will be more loved and accepted if we do. Holding the values of others is not a conscious decision, but rather, a process of osmosis. For the most part, we are not even aware of it.
Sadly, having an overly strong ideal self can be detrimental to our mental health.
It is healthy to some extent to have what we envision as an ideal self. It is something that we all strive for; to be the best that we can be. Who doesn`t want that? The problem arises when our ideal selves are too far removed from what we really are. When there is a huge discrepancy between what we are, and what we think we should be, we begin to experience a dissonance, a lack of resonance within our true selves, and a gap, sometimes huge, between what we sense as our real self compared to what we feel compelled to aspire to (our ideal self). When the discrepancy is huge, the resulting incongruence can lead us to become demoralized and discouraged because we have in fact set ourselves up for failure. This discrepancy can lead to stress and anxiety because the real self never seems good enough and the ideal self seems impossible to attain.
It can be difficult to identify your ideal self. Often, others will see it before you can see it in yourself. It helps to be in touch with and to trust your feelings. In fact, your thoughts, emotions and feelings can usually be trusted to speak the truth to you. They will lead you to your real self, which in turn, will help you to identify your ideal self. If the two are close, you will be the person that is comfortable in their skin, with the attainable goal to be the best that you can be. If the two are miles apart, you will experience that dissonance, and you will know in your heart that things are not quite right. You will have extremely high expectations of yourself, most of which may be close to impossible to meet. Those perceived “failures” will take a toll on your self-esteem. Needlessly. If you let your feelings guide you in an honest way, you will eventually find your real self. The more you get to know that self, the more you will come to appreciate it and love it for what it is. The real – perhaps less than perfect – but lovable, one and only you.