Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D
Source: Suzanne Lachmann, Psy.D
The idealized self is always one, two or three flights of stairs away. Image: Flickr/quapan

Imagine you're home, it’s quiet, you’re by yourself. What do you feel in that moment? Do you feel comfortable in your own skin – or at least ok enough? 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. And because you haven't.

Too many of the people I see in private practice are immobilized by the idea of "should.” And, it's not just that haunting feeling that you should do something that you're not doing, but the feeling that you should be some idealized version of yourself. 

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, your idealized self is always one, two or three flights ahead of you on the stairs. You are anxious, frustrated and shame-ridden that the actual you and the version you are supposed to be have not magically become one. If the did, then you can relax. The problem is the more you beat up your actual self with your idealized self because you can't attain it, or recapture it (as the case may be), the deeper you get buried under your own self-disgust.  

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 the counter-productive effects of these perceived self-discrepancies. For example, a study at the University of Houston demonstrated 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 version of what they "should be" that their body dissatisfaction bloomed. The greater the perceived difference between actual and idealized version of 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 under a million things you should do and be almost too hard to bear.

There are ways to manage this divide, but it's not easy, because it's painful to accept that whtaever you are "supposed to be" is not achievable in reality. Instead, real, substantive, and lasting change comes from working to disengage from the idealized self – the “I should be” self – and working toward acceptance that this is where you are, as you are right here, right now. You’re a work in progress. The good news is that recognizing and acknowledging that your actual self is only capable of creating change when you acknowledge that escaping into fantasy about what you should be, or self-beratement because of what you are not places even more obstacles in your path the feeling better. Dilute the power of these emotional obstacles that keep you stuck by first acknowledging that what you should be is unrealistic, but building from where you are, one small step at a time, is not.

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


Twitter: @DrSuzanneL

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