How to become yourself.
Source: Barbara Egin, used with permission.

Is there an ideal self you want to achieve? Maybe being less neurotic and more emotionally stable? Or being less quarrelsome and more forgiving? And how does this ideal self relate to your actual self? For instance, it is likely that you want to be less quarrelsome because you perceive yourself as pretty quarrelsome. 

The question of ideal selves intrigued us. In a recent study from our lab at the University of Basel in Switzerland, we asked 326 male-female couple members (ranging from 18 to 88 years of age) ­about their ideal selves. Specifically, at the end of a four-year study, participants described their ideal selves—they were asked how they would ideally like to be and to name up to four attributes of their ideal self. In total, we received 1,181 ideal self-descriptions, which were next coded and clustered according to the five central personality dimensions: agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, openness, and extraversion (following the dimensions of the Big Five traits). In addition, participants provided self-reports on their personality traits, that is how agreeable, neurotic, conscientious, open, and extraverted they perceive themselves to be in general. We had the assumption that people would want to compensate for those aspects in which they are low and would hence mention ideal selves that are complementary to their personality traits (e.g., a person who is quarrelsome wants to be less quarrelsome).

What we found: Most women and men wanted to be more agreeable, specifically if they were already agreeable. This puzzled us. Why would already-agreeable people want to be even more agreeable? The reason might be simple. Agreeable people are thought to be gentle and good-natured which might be a general ideal of how a mature person wants to be. In addition, aspects such as ‘‘being helpful,” ‘‘being understanding,” or ‘‘being loyal” are not only part of being a psychologically mature person, but are also conducive to social interactions. Hence, being agreeable is something people generally aspire to, and they may feel that there can never be too much agreeableness. 

As expected, we also observed an effect of complementarity: Men high in emotional instability were likely to wish to be emotionally stable. This can be explained in two ways. First, increases in emotional stability, together with increases in agreeableness and conscientiousness, constitute what has been described as a general change toward greater maturity. Second, emotional instability is a risk factor for romantic relationships, and striving for emotional stability might be especially desirable in the romantic relationship context for those who are emotionally unstable. 

But can people actually become who they ideally want to be? Yes, some can—and their romantic relationship might help them to do so. In the relationship literature, a central framework that describes movement toward the ideal self in close relationships, including romantic relationships, is the Michelangelo phenomenon. Why Michelangelo? Analogous to the sculptural process of the artist Michelangelo Buonarroti—who allegedly said that he was revealing the ideal figures already within the marble, rather than creating the figures himself—the Michelangelo phenomenon conceives romantic partners as the sculptors of each other’s self.

Specifically, while people may also move toward their ideal self due to self-directed change, it is often in interaction with romantic partners and due to their support that people can move toward their ideal self. As such, the Michelangelo phenomenon posits that people (i.e., ‘‘targets”) hold an ideal self, which they can achieve through the perceptual and behavioral affirmation of their romantic partner (i.e., ‘‘sculptors”). For instance, a ­supportive partner may affirm the target’s ideal self (e.g., to be more forgiving) through role modeling or social support, and thereby promote developing toward the ideal; this, in turn, is a satisfying process for the target. A less supportive partner, conversely, neglects or disaffirms the target’s ideal self and movement toward it; this hindrance or lack of movement, in turn, has negative ramifications. 

In our study, we were now interested in individual differences in the Michelangelo phenomenon: How do people differ in their tendency to benefit from the Michelangelo phenomenon? As expected, we found people’s personality traits to be predictive: People who were more emotionally stable, agreeable, and extraverted were more likely to move toward their ideal self. Why might these traits be conducive to personal growth in couples? It is likely that people who are more emotionally stable, agreeable, and extraverted create a daily relationship life that is beneficial for personal growth.

For instance, they might be more inclined to share with their partner their ideal self and to talk about each other’s growth in the relationship. Over time, knowing about each other’s ideal selves and supporting each other’s growth might become a key part of the relationship and help each partner to become who they want to be. Certainly, specific daily relationship mechanisms should be explored in future studies. 

The key insights from this study: First, people have different ideal selves and personality traits that predict which ideal selves are likely to be aspired to. Second, moving toward the ideal self is a collaborative process and more likely to be achieved with a close supportive other, such as a romantic partner. Third, personality traits predict how likely people are to move toward their ideal selves due to their partners’ support. Why not make movement toward the ideal self an important part of your romantic relationship, and talk about ideal selves with your partner in order to help each other to grow? 

Facebook image: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock


Bühler, J. L., Finkenauer, C., & Grob, A. (2020). A dyadic personality perspective on the Michelangelo phenomenon: How personality traits relate to people’s ideal selves and their personal growth in romantic relationships. Journal of Research in Personality. Advance online publication. doi:10.1016/j.jrp.2020.103943

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