The Ideal Self vs. the Possible Self

June 5, 2014

The Ideal Self vs. the Possible Self

Many of us are no strangers to frustration. We can’t always have what we want and the world is not always fair. But there are some of us who lead a life of frustration and dissatisfaction, that look back and all we see is what we couldn’t achieve. This is obviously neither the good life nor the happy and meaningful life we wish to achieve that Positive Psychology talks about.

What is it about the way we perceive and attribute meaning to our lives that determines a life of frustration versus a fulfilling one?

I came across at a conference on aging and learning throughout the later life, an interesting idea one of the speakers pointed out: the ideal self vs the possible self as a source of frustration in later life. As an example, the speaker talked about the plans we all make for our retirement: that we are going to start a new project, do things we’ve never done before, travel places and we postpone everything until we get to the stage when we’re finally retired and do nothing. And all those plans just seem washed away and life pointless or a waste of time. Why didn’t I do things sooner, why didn’t I take that chance?

That idea keep me wondering. Why are we sometimes so frustrated with our lives? Why can’t we feel happy with what we have or make the necessary changes to achieve a possible goal? And maybe, it’s this idea of an ideal self that is keeping us away from achieving a possible one.

Aren’t we all trying to achieve our ideal self?

Personally and professionally speaking, I hate the idea of perfection that is sold to us by mainstream culture. In the end, perfection is unattainable and leads to a life of frustration. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all in favor of breaking our boundaries, of taking leaps of faith, of challenging who we are and what we know. We can always be better versions of ourselves, we just don’t need to try to achieve the impossible ones.

In 1987, Edward Higgins developed The Self-Discrepancy Theory which explores the different kinds of discomfort people may feel due to incompatible beliefs about one’s self and the emotional vulnerabilities that arise from the discrepancies we generate about ourselves.

Taking a hard look in the mirror

Not literally. But some introspection might be necessary. Who are you now and who would you like to be? After answering these two questions, answer this one truthfully: who can you possibly be? (Realistically speaking!)

Your possible self is somewhere between who you are now and your ideal self. And the first step is being honest with yourself and a realistic-optimistic!

Leading a meaningful life

And a full one. What does it entail?

If, like The Self-Discrepancy Theory (Higgins, 1987) suggests, the discrepancy in our vision of self is what’s causing our emotional pain, maybe we should start by changing our view and letting go of the frustration. How do we get a new set of glasses to look at the world and ourselves? I suggest you prove some of your basic assumptions about yourself wrong. And move on to shaping your life and yourself to approach your possible self.

At the end of the day, we all try to do our best and nothing more can you ask of yourself.


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