Self-Discrepancy: What happens when our various selves intersect?

Ever feel that you are not living up to your own expectations?

It's common to feel that you are not living up to the ideal you set for yourself. Consciously or unconsciously we all adopt certain self expectations and create internalised standards for ourselves. These standards act as the makeshift blueprint of how we expect our life to play out. Dissatisfaction can arise when the reality of our existence differs from our desired or expected blueprint.

Most of us have multiple self perceptions. I don't necessarily mean in a completely schizophrenic sort of way, instead I'm referring to the quandary faced by many of us at various times in our life when the intersection of our various selves meet and there is incongruence between the way we are living vs the way we WANT to or think we SHOULD be living. This leads me to introduce you to a concept aptly named Self Discrepancy Theory.

To conveniently quote from my old mate Wikipedia:

"Self-discrepancy theory states that people compare themselves to internalized standards called "self-guides". These different representations of the self can be contradictory and result in emotional discomfort. Self-discrepancy is the gap between two of these self-representations."

Essentially the theory states that we each hold different representations of ourself and the three primary self-guides have been given the following descriptors under the theory:

The Actual Self

The Actual Self relates to the attributes that we actually possess and embody. It is the core self of an individual based on their conclusions about how they engage with the world, their achievements, their intellect, their abilities and behaviours etc.

The Ideal Self

The Ideal Self is as obvious as it sounds. It is the idealised version of ourself that we aspire to. It is the version of us that has certain capabilities, attributes and behaviours etc. The attributes might be ones that we decide are ideal to possess and these can relate to hopes, aspirations and wishes for yourself. The sense of Ideal Self often drives individuals to change, improve or challenge and achieve. When we identify a discrepancy between our Actual Self and our Ideal Self this can often be a catalyst for change as we are all strongly motivated to maintain a sense of consistency among our various beliefs and self-perceptions.

The Ought Self

This one is often quite frankly a bit of a pain in the arse to all of us. This is the one that represents what we think we "should" be/have or do and this can be based on societal pressures, parental expectations self-imposed standards, cultural expectations and many other factors. This particular Self focuses on the attributes you believe you should or ought to possess and is linked to a sense of duty, obligations and responsibilities. I don't like Ought Self personally, it's never served me well.

As you might expect, when our Actual Self is incongruent with the Ideal or Ought Self, dissatisfaction and emotional distress can ensue. For example, when our Actual Self is not aligned with our Ideal Self we can feel disappointed, sad or despondent. When our Actual Self does not match our Ought Self we can feel guilty, anxious, afraid and agitated. Depending on the particular conflict of Self, an individual may feel motivated towards change, may experience depression or may feel inspired.

So how can we address the internal conflict we may experience as a result of experiencing this incongruence with our internalised standards?

Firstly I recommend to write up the attributes of your Actual Self, your Ideal Self and your Ought Self.

Go on, do that now.

[Insert thinking music here...]

Ok, so assuming you have written that up you would no doubt have become aware of any glaring inconsistencies across the three Selfs from that exercise. If you didn't, then yay for you! That's ace, you're probably living in alignment with your own values and goals and don't give a crap what others think you should be doing. If you found that you did notice significant incongruence across the difference Selfs, then take some time to consider a few things.

Where necessary:

1. Adjust your expectations Accept that the blueprint can change and evolve. As my NLP teacher James Tsakalos always told us, "You are are a human being, not a human is."

2. Re-visit your Ought Self list - often the list of attributes are based on what we think others want from us, rather than what we want. Ask yourself whether they are necessary. Ask yourself whether you can drop some of those Oughts, particularly if they're based on the needs, desires and expectations of others

3. Assess the viability of the Ideal Self - are the aspirations realistic? Are they achievable? Would there be any negative consequences of living according to those ideal attributes?

4. Explore your conscious and unconscious beliefs around success - we all hold beliefs about the way things are and the way things should be. Beliefs can drive behaviours and it's crucial to explore and understand how your beliefs are influencing your experience

5. Explore your beliefs around confidence - you may discover you're confusing confidence with arrogance, who knows...

6. Identify limiting beliefs that may not be serving you - some beliefs are empowering in nature, others are disempowering. Find out which ones you hold that may be limiting and holding you back

7. Dissolve the limiting beliefs

Want to know more about how to develop your sense of self-worth and confidence? Watch this space, I'm writing a book about it.