Ideal Self

Ideal Self. Psychology Fanatic article header image

The concept of the ideal self in psychology refers to an individual’s vision or perception of their perfect or ideal self. It is essentially a representation of who they aspire to be, encompassing their desired qualities, achievements, and appearances. The ideal self is often influenced by external factors such as societal expectations, cultural norms, and personal aspirations. Marketers furiously work to shape our ideal self images that include use of their specific products or concepts.

The ideal self is a collection of personal self-concepts that contain desires, hopes, and wishes. The ideal self motivates behaviors to reconcile difference between the real self and the ideal self.

Healthy ideal selves motivate growth, inspire integrity, and create hope. Unfortunately, the image we hold of ourselves may also have some adverse effects. Distorted self images of who we want to be in the future or who we expect ourselves to be in the present can intrude on the present, causing undue anxiety, shame, and guilt. We may harshly judge our real self against the unobtainable lofty image of tan ideal self, damaging self esteem and confidence with debilitating waves of shame.

Key Definition:

Ideal self is an image of the self that we desire to be. Ideal self images motivates goal directed behaviors and impose self sanctions from acting in ways that conflicts with a desired image of self.

Historical Concepts of Ideal Self

Philosophers and writers have been intrigued with concepts of self throughout recorded history. Inscribed upon the Temple of Apollo in the ancient Greek precinct of Delphi are the famous words “know thyself.” Sigmund Freud popularized the conflicting states of self through his theories of the ego, superego and the ego ideal. Religions jump to define the common existential question, “who am I?”

Developmental science in the twentieth century theorizes that a child begins to differentiate between self and others between 12 and 18 months of age. By 18 months, a child displays possession of a theory of mind, recognizing the internal working of their thoughts as opposed to other’s thoughts. Early in life the child “recognizes part of his own experience as ‘me’, ‘I’, ‘myself'” (Irtelli, Durbano, & Marches, 2021). The child begins the sense of existing as an individual independent of others.

Throughout the mass of psychological literature, we find varying concepts referring to different frames of references for understanding and evaluating the self. We see ourselves through a variety of lenses. Each lens has benefits and drawbacks. Wellness stems from a functional integration of the different domains of self.

Domains of Self

The self in psychology is a “conceptual, organized, and coherent perception configuration of personal characteristics” (Irtelli, Durbano, & Marches, 2021). Within this perceptual realm of self, we see ourselves in our roles, with individual and unique personality traits. We also engage in episodic foresight, seeing our possible selves in the future. Our social awareness also forms images of ourselves. the person we envision that others see us as, and expect us to be.

Early in our development we begin to form different identifiable domains of self. Our wellness depends on a healthy interaction between these different domains. Psychological literature commonly refer to three specific domains of self, although they may differ in terminology.

The three domains of self are:

  • the real self
  • the Ideal self (ego ideal)
  • the ought self (superego)

The real self is how we experience ourselves in the present. The ideal self is the attributes that an individual would ideally like to possess (hopes, dreams, and aspirations). And the ought self represents the attributes that someone believes you should possess. This includes sense of duty, obligations, and responsibilities. (Higgins, 1987).

Perhaps, the comparing of the real self in childhood to the ‘ought self’ projected by caregivers is the core cause of Alfred Adler’s concept of inferiority. The child experiences inferiority through inability to meet perceived external expectations. Adler wrote, “this feeling of inferiority is the cause of his continual restlessness as a child, his craving for action, his playing of roles, the pitting of his strength against that of others, his anticipatory pictures of the future and his physical as well as mental preparations” (Adler, 2011).

Images of Self as Motivation

In many cases, the ideal self serves as a motivational force that drives individuals to work towards self-improvement and personal growth. People may set goals and engage in various behaviors to bridge the gap between their actual self (how they perceive themselves currently) and their ideal self (how they ideally want to be). George Frank and Douglas Hiester remarked that the “discrepancy between the self concept, that is, the way the person experiences himself in the present. and the ideal concept has been used in research endeavors as a criterion for psychological health and personality change” (1967).

The ideal self and the ought self can be described as self guides that drive behavior. Certainly, we have dreams of what would make us happy. We envision personality traits and achievements that would enhance our lives. However, we also are part of a community. We have families and responsibilities. The perfect ideal image of what makes us happy may not always fit into the reality of our lives. We must manage the complex task of tradeoffs.

For example, I love Mary. I want to spend the rest of my life with her. She is part of my ‘ideal.’ However, Mary has her own set of ideals. Her ideals and my ideals may clash. A healthy relationship requires some modifying. We live our lives constantly blending motivations to fulfill images of our ideal selves with images of our ought selves. Unfortunately, any image of self can co askew, overpower the balancing states of the other images of selves, and disrupt our lives.

Dysfunctional Images of Selves

According to the self-discrepancy theory, when the different views of ourself conflict, it arouses emotional discomfort. Basically, if the perception of who I am clashes with who I believe I ‘ought’ to be, or who I want to be, I experience a cognitive dissonance requiring some adjustment to regain a homeostatic balance. The adjustment, however, may take many different forms. We may find healthy adjustment of alienating behaviors to align our current self with ideals. We may adapt unrealistic ideals to fit current trajectories. Or, we may change cognitions to smooth the discrepancies.

Andrew P. Morrison and Robert D. Stolorow wrote, “the greater the sensed discrepancy or gap between ideal and actual selves, the greater the propensity for shame and for narcissistic insult” (1997, Kindle location: 1,452). Discrepancies give rise to significant emotions that motivate a variety of behaviors to alleviate the discomfort.

Any discomforting affects lead to change. Not all changes are healthy. Some take the form of maladaptive defense mechanisms. Other changes may include ditching and ideals or ethics that conflict with the excitement and pleasure of the moment. Or according to moral disengagement theory, we may unconsciously disengagement momentarily from normal judgements to justify our discrepant behaviors.

Domains of Self Out of Balance

A common ailment to mental health is by giving too much attention to any one of the different domains of self. An overactive ‘ought-self’ may become overly focused on others. Joseph Burgo wrote that these overly-kind people may “appear selfless in their devotion, but this type of empathy is less about other people than it seems; it’s more about fulfilling some ideal self-image to combat shame, more about an unmet need than true generosity” (Burgo, 2012).

Others may be so focused on the ideal self that they either distance themselves from the real self in a narcissistic fashion, or constantly berate the humanness of the real self with the unrealistic expectation of perfectionism. We must anchor ourselves in reality first, then reach for ideals, while respecting others by honoring responsibilities. Each domain of self may help reign in imbalances and help us continue on a personal path of growth.

The Evolving Image Self

It is important to note that the ideal self is subjective and can vary greatly from person to person. What one individual considers as their ideal self may be different from another person’s perception. Furthermore, the ideal self can change over time as individuals evolve and their priorities and values shift.

We should examine the contents of our ideal self, making changes as necessary. Paul Dolan wrote, “separating the wheat from the chaff of your ideal self—knowing which ideals to hold and which ones to fold—is a real challenge. Ultimately, you need to consider the various ways in which your thoughts about yourself are helping and hindering you in the pursuit of happiness” (Dolan, 2014).

When self concepts are vague, we are vulnerable to influences outside of ourselves. Who we desire to be dissolves into what others believe we ought to be. Unscrupulous others and businesses jump at the chance to create our ideal self for us. An image of self that largely benefits their goals without respect for our wellness. “Advertisers know they would sell less if they were merely to present the facts about a product, so they devote themselves to persuading us to form attachments to products because we want to use them to build an ideal self. People who have a better understanding of themselves and are less prone to self-deception can see through marketers’ attempts to deceive them” (Hamilton & Denniss, 2005).

A Few Words By Psychology Fanatic

Understanding the concepts of ideal self can be valuable in the field of psychology as it allows professionals to explore an individual’s self-concept and motivations, helping them identify the gaps between a person’s actual and ideal self images. Therapists and counselors can assist individuals in setting realistic goals, while guiding them towards personal fulfillment and self-acceptance.

Overall, the concept of the ideal self provides insight into the complex nature of human identity and the aspirations that drive individuals to seek personal growth and self-actualization.

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Adler, Alfred (1920/2011). The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology. ‎Martino Fine Books.

Burgo, Joseph (2012). Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives. New Rise Press. Kindle Edition

Dolan, Paul (2014). Happiness by Design: Change What You Do, Not How You Think. Avery.

Frank, G., & Hiester, D. (1967). Reliability of the Ideal-Self-Concept. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 14(4), 356-357. DOI: 10.1037/h0024743

Hamilton, Clive; Denniss, Richard (2005). Affluenza: When too much is never enough. Allen & Unwin.

Higgins, E. Tory (1987). Self-Discrepancy: A Theory Relating Self and Affect. Psychological Review, 94(3), 319-340. DOI: 10.1037/0033-295X.94.3.319

Irtelli, Floriana; Durbano, Federico; Marches, Barbara (2021). The Real Self and the Ideal Self. Psychoanalysis. DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.98194

Morrison, Andrew P.; Stolorow, Robert D. (1997). Shame, Narcissism, and Intersubjectivity. Editors Lansky, M. R. and Morrison, A. P. In The Widening Scope of Shame. ​Routledge; 1st edition.

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