Ideal Self vs Real Self

Ideal Self Vs Real Self | Closing the gap and Embracing yourself

All of us desire to be the best version of ourselves or our ideal self right? But going from our real self to the ideal self can be challenging and hard. Right?

Smokers ideally wouldn’t want to smoke. People wish they were in a better job or career or lived in a different country! Or we might wish we were a better person and displayed more values in our lives that we care about.

Well, let’s explore the ideal and real self in this article and how we can bridge the gap from a place of compassion and love for ourselves.

Key Points:

  • Your ideal self is the dream superhero version of your true self fueled by your values and goals. 
  • Your real self is the mix of your experiences, strengths, weaknesses, values, and imperfections. Embrace your real self for your uniqueness and try to close the gap from a place of compassion and love.
  • Reflect on your ideal self and who you truly are. Journaling is your friend here!
  • Close the gap by setting SMART goals, finding intrinsic motivation, tackling limiting beliefs, and celebrating along the way. Find a way to love the journey instead of focusing too much on the destination.
  • Be kind to yourself, focus on progress, and remember, you’re awesome just the way you are!

What is the Ideal Self?

Ideal Self is the dream image we hold of ourselves, a better version of you living based on your values, goals, and desired personality traits.

“The greatest revolution in our lives is the revolution of character. The ideal self is the dynamite that blasts open the prison of the old self.”

William James

Having an ideal self is like having a compass in life that motivates us and helps us make better decisions.

Our brains grow and evolve in life because of its neuroplasticity. When we visualize and focus on our ideal self, it triggers the parts of the brain responsible for motivation and planning.

“Focus on who you want to be rather than what you want to do. To-be lists are better than your to-do lists”

Jay Shetty

Why should you find your Ideal Self?

  • Improved motivation
  • Increased resilience 
  • Better self-esteem cause of a sense of purpose and direction

Did you know? 

Ideal Self can change your perception of time. People who focus on their goals and aspirations are more present in the moment and time seems to stretch out for them.

  • Source: Carney, D. R., Schmeichel, B. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2008). Ideal selves and the subjective experience of time: How thinking about who you want to be can make time seem to pass more slowly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1024-1038.

“Become who you are! There is no point in trying to be someone else. The ideal self should be an extension of your authentic self, not a replacement for it.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Journaling prompts and self-reflection exercises to identify your ideal self:

Aspirations:

  • Imagine a Time Machine:  Imagine hopping into a time machine and landing five years in the future. Describe yourself in this future scenario. What are you doing? Who are you with? How do you feel?
  • Headline of Your Success Story:  Craft a captivating headline for a news article about your greatest accomplishment.  What does this achievement reveal about your ideal self?

Values:

  • Your Eulogy, Not Your Obituary: Imagine a heartfelt eulogy delivered at your future celebration of life. What qualities and contributions would you hope to be remembered for?
  • Deal Breakers:  If you could create a list of “deal breakers” for your life, what values or situations would be unacceptable?  What does this reveal about your priorities and ideal life?

Ideal lifestyle:

  • The Perfect Day:  Close your eyes and visualize your ideal day from start to finish.  Where are you? Who are you with?  What activities bring you joy and fulfillment?  Describe this perfect day in vivid detail.
  • The “More of”/”Less of” List:  Create two lists: “More of” and “Less of.”  In the “More of” list, write down experiences, activities, and qualities you want to incorporate more into your life.  In the “Less of” list, identify things you want to reduce or eliminate that don’t serve your ideal self.

The Unrealistic Ideal Self:

It’s hard to not get influenced by our environment, societal expectations, and endless social media exploration. 

These external factors often create a distorted ideal self leading to a sense of inadequacy and dissatisfaction in life. 

“The problem with an ideal self-based on external validation is that it’s always out of reach. True self-worth comes from within, not from the judgments of others.”

Alain de Button

For every goal or value you have, try to ask “why” you desire a certain value or goal. Is it intrinsically motivated or is it influenced by external pressures?

Self-reflection task: 

  • List Expectations: Write down all the qualities, achievements, and experiences you believe you should have (e.g., career success, material possessions, physical appearance).
  • Question the Source: For each expectation, ask yourself: “Who told me this was important?” Is it societal messages, family expectations, or comparisons to others?

Reframe Your Thinking:

  • Challenge Societal Norms: Question the validity of societal expectations for success and happiness. What works for one person might not work for another.
  • Focus on Your Journey: Instead of dwelling on the “ideal” you see in others, focus on your own growth and progress towards your authentic self.

How does an unrealistic ideal self affect our lives?

  • Low Self-Esteem – Because of setting unachievable ideal self
  • Anxiety and Depression: from now being able to achieve our unrealistic ideal self
  • Low motivation and sense of direction in life.

“The media bombards us with messages about what we should be like. It’s crucial to be a discerning consumer of media and to choose messages that align with your values and ideal self.”

Gretchen Rubin

The Fluidity of the Ideal Self – The Ideal Self Spectrum:

It’s important to note that our values, goals, and priorities change as we go through the different stages of life. This means our idea of an “ideal self” will change and evolve with time as well!

“Our brains don’t perceive the world objectively. They construct our reality based on our past experiences and expectations. As we learn and grow, this constructed reality shifts, and so too can our ideal self.”

Lisa Feldman Barret (Neuroscientist)

Related: Value shift – How to deal with Midlife Crisis

Exposure to new ideas and experiences can shift our core beliefs and personality as well. 

For some people, the fluidity can be high and for others, it could solidify at a young age. It all depends on how and where your journey of life takes you!

So embrace fluidity and stay away from self-criticism. 

“Don’t be afraid to redefine your ideal self as you learn and grow. What mattered to you at 20 might not matter as much at 40. Embrace the journey of becoming your best-evolving self.”

Sheryl Sandberg


What is the Real Self?

The real Self is a mental image, a narrative of our true selves based on our past experiences, beliefs, and emotions. 

The real Self is us, the raw true self with our imperfections, strengths, and weaknesses. Right? 

Here are some scientific facts about the real self:

  • The Narrative Self: Our brain constructs a narrative of self-based on memories and experiences. This influences the Real Self. 
  • Implicit Self-Esteem: Unconscious beliefs about our self-worth contribute to our true self. Makes sense right?
  • Multiple “Selves” theory: A person can have multiple selves. For instance, we might exhibit a different “work self” than a “friend self”
  • Power of the Unconscious: The majority of our self lies in the unconscious mind influencing our thoughts and behaviors. Hence it could be beneficial to explore our unconscious through dream analysis. (Source: Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory)

How to identify your real self?

While the Ideal self focuses on values, goals, and desires, the real self focuses on values, experiences, beliefs, and emotions.

You need to explore your values, passions, fears, beliefs, and experiences.

Here are some self-reflection questions and journaling prompts for exploring your real self.

  • What activities bring you a sense of deep satisfaction, even if they don’t lead to external rewards?
  • What causes or issues ignite a fire in you? Why do they matter to you?
  • Write a letter to your younger self. What advice would you give about staying true to yourself?
  • Think of a time you felt most “in the zone” or completely yourself. Describe the situation and your feelings.
  • What are your biggest fears? How do they influence your choices?
  • What are some habits or behaviors you secretly dislike about yourself? How can you address them with self-compassion?

Other ideas:

  • Meditate for 10-15 minutes every day. When you focus on the inner world, you are more aware of your emotions, feelings and values. Meditation and mindfulness are the best ways to improve self-awareness.

Ideal Self Vs Real Self – The Gap and its Importance:

What is the difference between your ideal and real self?

If the gap is too big, you are not living by your idealized version of who you desire to be and that might cause dissatisfaction in life. Makes sense right?

“In the negotiation room, I always try to push myself a little bit beyond my comfort zone… If you never try, you’ll never know what you can achieve.”

Sheryl Sandbag

Why do we need to understand and fill this gap?

  • Mental Well-being: When the gap is huge and it persists for a while, you will not feel any progress and fall into anxiety, sadness, and possibly depression.
  • Self Actualization: We must have all heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs right? Self-actualization – realizing one’s full true potential is at the top of the hierarchy of needs! We are wired to chase our ideal self and live to our complete potential.
  • Focus on growth and fulfillment: When we focus on growth, sacrifice our temporary pleasures, and work on ourselves to become better and live according to our ideals, we have a better quality of life and mental peace.

Challenges in Closing the Gap:

Limiting Beliefs: 

The gap between our ideal and real self can uncover some limiting beliefs that might be holding us back from truly believing in ourselves and trying to achieve our full potential.

“The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.” 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Exercise: Journal about a situation where you held yourself back due to a limiting belief. Challenge that belief and brainstorm ways to overcome it.

Shedding inauthentic behaviors: 

We might have to face some hard truths about our lives and give up on some unhealthy habits and behaviors that we might be doing.

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” 

Gloria Steinem

Challenge: Identify a behavior that no longer serves you. Find a replacement behavior that aligns with your ideal self and practice it consistently.

Let go of unrealistic Expectations: 

Aiming for something that’s inherently unattainable will lead to disappointments and failures. Re-evaluate your ideal self realistically and let go of socially induced goals and dreams.

Fear of Failure: 

Fear of failure can hold us back from taking action. But ask yourself, what is the point of being paralyzed and staying in the same place all your life? Reframe failures as growth opportunities and focus on creating a growth mindset instead of being scared of failures.

 “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 

Thomas Edison

Exercise: Create a “failure file” where you document your setbacks and learnings. Review this file to see how failures have propelled you forward.

Procrastination and lack of discipline: 

Procrastination is the root of most of our worries and problems. If we are disciplined, there won’t be a big gap between our ideal and real selves, right? 

“You don’t need more time, you need more focus.” 

Kim Namjoon (RM) of BTS

Tip: 

  • Utilize the Pomodoro Technique (25 minutes of focused work followed by a 5-minute break). Identify your peak productivity times and schedule demanding tasks for those periods.
  • Set daily and weekly goals leading up to a monthly goal. Have a maximum of 3 priorities per day. Focus on the why’s and values behind your goals. Use time management and productivity techniques to better manage your energy and focus.

Self-Criticism and the Need for Self-Compassion:

While it’s important to try to fill the gap, approach it with self-compassion rather than strong self-criticism. Being hard on yourself would lead to negative self-talk and self-doubt which would affect your motivation and progress in the long run.

“The greatest revolution of our generation is the revolution in self-kindness.” 

Cheryl Strayed

Exercise: Practice a loving-kindness meditation. Repeat positive affirmations about yourself and your abilities.

Find Joy in the Process:

One should always find joy, meaning, and fulfillment in the journey. Focusing too much on the rewards of the destination will hinder motivation.

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing ones… The best moments come when we challenge ourselves to do something difficult. We grow and learn and become more aware of our capacities.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Makes sense right? Embrace the challenge. Even if it might look hard from he outside, it can be very satisfying and fulfilling.

“It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” 

Edmund Hillary

Exercises to finding joy in the process:

  • Gratitude Journal: Write about the things you are grateful for every day. This makes us more aware of the little things in the process that make us feel happy and fulfilled.
  • Reframe and shift focus: Focus on enjoying learning and conquering your new skills instead of the outcome.

The Dark side of ambition – Things to be aware of:

“Too much of anything is never good”

We have a saying in Tamil, my native language, which goes, “Too much of medicine can be poisonous too”

Ambition is a driving force behind every dream ever reached and is an essential part of life. But unchecked ambition can take you down a rabbit hole!

“Ambition can be a double-edged sword

 While it can propel you forward, it can also lead to burnout, anxiety, and a distorted sense of self-worth tied solely to achievement.”

While it’s important to try and close the gap between our ideal and real self, do it with compassion and balance. 

Do not lose yourself in the relentless pursuit of your ideal goals which could potentially change as you grow older.

So here’s the dark side of unchecked ambition:

  • Burnout
  • Anxiety
  • Lowered self esteem
  • Sense of in-adequacy
  • Loss of balance and self – Letting ambition consume you that you lose the other important things in life.
  • Win at all costs mentality

“Excessive ambition can create a constant sense of inadequacy. You’re never successful enough, and the goalposts keep moving, leaving you feeling perpetually dissatisfied.”

Dr.  David  Nowell, a stress management expert.

How to deal with this?

Connect your ambition to your core values. Understand where your goals come from. Remember the “why” and maintain balance in your life. 

“Nothing is more important than balance in our lives”

Celebrate Real Self:

While we focus on filling the gap between our ideal and real selves, it is also important to celebrate our unique blend of strengths, flaws, weaknesses, and experiences. 

Why? Well, it’s important to not get lost in filling the gap and work hard from a place of acceptance and love.

“The only journey is the journey within.” 

Rainer Maria Rilke

Also here are some advantages of celebrating your real self:

  • Enhanced creativity and performance 
  • Better psychological well-being (Source)
  • Increased self-confidence and resilience

Embrace your imperfections:

Self-acceptance or accepting ourselves for our negative emotions, past mistakes, and insecurities is crucial for wholeness. 

“The shadow is an unconscious aspect of the personality which the prevailing attitude of consciousness resists.” 

Carl Jung

One should strive to go beyond just accepting the imperfections but finding happiness and joy in being you – a unique blend of experience, perspective, and values.

So what am I saying here? Should we focus on becoming our ideal self or accepting our real self?

I say both! Find a balance between self-improvement and self-acceptance!

The balance between self-improvement and self-acceptance:

Self-acceptance and compassion don’t mean we are off the hook and get to stay stagnant. Similarly, self-improvement and bridging the gap between the real and ideal self don’t mean that we focus all our energy and time on it to the point that we lose ourselves.

So, finding a balance between self-acceptance and self-improvement is crucial for a balanced approach to life.

Tips:

  • Use self-acceptance as a foundation 
  • Have a growth mindset and focus on progress rather than perfection.
  • Set SMART goals 
  • Celebrate small wins 

Hope this makes sense! Start your journey to closing the gap between your ideal and real self today with this challenge!

Suggested Books:

If you are a reader, its good to pick up a book and keep yourself educated about how to bridge this gap between ideal and real self with expert opinions who have more expertise and authority to help you in your journey

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown:  

This book challenges the societal pressure for perfection that can create a vast gap between our ideal and real selves. Brown emphasizes self-acceptance and embracing our vulnerabilities as the foundation for a more fulfilling life. Readers will learn to appreciate their real selves and quiet the inner critic that might be holding them back from achieving their ideal selves.

Read the gifts of imperfections

Daring Greatly by Brené Brown: 

Similar to “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Brown explores vulnerability as a key to closing the gap between the ideal and the real self.  The book highlights the courage it takes to be vulnerable and authentic, which allows readers to embrace their true selves and pursue their ideal selves with more authenticity.

Read Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

Atomic Habits by James Clear: 

This book provides a practical framework for building habits that can help bridge the gap between the ideal and the real self. By focusing on small, achievable changes, readers can develop habits that align with their ideal selves and gradually transform their reality.

Read Atomic Habits by James Clear

The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle: 

This book emphasizes living in the present moment and letting go of negative thoughts that can hinder progress toward an ideal self. Readers can learn to detach from self-doubt and limiting beliefs that might be rooted in the past, allowing them to focus on the present moment and take action toward their ideal selves.

Read the power of now by Eckhart Tolle

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl:  

Frankl’s story exemplifies finding meaning and purpose even in the face of extreme hardship.  This concept is relevant because a strong sense of purpose is a key driver in achieving your ideal self. Readers are inspired to find their own purpose, a vital step in aligning their real and ideal selves.

Read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor

AUTHOR SECTION

Sai Subramaniam The digital Hope

Written by Sai Subramaniam

Sai has over 5 years of experience writing about mental health and productivity. He shares his thoughts about love, life, and business in this blog. His goal is to help people become the best version of themselves and is guided by experts in the psychology and mental health field to help educate everyone about lifestyle and productivity

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