The world’s most successful people — whether speaking about scientists, entrepreneurs, heads of state, or artists — are driven by an insatiable desire to do great things. While having aspirations to change the world and shoot for the stars can lead to amazing things, having the sense of not being able to fulfill a “grand potential” can leave people extremely distressed, depressed, and, ironically, unmotivated. According to a new study, it’s not failing to make progress toward our ‘ideal-self’ that is problematic but rather the tendency to focus on that lack of progress in a negative way that leads to psychological distress.
Be kind to yourself
Researchers at Edith Cowan University in Australia explored the relationship between feelings of the discrepancy between the “ideal-self” and the “actual-self”, and symptoms of depression and anxiety. A third self-guide that is involved in self-evaluation is also the “ought-self”.
“The ‘ideal-self’ is the person we ideally want to be – our hopes and aspirations. The ‘ought self’ is who we believe we ought to be – our duties, obligations, and responsibilities,” Joanne Dickson, lead author of the new study, said in a statement.
“Our findings showed that perceiving one’s hopes and wishes as unfulfilled and the loss of desired positive outcomes increases emotional vulnerability and psychological distress.”
“Whereas actual-ought self-discrepancies were associated with anxiety (but not depression).”
One hundred and thirty-eight students (48 males, 90 females) listed four adjectives describing how they would ideally hope to be and four adjectives describing how they ought to be. Participants then rated how distant they perceived themselves to be from each of their ideal and ought selves, as well as the importance of each ideal and ought self. Finally, participants self-reported levels of negative rumination, anxious and depressive symptoms.
According to Dickson, rumination (excessive negative thinking) plays a major role in mitigating these relationships. When combined with a lack of progress in relation to the ‘ought self’ (duties, responsibilities), rumination led to increased anxiety, but not depression, the researchers found.
“It may be that fulfilling obligations, duties and responsibilities is more pressing or urgent than the pursuit of hopes and the more immediate negative consequences of not fulfilling these ‘ought to’ obligations may mean there is less time to engage in reflective contemplation,” Professor Dickson said.
Self-guides are important for a person’s wellbeing because they offer a sense of purpose. The problem lies in focusing on them too much with negative self-evaluation and self-criticism, the authors stressed.
“Reflecting on and at times modifying our self-guides may be helpful, particularly if we are caught in a spiral of negative self-evaluation that is accompanied by a constant sense of failing to meet overly high standards.
“We need to be kind to ourselves and keep our self-guides in perspective,” she said.
The findings appeared in the Journal Personality and Individual Differences.