We all have in our minds an image of the best possible version of ourselves. We call this self, the “ideal self.” The ideal self represents our highest values, our total potential, everything that we strive to be, and the goals that we set for ourselves.
Then there is the “real self,” which represents the reality of where we are in our development. It is the actual truth of how we behave from day to day, our limitations, weaknesses, and strengths.
Imagine these two as a Venn diagram. In one circle, the “ideal self,” partially overlapping another circle, the “real self.” When the relationship between these two circles is healthy, and the overlap between them is substantial enough. The two work together in incremental growth. The ideal self pulling our growth forward, ever coaxing us toward realizing our goals. While the real self keeps us grounded in the reality of our situation and our concrete limitations at the time.
When the relationship between these two is unhealthy, the overlap between them is very thin or even nonexistent. The greater the incongruence between these two selves, the more internally conflict we experience. The discrepancy causes a great deal of anxiety and it’s possible to lose touch entirely with both parts of our self.
If we lose a healthy perception of our ideal self and our real self, our growth becomes paralyzed. When we can’t relate to ourselves in a healthy way, it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to others in a healthy way, as well.
German psychoanalyst, Karen Horney (pronounced “ORE-nye”) theorized that when the discrepancy between our ideal self and real self becomes too great and we are unable to relate to others in a healthy way, we adopt one of three solutions for coping socially:
- Move toward others, causing us to be self-effacing. Those who adopt this solution appear meek, timid, and go to great efforts to make themselves small or unseen. They have difficulty developing their own opinions and cling to others for assurance and support. They have a tendency to adopt a “herd” mentality, anchoring themselves in the movement of the majority rather than their own individuality.
- Move against others, causing us to be self-expanding. Those who adopt this solution position themselves at odds with others. They may become aggressive or defensive easily. They have a need to inflate their ego in order to support their self-esteem, often taking control of situations or powering over others. There are several subtypes to this way of being, including narcissism, perfectionism, or arrogant and vindictive personalities.
- Move away from others, causing resignation. Those who adopt this solution become aloof, avoidant, and indifferent. They refuse to become emotionally invested in anyone or anything, often behaving in reclusive ways. Their isolation will sometimes cause them to act out with random acts of rebellion. Otherwise, consumed by their denial, they avoid interactions and confrontations entirely.
It is easy to imagine the interpersonal conflict any one of these solutions can cause. Increased negative social experiences can serve to reinforce these ways of being, placing the person even farther and farther away from a healthy perspective and healthy relationships.
Considering, though, these solutions first stemmed from an internal conflict, it seems the best way to reconnect socially to others in a healthy way, is to first reconnect to yourself, to create greater congruency between your real self and your ideal self.
How can one accomplish this?
First, you must define the ideal self and the real self. What are your goals? Who do you want to be? Are your goals realistic and attainable? What are your real limitations and strengths? When faced with an opportunity to act in accordance with your goals, what choices do you actually make?
Then, determine how you can bring those two selves into greater congruency with one another. Maybe it isn’t changing your goals entirely, but breaking them down into smaller, incremental steps. Creating a plan for yourself is a great way to be deliberate about your growth. It’s also a great way to celebrate your growth, because you can see yourself be successful in concrete ways.
This will also build your self-confidence and self-esteem. When we have a better understanding of our own growth, we feel more capable. Feeling more capable not only helps us continue to achieve our goals, but it also helps combat negative feelings when we do struggle with a challenge.
If you find yourself struggling socially, it may be time to reconnect with yourself and your own growth. A healthy connection to self helps us maintain a healthy connection to others.