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What is the 'Real Self' and 'Ideal Self'?

Thinking about 'who you are' can be a challenge.

On the surface it may start out as a straight forward exercise. I'm a parent. I'm a husband/wife. I'm a son/daughter. I have a job.

Then a little deeper you may think about being trustworthy, a good friend, reliable, punctual etc.

In counselling terms, the concept of the 'Real Self' and the 'Ideal Self' is something that can come up fairly often. It is an exploration of a person's identity and how far removed their life is from where they would like it to be in terms of their happiness and overall feeling of fulfilment.

Real Self

This is the person that people will see from day to day. It's the real you that you are to fit into how your life is now. You will have responsibilities and commitments and part of your life will be geared towards satisfying those. You have certain people in your life that impact on how you are and this will influence your behaviour. You have certain attitudes and approaches to the people and situations in your life that, hopefully, make things as smooth and happy as possible. The ''Real You' needs to be fluid and can change from week to week, month to month, year to year. Think about it, the 'Real Self' from when you were 16 will probably not be the same 'Real Self' at age 60.

Ideal Self

This is the person that you may aspire or dream to be. One way to look at it is to ask yourself this question : "If there were guaranteed to be no judgement, no fallout, no repercussions and no impact on those around you, how would you be living your life right now?" Maybe you would going back to Uni for that degree you always wanted to do? Maybe you would be handing in your notice at work and applying for something you feel would be more rewarding? Maybe you'd be off climbing mountains or travelling the world? Maybe you would be spending more time with family or friends. This 'Ideal Self' will also be fluid and change over time

Think about these two versions of your 'Self' as two different life paths. When you were young and carefree, if you were lucky, you were just living life on your terms, doing, within reason, whatever you wanted to do, whenever you wanted to do it. You were very much on the 'Ideal Self' path.

But then, as you get older, things change. You have new people in your life and along with them come different responsibilities and expectations. As a good, moral person, you accept that their needs are also important and should be taken into account. Perhaps you then have financial responsibilities that take your life in a particular direction in terms of your job. Family and friendships change and develop over time which means you may find yourself adapting along with it.

Whereas before you were walking the 'Ideal Self' path, you now find yourself walking on the path of your 'Real Self'.

As these paths diverge, there is the possibility that things can go wrong, psychologically.

Remember, the 'Ideal Self' represents the life that you feel you would be living if all that mattered was to tend to your own happiness and nobody else were affected. It's as if that lifestyle represents the essence of 'You' and who you actually are. The deep meaningful things that give you true contentment and deep satisfaction.

With this in mind, imagine a situation where the two paths head off in completely opposite directions and get further and further apart. The longer you go on your 'Real Self' path, the more distance you are putting between you and your 'Ideal Self'. If you go too far you could completely lose sight of the other path. It could feel like it's nowhere to be seen. This may be what is happening when people describe they are going through some sort of 'Identity Crisis'.

They have essentially lost touch with the person they are. If they become dissatisfied with the 'Real Self' path and can no longer even see the 'Ideal Self' path, this can lead to feeling quite lost and hopeless.

In order to avoid this happening, it helps if a person can almost keep one foot on the 'Ideal Self' path. To live life according to the needs of the 'Real Self' but to, at the very least, keep in touch with that 'Ideal Self' side of them. Maybe occasionally do those very things they would be doing as the 'Ideal Self' or at least a version of them. It's a means of not losing touch with the person you are, which reduces the chance you may become lost or disillusioned on your path.

If a person does go through some sort of identity crisis, counselling could help in the process of bringing their two paths closer together.

It may be unreasonable to expect that you could bring the two paths so close that they combine but it's far healthier if you can at least see where the other path is. Essentially to reconnect with the person you are.

Whether you have experienced any form of identity crisis or not, your goal should be to get those two paths to overlap as much as possible. To achieve it would mean that the way you are living your life as your 'Real Self' is just how you would like it to be as your 'Ideal Self'.

You could describe it as feeling completely 'Whole'.

For most people, the idea of having the 'Real Self' and 'Ideal Self' merge is unrealistic. However, if you can spend as much time as possible hopping across to the 'Ideal Self' path before heading back to the 'Real Self' route, life is likely to be just great.

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