The Ideal Self

Self-actualization sits at the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and while you may not have heard the word it’s what you’ve been searching for out of life. To get there we need to internalize the differences between our ideal self and our real self, which is what we’re going to examine today.

I think Maslow put it best by defining it simply as “the full realization of one’s potential”, and of one’s ‘true self’. In this context, ‘reaching your full potential’ doesn’t refer to reaching the end of your quest; finishing school, or getting that big promotion. What matters is that you are fulfilling your potential and your true self, today.

You don’t have to have ticked off everything on your bucket list, or even be at a fantastic place in your life. You just need to fully understand yourself and be satisfied with where you are in life.

Self-actualizers feel that they live a fulfilling life in a way that is true to themselves. And while their lifestyles may differ they do usually have some commonalities.

  • Realistic perceptions of themselves, others and the world around them.
  • Acceptance of oneself, others, and nature with all of their flaws.
  • Humanitarian. They tend to be driven by some mission bigger than themselves.
  • Independent. Reliant on their own experiences and judgment, not culture and environment.
  • Autonomy. They tend to be independent, self-reliant, and comfortable with working alone.
  • Profound interpersonal relationships. Deep, loving bonds with a few intimate friends rather than many superficial relationships.
  • Seek out Peak Experiences. Moments with intense joy, wonder, and deep meaning.

Personally, I think ‘self-actualization’ sums up my goals of personal growth quite nicely. And knowing the goal, I’ve been working on using the techniques from humanistic psychology to progress along the path to self-actualization.

The most useful concept that I’ve found is an understanding of the differences between my ‘ideal self’ and my ‘real self’.

The Ideal Self vs The Real Self

When you think about yourself, you typically envision two different versions of ‘self’.

  1. The real self. How you act and function in everyday life.
  2. The ideal self. Your idea of what you wish you were as a person. What you believe you should be doing.

For most people, the ideal self and the real self do not match, and it is that disparity that generates internal conflict. Going about your life experiencing one thing but believing that you should be doing another is, to put it bluntly, not good. It’s the root cause of personal dissatisfaction and may even cause depression.

For the self-actualizer, these two visions of themselves match up. There’s nothing that they wish they should be doing that they aren’t actually doing.

To merge these two realities, we need to remain mindful of ourselves each day and understand what we want (or feel we should) be doing.

Become Mindful of the Real Self

Being aware of how you actually act and being present in your life sounds like something that everyone obviously does, but it’s not so simple.

If someone tells me they want to lose weight and asks for advice, the best ‘tip’ I can give them is to track everything they eat. Just knowing what you are eating, and how many calories you are consuming, encourages healthy choices. You’ll eat healthier without really trying.

The same should be true for the rest of your life. Understanding what you’re doing should help you make better choices.

The best way to do that, to stay present and ‘live in the moment’, is to have some form of meditation practice in your life. For the uninitiated, mindfulness meditation is simply training the mind to be present as often as possible. To be aware of yourself and what you are doing throughout the day and avoiding the temptation to get lost in thought.

The truth is, you probably don’t realize how often you are lost in thought until you try meditating.

I mentioned meditation before during my Cold Shower experiment. I practice it (semi-)regularly using Headspace, which I highly recommend. I’ve also heard good things about Calm.com but haven’t tried it myself.

This won’t be the last time I recommend it, so give it a try today. It really will help you slow down and come to a better understanding of your own mind.

After you figure out what you are, you can then worry about figuring out what you want.

Understand Your Ideal self

Too often when people think of their ideal self they don’t think of what they actually want for themselves today. Your ideal self is what you can be in the present, not what you want to be in the future.

Whether you’ve written it down or not, you probably have a ‘bucket list’ of things you want to do in your life. All the places you want to go, things you want to do, etc. And that’s great, it helps you define where you want to go in the future, but it doesn’t help you define your ideal self.

I’m going to talk more about the future self and bucket lists in my next article, but first we need to come to an understanding of what your ideal self actually is.

To come to know your ideal self, I have a short exercise for you to do. We’re going to visualize a day in the life of your ideal self. Feel free to write it down somewhere if you’d like, if you’re so inclined you can even review it each week in your Weekly Review, but spending a few minutes visualizing is ok too.

So picture this:

It’s a random Tuesday a few weeks/months/years from now, and you have a normal day of work ahead of you. What does your day look like?

  • When/where do you wake up?
  • Are you alone?
  • What does your morning routine look like?
  • What do you eat?
  • What do you have to do today?
  • Who are you doing it with?
  • What are your evening plans?
  • Are you going to exercise/cook/read/game?

That description you’re writing down, that image you’re connecting with, is your ideal self. It’s not some fictionalized, grandiose image of yourself in the future, it’s how you want to be right now.

That being said, any answer is ok so long as it’s what you truly want. Personally, my answers are pretty mundane.

Waking up early next to someone I love. Spending most of the day in solitude focused on challenging, fulfilling Deep Work. Taking time for myself to exercise my body and stretch my mind. Creating tasty, healthy food for myself and any close friends that happen to be around. Working on that personal side-project in the evening.

Everyone has their own flavor of course, but I’d bet that most people aren’t all that different. Maybe you want the hectic lifestyle of a corporate ladder climber or to be a jet-setting titan of industry, but it’s more likely you only think you do. Being busy isn’t a badge of honor.

Once you have this detailed understanding of your ideal self, you can start to note the (often small) deviations you take throughout the day that throw you off the path. And by remaining present and mindful of yourself throughout the day you can make adjustments to stay on track with how you want to live your life.

Next week I’ll talk about the future. For now, connect with yourself, meditate, and move just a little bit closer to self-actualization.


Image By FireflySixtySeven [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Originally published at Engineering A Remarkable Life.

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