“Our self-feeling in this world depends entirely on what we back ourselves to be and do. It is determined by the ratio of our actualities to our supposed potentialities; a fraction of which our pretensions are the denominator and the numerator our success: thus,

Self-esteem = Success / Pretensions.

Such a fraction may be increased as well by diminishing the denominator as by increasing the numerator. To give up pretensions is as blessed a relief as to get them gratified; and where disappointment is incessant and the struggle unending, this is what men will always do.” ~ William James, The Principles of Psychology

“So the secret to good self-esteem is to lower your expectations to the point where they’re already met?” ~ Hobbes, The Days are Just Packed

Hi readers,

As university students, most of us have big dreams.  Personally, I’ve always been an intensely aspirational person, and while I don’t wish to diminish my excitement about the endless possibilities life could hold, at times I feel the weight of my grand expectations weighing me down.

The psychologist E. Tory Higgins put a name to this type of phenomenon with his Self-Discrepancy Theory.  This theory suggests that people compare themselves to internalized representations of the self: the “ideal self” represents the self you aspire to or would ideally like to be, while the “actual” self represents the attributes you perceive yourself to actually possess. Self-discrepancy is the gap between the actual self and the ideal self, and can result in emotional discomfort and negative psychological states as well as diminishing a person’s sense of purpose in life.

We constantly hear refrains like “shoot for the stars”, but what happens when we become so attached to the idea of ourselves amongst the stars that reality diminishes by comparison?  And how do we escape from that?

It’s ubiquitous to have certain dreams about where your life may lead.  Whether it’s getting into medical school, becoming a professional athlete, starting your own business, or even getting married and having a family, we as young adults are on the cusp of so many situations where its unclear if our expectations will be realized or not.  When we become fixated on a certain goal or dream, it can be frustrating and even heartbreaking when it doesn’t come to fruition, and can end up affecting our sense of self and the degree to which we are present in our real life.

I’ve always had a vivid imagination, and find myself avidly constructing alternate realities where I’ve achieved goals that have evaded me in real life.  Whether these are goals related to my level of education, my career choices, where I’m living, or something else entirely, when I dwell too much on the idea of myself with these achievements in tow it almost feels as though that person becomes real.  My ideal self takes shape as an alternate identity: one that is smarter, happier, and more accomplished than my actual self, and is constantly available to compare myself to.  When times are tough, it can be easier to escape reality by taking refuge in this ideal self than actually facing my problems head on.

My fixation with my goals and extreme awareness of the differences between my actual and ideal selves can take a toll on the degree to which I’m present in my day-to-day life.  Rather than celebrating my real accomplishments and valuing the amazing people and opportunities that truly exist for me, I end up measuring them against my ideals and noticing all the ways they fall short.

While much conventional wisdom would suggest working to change my life to fit my goals, more recently I’ve noticed the difference that can arise from changing my goals to fit my life.  While the presence of goals and ideals can motivate me to change, improve and achieve, an overreliance on them and inability to disengage does more harm than good.

The more I’ve grappled with the best way to go about this, the more I’ve been forced to face the all the ways in which I glean self-worth from accomplishments and achievements.  The more I root my value as a person in the successful achievement of my goals, the harder it is to maintain my mental health when I’m not living up to them.

Physician and author Gabor Maté talks extensively about this in his writing. He claims:

“Self-esteem based on achievement has been called contingent self-esteem or acquired self-esteem. Unlike contingent self-esteem, true self-esteem has nothing to do with a self-evaluation on the basis of achievement or the lack of it. A person truly comfortable in his own skin doesn’t say, ‘I am a worthy human being because I can do such and such,’ but says, ‘I am a worthy human being whether or not I can do such and such.’”

As difficult as it is in a society that so heavily values external success, the less emphasis we place on achievements and the more we believe we are valuable without them, the happier and more whole we end up.  Without giving up on goals entirely, it’s worth scaling back our fixation on them, being present in our current lives, and asking ourselves if our dependence on achieving them is really coming from a healthy place.

What about you, readers?  Do you struggle with the gap between your actual and ideal states, and find it taking away from your present happiness?

Thanks for reading!


The views expressed in this blog are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the policies or views of the University of Victoria. I monitor posts and comments to ensure all content complies with the University of Victoria Guidelines on Blogging.