Sunday, 24 November 2019

Examining the internal conflict of self-beliefs: Self-discrepancy theory, humanism and body image

Do you know that the majority of your feelings and disturbances are rooted in the way that you perceive yourself? This does not just mean that self-worth is key influencer of your emotional state. It's a bit more complicated than that.  

According to psychological research, the way that you perceive your self as a construct and the relationships between your different "selves" are extremely important for your well-being. Self-concept ideas have been discussed for a long time in philosophy and psychology alike. Some of the questions that have been asked have been along the lines of:

How do we perceive ourselves? What is the impact of our imbalanced self-perceptions? How do we define a true self?  What is the link between our beliefs about the self and our emotions? 

It is difficult to provide clear answers to these questions. The self-concept is subjective. Nevertheless, one of my favourite theories in Psychology introduces the idea that your self-beliefs are rooted in three realms - actual, ideal and ought. In addition, this theory explicates the links between your self-beliefs and affect. This theory is called the Self-Discrepancy Theory (Higgins, 1987). 

In this post, I will describe the Self-Discrepancy Theory. I will explain how having an imbalanced cognitive representation of the self can result in mental distress. This post will promote self-reflection and help you acquire a clearer understanding of yourself and your beliefs.


What is the self-discrepancy theory? 

Internalized standards, self-perception, and domains of self

We can have different beliefs about the self. These beliefs can stem from a sense of idealism and wanting to strive to be someone better than your current self. For instance, you may want to be kinder, more intelligent. 

People are naturally focused on self-improvement. Idealistic standards can also stem from what other people think you should be like. 

Your self-representation could also be based on moral principles. This means that you may have internalized standards on how you ought to be as an individual.

For example, if you are a mother, there is a societal expectation for you to be focused on your children rather than career development. In other words, your self-perception is defined by your internalized standards. Individuals tend to compare their actual selves to these standards. According to the self-discrepancy theory, there are three domains of self:

Actual self - Your actual self as it is right now. It is the abilities that you perceive to already have.  

Ideal self - Your ideal self refers to the version of you or the abilities that you would like to gain. 

Ought self - Your ought self refers to the version of you or the abilities that you should obtain. If you are familiar with Freud, the ought self is quite similar to the superego concept.

The link between belief imbalance and emotional state 

The self-discrepancy theory proposes that imbalances (self-discrepancies) between the way you perceive yourself to be right now and your internalized ideal and ought standards can negatively affect your emotional state. Your self-discrepancies can vary in strength, you can think of it as a dimension. 

Have you ever felt like you have been involved in an internal battle? This conflict between the different representations of self can give rise to this internal struggle.

When your actual self is not on the same level as your ideal or ought selves, it can make you feel frustrated. You may feel like you are stuck in life, that you are not progressing, sort of like you are hitting a brick wall.

When I reach the point of not being able to fulfill certain standards, I often feel like I'm not good enough. I am sure that you have had experienced something similar as well. You must be familiar with the feeling of self-disappointment. This "not being good enough" experience is a common symptom of mental health disorders, including depression.

To make things a bit more complicated, imbalances between your self-beliefs can be based not just on the way you perceive yourself, but also on the way that other people perceive you.

It also depends on the individual what internalized standards they hold and how they are influenced by these standards. Some people can hold extremely perfectionistic self-growth goals. Consequently, they would be affected by idealism. Other people, could be more influenced by ought standards and moral responsibilities. That does not mean that you can't have ideal AND ought imbalances.

Self-discrepancies and their influence on your mental well-being 

Let's talk about these self-discrepancies and how they can affect your mental well-being, in a bit more detail.

Actual/own versus ideal/own 

This type of imbalance between the way you perceive yourself and your abilities to be right now, versus the way you wish that you were, is related to feelings of disappointment and frustration.

It can make you feel overly negative about yourself. it can even make you feel like you are a failure. For instance, research shows that people feel disappointed when their successes do not match their aspirations. 

Actual/own versus ideal/other 

This discrepancy between your actual self and others' idealistic perception of you, can also make you feel disappointed in yourself. When I think of this discrepancy, the first thing that comes to my mind is the way teachers talk about students.

They may have an idealistic perception of the students' performance and intelligence. You could also feel like your parents want you to have certain attributes, have your life in order and so on.

If you are unable to uphold these standards, that others seem to have in relation to you, it can make you feel like you have let people down. This means that this imbalance can trigger embarrassment, shame, and guilt.

Actual/own versus ought/own

This imbalance is all about comparing your current self against internalized moral obligations. It's all about believing that you need to behave in a certain way to fulfill your duty.

These ought standards are often caused by societal expectations. When it is evident that you are unable to meet responsibilities, it could lead to self-contempt. You may feel weak and worthless.

Actual/own versus ought/other 

These incompatible self-beliefs can provoke anxiety. In comparison to the ideal discrepancies, this type of discrepancy is involved in triggering your guilt response.

This imbalance can cause you to feel like you will be punished. It can even make you believe that you deserve punishment. As a result, this can lead to agitation and intense fear of threat.

Related post:  The impact on others' expectations on identity: idealism, insecure striving and self-compassion 

Awareness of self-discrepancies or in other words not knowing why you are distressed

Probably one of the most complicated things about self-discrepancies is that it is possible to lack awareness of these imbalances. Have you ever felt distressed but had no idea why?

I certainly have experienced this myself. It is possible that your unexplained distress could be due to a self-discrepancy that you have no awareness of!

This means that it is important for you to commit yourself to self-analysis. Take your time to think about your beliefs, try to establish what your internalized standards are.

The relevance of self-discrepancy theory to Humanistic Psychology 

Self-discrepancy as a barrier to self-actualization 

Humanistic psychology believes that individuals are unique. This psychology approach believes in the importance of achieving your potential.

Humanistic Psychology dabbles in areas like self-worth, autonomy, free will and most importantly self-actualization. Self-actualization is basically when you reach your full potential. It is all about being your best possible self.

One of the main founders of humanistic psychology, Carl Rogers (1959) suggested that the closer our self-image is to our ideal self, the better we feel in ourselves.

In other words, when there is a balance between your actual self and the ideal self, this is when self-actualization can occur. Self-discrepancies act as a barrier to achieving your full potential.

Self-discrepancy theory in the real world 

Body image and internalized appearance standards

Self-discrepancy theory can be applied to body image and body-related concerns. It is argued that body image in itself is a self-image construct, let's break this idea down. 

Body image is often thought of as an internalized view of one's appearance. This means that the self-discrepancy theory can be applied to body image concerns (Vartanian, 2012)

For example, there are cultural norms and attractiveness standards that are rapidly spread by media outlets. These unrealistic expectations can become internalized. This is an issue because if our actual body does not match the ideal standard, it can result in body-related self-discrepancy. 

So in other words, an imbalance between how you see yourself and how you would like to be ideally can have serious consequences. 

Body-related self-discrepancy can take the form of discrepancies between your actual weight and your ideal weight. This kind of imbalance is associated with shame and self-deprecation.

What actions can you take to regulate your self-discrepancies? 

When it comes to self-discrepancies, understand that the way that you view your actual self can be distorted. You might be overly negative about yourself. You may be ignorant of your achievements or you could just see yourself as not that big of a deal. 

Unfortunately, as individuals, we tend to let ourselves down. We focus too much on how others are doing and we lose our personal progress. If your life is defined by constant comparisons, instead of genuine acceptance, your internalized ideal standards are probably inflated.

I know that it is difficult to find a balance between acceptance, self-improvement, and stagnation. However, don't forget to appreciate yourself as you are.

You need to think about not just what you are missing, but also what makes you good. When we stop to pick our character and appearance to pieces, that's when our internal battles will reduce.

Final food for thought on the complexity of self 

One last thing before I finish this long-winded post. I know I have mentioned the idea of having an 'actual self', but what is an 'actual self'? 

When you think about it, surely the way we are is influenced by the situations we put ourselves in? Your self-concept is vulnerable to environments and people. We often wear many masks and this makes it difficult to grasp our actual self. 

The self is extremely multifaceted. It's complicated to understand. Do we even have a true self? Or are we just a collection of memories and experiences? 

There is no way to answer these questions objectively. So it's up to you, to decide what you believe in. 

So here you go, I hope you have learned something useful from this post about self-discrepancy theory. I am wholeheartedly passionate about all things self. The psychology of self is extremely fascinating. I hope this post will help you to reflect on your self-beliefs. Remember, don't forget to appreciate yourself as you are. 

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  1. Food for thought!

    Your visual examples were a great help in learning how the process works; I was able to lift it from the example of the mother and apply it to my own life. Understanding what self-discrepancy is gives birth to the ability to recognize when it crops up and that gives us the greatest power of all; the ability to make the choice to change our perceptions of ourselves.

  2. Very interesting post. I've never thought much of self-discrepancy, but I'm certainly thinking about it now. A Jaya mentioned in her comment, I loved your visuals. It helps put it into perspective in your own life.

  3. Very interesting post, had lots of things I'd never heard before (have heard of some of these terms, but ought-self was completely new). Great post!


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