The Actual vs. Ideal self: The Dangers of your New Year’s Resolution
Updated: Jan 1
Why do we make New Year's resolutions? On the surface, we see an imperfection in ourselves that we want to improve and a good time to start is the start of the year. 'New year, new me' is what we tell ourselves until we indulge on a chocolate bar mid January and feel ashamed afterwards. This post is going to explain how and why our brain produces hypothetical versions of ourselves, why it can be dangerous to our mental health and how society and New Years resolutions play a role in our unhealthy thought patterns. As the human brain developed, we outpaced all other animals as we developed our prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the front part of our brain. The PFC is where we control our attention, it is where our short term memory functions and it is where we plan our behaviours. It is the headquarters of our intelligence. Because the brain can work independent of our understanding, we generally choose not to comprehend it. But if we are not aware of what is happening in our brains, then we have no control over it. The brain contains the mind and the mind directs our mental health, which determines our quality of life. So would we not like to have a degree of control over the quality of our life?
When a situation happens, our PFC produces a thought, and then we carry out a behaviour. However, what so many people are not aware of is that we have complete control over how we think in this situation and this then determines what behaviour we carry out. So it's really important that we are made aware of how our PFC and thought patterns work. But when we are not made aware of our control over our own thoughts, what happens? Meet the unattainable ideal self.
Our PFC creates imagined states of the future to motivate us to develop and learn. Just like our bodies, our brains need to be exercised. New brain cells need to connect to other brain cells and this is how our brains develop. It wants to motivate us to develop and grow to allow for survival of the fittest. In psychological terms, this state of wanting to be someone you’re not is known as the ideal self. It is where we would like to be. The state we are in now is known as the actual self. If misused, the gap between the actual self and the ideal self is a dangerous arena. For some people, the gap is a motivation that can push people to achievement but for most people, the gap is where negative emotions such as shame, sadness, anger and worry manifest.
What we now value has changed and it will continue to change. 'If we make money, we will be successful, and then we will be happy’. The beautiful American dream. This has slowly transformed into ‘if we become famous and make money, we will be successful and we can buy whatever we like, and then we will be happy’. American Idol’s Ryan Seacress famously said “This is America, where everyone has the right to life, love and the pursuit of fame”. Unfortunately, our lack of education on how to have healthy ideal selves allows society to determine our ideal selves. People create unrealistic ideal selves that cannot be achieved and the result is that negative emotions such as embarrassment or disappointment remain as the goal is never achieved. These emotions then coincide with unhelpful thought patterns, which has a detrimental effect on our self-esteem. People today are unaware of their unattainable ideal selves and this causes them to live in their mind rather than their present lives. Now this doesn’t happen everyone but it is definitely becoming more prevalent. After the age of 12, we await our fantasised interpretation of the summer throughout the entire school year. During the summers, we then eagerly anticipate the best time of our lives, which is University. And then at University, we can’t wait to start making money in a job. We get the dream job and then all we want to do is meet the ‘one’. And finally, we tick all the boxes and then we look back and wish we were younger. We are constantly in a made up state where we wish we were anywhere but where we are now. Rather than motivating us, our minds run riot and leaves us feeling unaccomplished.
Society is telling us how to look, act and be. It is creating unattainable ideal selves and it is making us lie to ourselves as social media allows us to create avatars of our ideal selves. Then out of nowhere, real life hits us and you realise you are dependent on yourself. Your needs, your future, and your happiness. But nobody is taught how to independently manage their happiness when they are younger. They are just told that if they accomplish a specific set of goals, they will be happy. Good grades or fame gets you a good job, which gets you money, which makes you happy. But what this does is it either leaves people becoming rich and successful with no happiness, or else it implies that if you don’t get good grades, then you won’t get a good job or money, and then you can’t be happy. We are telling our future generations to confuse what can only be fleeting moments of joy such as reaching a certain amount of followers or having a getting a job on wall street as states of happiness.
People misinterpret the ‘pursuit of happiness’ in the Declaration of Independence. Firstly, they have understood it as the pursuit of money and fame and secondly, they understand happiness as something that we do not have, when in fact, it’s often right in front of us. The only problem is that our imagined world in our minds is blinding us from seeing it. People spend their whole lives changing everything around them to find this state of happiness when they just need to change their perception.
So we’re not saying that we should not have an ideal self. Rather; we need to be aware of the ideal self we create. Do you really want to be this person? I will be happy once I can get that beautiful girl, even though I have nothing in common with her. I will be happy once I get the six figure salary, even though the stress of that job will ruin my life, and I will be happy if I become famous, even if that means having no friends around me. Our ideal self needs to be attainable but more importantly, you need to actually care about it, or you won't stick to it.
So how can you be a good parent or teacher? Well firstly stop allowing society to dictate what children should want to be and make them learn for themslves. And then teach them to enjoy the process rather than the outcome. Make your children or students value learning. Because learning is endless. You can never stop learning. Maximum knowledge is not something that cannot be achieved but it is enjoyable building up a skill set. And this applies to you as much as anyone else. Are you going to make a New Years Resolution this year? Don’t pick something unattainable, such as becoming a millionaire or famous. Instead, make twelve specific attainable goals and make the deadline the end of each month. Then combine this with the advice on the motivational interviewing post. If you don’t complete them, that’s fine. Because as long as you try, you are progressing and you are developing your brain. So be aware of how you use your ideal self. It is meant to motivate you. Not bring you negative emotions. Be aware of who your ideal self is, but be proud of your actual self. Appreciate the present and be grateful for what is in front of you. Happiness is all around you.
The Motus Movement.