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Our 'ideal self' and the harm it causes

05 Sep 2013

A manager at a well-known global organisation, his shoulders slumped, once said: “I can’t see my career going any further. Hard work and determination has got me this far but I simply don’t have the talent others have.”  Admissions of defeat are not uncommon and in most coaching sessions we hear people’s uncertainties and lack of confidence holding them back. To understand how our levels of self belief were moulded, we need to start right back at our childhood.      
Since we were toddlers growing up, our friends, parents, teachers, the groups we belonged to and the media were all shaping how we saw the world and our place in it. From these influences we each painted a picture of the perfect person – an ideal self – for us to aspire to. In our teens we did our utmost to fit in, groping around for ways to be liked, testing out relationships, and trying to be all grown up in an effort to be this ideal self.  It’s from these mixed experiences that the gremlins started to grow in our heads, limiting beliefs spread, bad habits formed and guilt, embarrassment, pride and a whole host of negative feelings and thoughts developed like mould on bread.  Every bit of criticism accumulated to create a sense that we were not good enough.  In short we set ourselves up to fail, and the people who should have been most on our side, our parents, were probably doing the most damage!  A recent study in America revealed a startling fact: for every one piece of praise they gave their children, parents criticised them eight times. And in our everyday lives, we see managers in organisations, over-excited politicians, deluded celebrities, even well-meaning friends all gleefully telling us what’s right and wrong, what we can and can’t do, should and shouldn’t.   They have an image of what you should be and they try to reinforce it to justify their own beliefs and behaviour.

So slowly the void between our self-image, how you see yourself, and our ideal-self, how you want to be seen, grew.  The relative measure between these has shaped our self-belief. For some this gulf caused adolescent psychological problems such as binge-eating and anorexia.  For many, it made us feel trapped, unmotivated, and unfulfilled.  It determines our self-belief, which controls how confident we feel, our overall contentment, and our motivation for new challenges and experiences.  Look around and you’ll see it in others; extroverts bragging about their achievements to cover up their sense of insecurity, introverts simply not even bothering to step onto the starting line for fear of failure.   

When the ideal self takes over
When we play out this ideal self we’re putting on a suit, a persona that it is in some part necessary in order to function within society and get on with others. In fact, every profession has it own persona – stereotypes of expected behaviour. Hedge fund managers are said to be highly competitive, ruthless even, focused and direct. Female MD’s are seen as masculine and hard-nosed. Scientists are viewed as analytical, detailed thinkers with poor people skills, while artists are apparently creative, inward looking, moody and repressed.  But if we’re not careful we can become so totally immersed in our persona that we hide behind it; we play out the role to such an extent that eventually we lose sight of our authentic self. In Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the banker Jarvis Lorry is introduced as a man leeched of his personality: “A face habitually suppressed and quieted was still lighten up under the quaint wig by a pair of moist bright eyes that must have cost the owner, in years gone by, some pains to drill to the composed and reserved expression of Tellson’s Bank.” Sadly, while Mr Lorry is a fictional character, there are plenty in the real world just like him. 

When we try to be something we’re not to achieve a specific outcome, we ignore our own values and put others' expectations first. Not only does this mean that we’re not performing to our full potential but our behaviour becomes rigid and personality so confined that neuroses develop. We no longer feel with our emotions or see things rationally because we’re in auto-pilot half-dead from the neck up. We act like puppets controlled by all the things we were ever told a good manager, or good employee, or good friend should be. And not only is it highly detrimental to our health, it’s highly unfulfilling too.

Moby on the ‘rich and famous’ ideal self 
For many of our reality-TV obsessed youngsters being a rich and famous pop star is a classic ideal self. It’s a role Moby, whose album Play sold 10 million copies, experienced first hand. In an interview with Fiona Sturges in The Independent, he said: “For an eighth of a second it was fantastic, but then it was unsettling. If you look at it empirically, it’s hard to find evidence that success makes people happy. Successful musicians have the life expectancy of a Welsh miner – one who smokes and shares needles. Famous people tend to die young and unhappy, so why does anyone want to be famous? It should be about making music that has integrity.”

Is your ideal self a Batman or a Robespierre?
When we’re truly angry it’s because we feel someone’s violated one of our core values or beliefs. Of course, we all know they’re wrong and we’re right, right? When we’re angry many of us step into our ideal self, which we believe to be perfect, just like the superhero Batman. We all know the story of Batman, a comic strip world in which a troubled Bruce Wayne acts out his alter-ego through the persona of the vigilante Caped Crusader. Sitting on his podium of high-morale virtue, Batman acts as a father-figure meting out punishment to the evil wrong-doers and villains that threaten Gotham City. It’s classic black and white stuff, evil verses good, and Batman’s benevolence is unquestionable. It is also, of course, pure fiction. In the real world, the ideal self that’s created for us is far from ideal. Did the Nazis think they were evil people – no. Through frighteningly effective mass propaganda the Nazis truly believed they were creating an Aryan race to create a better world. During the Terror of the French Revolution, 55,000 people were guillotined, most found guilty (after sham trials) with little or no evidence that they posed a threat to the values of the new Republic. In defending the Terror Robespierre, said: “Terror is only justice prompt, severe and inflexible; it is then an emanation of virtue.” For him there was no middle ground, no room for rational debate or emotional plea-bargaining – you were either for or against his ‘Republic of Virtue’.

These are extreme cases, but when we’re acting out our ideal self who doesn’t truly believe that they’re a saintly Batman. Why then, from time to time, does Batman turn his back on his batty capers and vow never to don his pointy-eared mask ever again? Being perfect is hard work, exhausting in fact and it’s a skin we can’t live in for too long without feeling uncomfortable. What’s more, it’s much more likely that when we step into our ideal self there’s a little bit of the unyielding Robespierre in us, which is not good for us or others.

Exercise: Let’s discover your ‘ideal self’

Your ideal self is not the ideal person to be. So you need to know who your ideal self is and when that impostor is pulling the shots. Think about the following:

1. Who are you seeking approval from both in and out of work, and why?
2. What things do you feel you ‘ought’ to or ‘should’ be doing in your life?
3. What things do you do to please others that make you feel most uncomfortable? 
4. When are you holding back your true feelings or views, and why?
5. What expectations do you have of yourself that drain your energy?
6. If you were to draw your ideal self, who would he / she look like? (He / she could be a cartoon character, a famous person you know, someone you know personally, or maybe even you see it as a symbol or a colour. The more ridiculous, over-the-top or memorable the better as we’ll be referring to this image later in the book.)


Who are Lequin Leadership Development?

Lequin Leadership Development provide executive coaches, business coaches, executive business coaching, coach training courses, coach training, coaching skills for managers, coaching culture programmes, board coaching, outplacement support, executive coach, coach supervision, executive coaching, talent management, change management, change management training, leadership coaching and leadership development.

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