Within every human being exists a propensity for greatness. The gifts may vary, and the greatness may live out in a vast array of alternatives -- say from carpentry to rocket science --but the gift that gives one true self-respect and lifts the spirit from "same old, same old" resides within. It is our ability to do our very best with our talents in every thing we do. This potential resides within each one of us -- but if so, then why is it so often denied?
Every individual essentially has a self-representation that is rehearsed and eventually actualized. The process begins by fantasizing at a very early age. We fantasize a script, perhaps one of those from some Hollywood production. We begin rehearsing it, and we either abandon it to take up a new one or practice it until we role-play that script as who we are. Practicing the script sooner or later automates the behavior. Our imprinting environment plays a significant role in the alternative scripts available to us. If the parents are uncaring and abusive, so are the children, and so forth. If warmth and friendliness lead to embarrassment, then coldness and aloofness compensate. If honesty gets us into trouble, then deception becomes a defense strategy, and so forth.
It is much more complicated than expressed here, but simply, it is also just this way. In fact, we all divide ourselves among four essential views of ourselves. These four faces include the following:
- Our actual self
- Our ideal self
- Our ought-to-be self
- Our desired self
These categories were originally developed by P. A. D. Singer to show how the different selves conflict with each other.1 I will use it differently.
Most of us are aware of a so-called actual self. This is the self that has failed in ways we often will not share with others. This is the private self. This self holds the thoughts we wish we did not have, the acts we wish we had not done, our beliefs about our worth and our attractiveness and so forth. It is the self of our secrets and our ambitions. It is the self that most try to change in some way or another at some time in their life -- perhaps even perpetually.
The actual self pales by comparison to our ideal self. The ideal self is often a construct built by our culture. This self would live a perfect life -- without error and therefore without room for growth.
Then there is our ought-to-be self. This is the self full of all our learned "shoulds" and "oughts." This self differs from our ideal self in the sense that many of the oughts are not ours -- they are the oughts of our culture, our society -- but deep down inside, they are not ours. Sometimes these oughts are the result of rules that make little or no sense to us; sometimes the oughts are of co-dependent negotiations such as those implied when mom said things like, "If you loved me, you would not behave that way," or "If you loved me, you would do what I said," and so forth. Still, even when one recognizes the source and the nature of the ought relationship from which the oughts themselves arise, they often persist.
Finally, there is the desired self. Somewhere among all our other selves is a self that we believe we could be. This is the self we long for, especially when we are young and planning our future. It is also the source of much discontent in our later life if the desires have not been fulfilled -- and they rarely, if ever, are.
The ought-to-be self, desired self and ideal self share certain commonalities, but they also differ remarkably. There is psychic tension among them, and taken together, there is substantial tension between them and our so-called actual self.
Now, there's one more thing I wish to add before continuing. The actual self is seldom the true actual self. The actual self is the self of self-perception and therefore is complete with every believed limitation that accompanies one's private self-perception, together with every defense mechanism we devised to protect our self-image or ego.
All of this is accomplished while we are still very young. In time we gain the wisdom and insight to become familiar with this maturation process and myriad other operations that function in our culture, our homes, etc., to produce socially acceptable membership and behavior. If, to borrow one of Shakespeare's metaphors, life is a stage where we play our various parts, perhaps it's time for a new rehearsal. Indeed, change, improvement, true self-actualization and so forth, all require that we create a new character. Using our power of imagination and consciously choosing the role-playing model we will rehearse will greatly assist and facilitate any change.
Therefore, it literally behooves all of us to watch those conversation exchanges that take place in our heads as well as every other aspect of our "rehearsing" behavior. To experience our best, we must practice/rehearse our best at all levels of our being. It works, but it can also be much easier said than done. Still, life's cornucopia of joy awaits those willing to make the effort.
Singer, Peter Albert David. 2001. Writings on an Ethical Life. New York: Harper Perennial.
Parts of this article were excerpted from my book, "Choices and Illusions."