Closing the Gap - Managing distress by aligning Real Self and Ideal Self

assessment goal setting identity mental fitness Feb 22, 2021
we train mental fitness

 Depression sucks.

Mild depression can distress. Moderate depression can derail. And severe depression can destruct.

And though depression can come from a variety of sources that are both biological and environmental in nature, in my experience as a psychologist many of the bouts of that funky black dog that land in my virtual office result from a gap between one's real self and one's ideal self. And the larger the gap..the greater the a certain point.

Let me tell you what I mean.

First off, let me illustrate this concept between real self and ideal self.

Every single day of our lives we carry with us two forms of our selves. The self that we currently are that day and the self that we would like to be.

For instance, someone's real self might be 260lbs, but their ideal self is 240lbs. Their real self earns $60k a year but their ideal self would like to earn $100k. Their real self is on the bench for their sport team, but their ideal self is starting. Their real self is out of songwriting ideas, but their ideal self is prolific in their output.

The examples are endless and it goes to show that we all simultaneously inhabit the persons that we imagine we would like to be and the ones that we currently are.

Now this is somewhat part of human nature.

We are a species built on evolving, so it would make sense that we are all striving towards something. As such, having an ideal self that we are striving towards would seem very reasonable and it is. However, problems happen when the difference between our real self and our ideal self is in what I call the "sour spot."

Not the sweet spot. The sour spot.

What do I mean by the sour spot?

The sour spot is that relative space (relative meaning it will be different for each person and each person’s various desired pursuits), where your real self is far enough away from your ideal self that it causes you distress.

You see, if you are so close to your ideal self that you could almost touch it, you probably won't be too upset about it. And in fact, you might actually have an increase in motivation to keep progressing towards it. Not the sour spot.

Conversely, if you are so far away from your ideal self that you've succumbed to indifference, then you probably don't care anymore. “Oh well, I guess that part of my ideal self isn't all that critical” and you just let it go. Not the sour spot.

You see, the sour spot exists in between those two anchors. The place where you are close enough away to care, but far enough away to be bothered. This, my blog reading friends, is the sour spot.

Let me provide an example.

My ideal self would like to be an expert guitarist. My real self is not. As such, I'm not going to experience a ton of distress about that distance because I know realizing my expert guitar playing ideal self is not in the cards right now. However, I might get more bothered about weight loss since I know the goal weight is in the cards for me, but I'm not making much movement towards it (note: at the time of this writing I’m doing better here). Hence, it would cause more distress for me...i.e., it's in the sour spot.

So how do we turn the sour spot into the sweet spot? Read on to find out.

Decrease Our Ideal Self

We can lower our expectations. We can reduce just how ideal we would desire our ideal selves to be. For instance, in regards to weight loss, I might seek a goal of 250lbs instead of a goal of 240lbs. As such, I am shifting the weight loss element of my ideal self down a notch.

Pros: This approach gives us permission to decrease our ideal self, which makes our ideal self closer within reach and perhaps more attainable.

Cons: We might end up selling ourselves short and not maximizing our fullest potential.

Questions to consider:

Is this ideal self something worth seeking or should I turn my attention to progressing towards a more relevant/impactful ideal self?

If I keep my current pursuit, can I cut myself some slack?

Increase Our Real Self

We can also actually make progress. We work on making movement towards our ideal selves. Even if it's slowly, progress will help us feel more accomplished and, as a result, less funky. Again, in regards to exercise, I can just simply get off my ass and start exercising and eating better more regularly. The enactment of these behaviors moves my 260lbs real self closer towards my 240lbs ideal self.

Pros: This approach helps us move towards what we want in our lives.

Cons: This approach requires energy, work, time, and effort. Also, if we are chasing an ideal self that is filled with elements that don't actually bring about happiness, then we could be progressing towards a phantom target.

Questions to consider:

What is holding me back from making movement in this area?

What increments of progress would I be happy about knowing that it may take some time to reach my ideal self?

Accept The Gap

Finally, you can just accept the gap for it is. Take the pressure off. Maybe you make some movement. Maybe you don't. Instead you just acknowledge that as humans we will have areas in which we are meeting the mark and other areas where we aren't. And that's life. When applied to the weight loss example, I just simply accept that I am 260. I might get to 240. I might not. But I am no longer going to stress about it or view it as some deficiency in my life that needs resolved, corrected, or pursued.

Pros: This approach takes away the distress associated with being in the sour spot. And ironically, somehow by letting go of the choke hold of dogmatic goal pursuit, you actually end up making some more natural movement towards it.

Cons: This approach could become a slippery slope if we just start accepting every gap. Maybe we stop making movement altogether. Stop identifying goals. Stop taking chances. Perhaps unlikely but something to be aware of.

Questions to consider:

If I let this gap go, what would be the benefits? The costs?

What makes accepting this gap difficult for me?

Final Thoughts:

As we wrap up, it is important to recognize that each of us carry multiple aspects of our selves. In some ways we are realizing aspects of our ideal self. For instance maybe your educational ideal self and your educational real self align. That's great! But maybe there's a gap in health, or relationships, etc. So these gaps manifest themselves in a variety of different ways within a single individual. In addition, as you consider which method you want to take to manage the sour spot, the hope is that you do so with deliberateness and purpose. This is not a perfect process. However the more intentional we are about the ideal selves that we seek the more likely we are to change that gap from sour to sweet.

Next Steps:

  1. Identify the critical "real self / ideal self" gaps that exist in your life.
  2. Which ones of these are those that you are finding yourself in the "sour spot"?
  3. For each sour spot gap, identify the following:
    • If I had to change my ideal self in this area, what would the new version be?
    • What would be some easy ways to move my real self closer to my ideal self right now?
    • What would happen if I simply accepted this gap?
  4. Choose ONE pertinent gap that stands out the most to you. Work that gap by either lessening your ideal self, moving your real self, or accepting the gap.

Remember, closing the gap between real self and ideal self is a classic performance coaching pursuit. Don’t feel like you have to figure it out on your own. You certainly can but if you feel like you could use some assistance, feel free to reach out for performance coaching.


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