Present and ideal selves

According to humanist psychologists, such as Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, humans have an inherent drive to know and express the self, resulting in the development of a self-concept (an idea of who they are) and an ideal self (an idea of who they want to be).


Self concept is our idea or picture of ourselves, often in relation to others. This is because how we act and communicate with others is closely related to this. If you have a high level of self esteem, you will need to have a positive view of yourself and vice versa. A negative self view will lower your self esteem because you will focus on your failings and insecurities, leading to a low level of self confidence. Body image and self image are closely related to the concept of self. Our concept is the idea you have of yourself. It is the way you see yourself, which may be completely different to how others see you.


Ideal Self Our ideal self is the personality we would like to be. It is our goals and ambitions and is dynamic in nature. Our ideal self will be forever changing. For example, the ideal self we imagine in childhood will not be the same in our late teens or adulthood. Humanistic psychotherapy can help many people uncover their ideal self, and so become more psychologically healthy.

Both of these are profoundly influenced by what the person has been told or learned about himself as a child, and both may (and probably will) grow and change over time as the person seeks fulfilment and meaning. For instance, a child may overhear members of her family describe her as bad-tempered, explain some her own behaviour in that way, and describe herself, later, as easily angered. This trait has become an enduring part of her self-concept. However, she may increasingly experience inner distress over that part of her ‘nature’ because it conflicts with her ideal self, the calm, controlled, assertive, kind person that she wants to be. Over time, by choice or through various life changes, or both, she might change parts of her behaviour or thinking, or express formerly unexpressed parts of her self to bring her closer to her ideal.


Cognitive Dissonance

When cognitions (thoughts) agree with each other, they are said to be consonant. If cognitions contradict each other, they are said to be dissonant. Cognitions which neither agree nor disagree are said to be irrelevant. When a new cognition is introduced, that is dissonant with a currently held cognition, it creates a feeling of dissonance. How great this is will depend on the relative importance of the involved cognitions.


When there is a significant discrepancy between self-concept and ideal self, the person can experience distress resulting from ‘cognitive dissonance’. Cognitive dissonance is the negative feeling that arises from internal conflict, or when a person behaves in a way that does not correspond with deeply held values. For example, when a woman who sees herself as pragmatic, self-disciplined, and responsible purchases a dress that she knows is way beyond her budget, she may experience inner distress. She can relieve the distress by changing her behaviour (by returning the dress, or exchanging it for one within her budget). Or, like many people experiencing cognitive dissonance, the woman may resort to justification mechanisms to reduce the internal conflict, telling herself that she deserves the dress, that she hasn’t bought a new dress for years, or that she can balance her budget by cutting down on food costs for a few weeks.


Cognitive dissonance is an important theory within social psychology, so it is useful to consider here in a bit more detail.


Social psychologist Leon Festinger first put forward the theory in 1957. He wrote a book called When Prophecy Fails – this was about the beliefs of members of a UFO Doomsday cult, and their changing cognitions after the leader’s prophecy failed. Mrs Keech was the leader. She said that the earth was going to be destroyed on 21st December and that only members of the cult would be rescued by aliens. However, when this didn’t happen, it actually increased their commitment to the cult. Festinger theorised that the members of the cult lessened their dissonance by accepting a new prophecy, that the aliens had spared the planet for their sake. The dissonance of the thought that they had been stupid was so great, that they revised their beliefs to meet the facts, that the aliens had saved the world for them.


Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that describes the uncomfortable feeling between what we hold to be true and what we know to be true. It describes conflicting thoughts and beliefs (cognitions) that occur at the same time or when we engage in behaviours that conflict with our beliefs. The term refers to the attempt to reduce the discomfort of conflicting thoughts, by performing actions that are opposite to our beliefs.


Dissonance increases with –

  • the importance of the subject to us.
  • how strongly the dissonant thoughts conflict.
  • our inability to rationalise and explain away the conflict.

Dissonance is often strong when we believe something about ourselves and then do something against that belief.

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