• The gap between our 'Ideal Self' and our 'Real Self' can increase anxious feelings

  • Psychotherapist Lisa Daitz explains how you can use Carl Rogers' theory in your daily life to reduce self-criticism

  • We have therapists available to support you here

You make a mistake at work; your elderly parents seem disappointed with you; you shout at your children on the school run, or maybe you turn down an invitation to a party to sit at home and watch TV, buried under a blanket and balancing a snack bowl. Sometimes our experiences leave us a little flat but they also leave us with a feeling of disquiet or anxiety. And we don’t actually understand why. 

As an existential-phenomenological psychotherapist, it’s often these kinds of events that clients bring into the therapy room. And they bring them in because, although they sometimes feel trivial, they leave them with a feeling that’s upsetting, from a slight bemusement to an overwhelming sadness. And they’re trying to understand what these feelings are and how they can make sense of them.

Acknowledging the feelings

The first part of my ‘work’ with a client is to encourage and help them to stay with their feelings. Because a lot of the time our first response is to defend, attack, ignore or divert. 

So if we’re called out at work our first response may be to deny a mistake or blame someone else. Our parents’ disappointment may be met with anger or annoyance (at them not us!). Shouting at the kids? Again, their fault. And we can justify turning down an invitation with a set of criticisms about the people who might be there. But what about if we do something different? What if we focus on how the event or behaviour makes us feel about ourselves? Self-reflection – which is sometimes only possible in the therapy room – allows us to stop and consider what is really coming up for us.

A mistake at work may make us feel stupid. Disappointment from our parents may make us feel like a ‘bad’ son or daughter, whilst shouting at our children may make us feel like ‘bad’ parents. And turning down an invitation may make us feel anti-social and isolated. And then what? All of these feelings are uncomfortable. And we can recognise in them, feelings of anxiety. But what do we do with these feelings and how can we make sense of them?

Rogers' Ideal Self

Here’s where Carl Rogers’ Ideal Self comes in, to help us shed light on what’s going on and giving us something really enlightening to work with in the therapy room. 

Carl Rogers (1902-1987) was an American psychologist and one of the founders of the humanistic approach to therapy. His concept of the Ideal Self can shed light upon our experiences and our responses to them. 

Rogers talks about the Ideal Self and the ‘real’ or ‘experienced’ self. The Ideal Self is the self we would ideally like to be. The Real or Experienced Self is the self we experience as we go about our lives. Imagine these as two distinct circles. The further apart they are – or the greater the distance between our Ideal Self and our Experienced Self – the greater the anxiety we experience. Rogers’ theory of anxiety argues that anxiety lies in the incongruence or the gap between the Ideal and the Real or Experienced Self.

As a therapist, once my clients acknowledge the feelings that arise from a situation, what’s coming up for them, I introduce the idea of the Ideal Self. But I’m all for looking at the different facets of the Ideal Self. So we can look at the Ideal Parent, the Ideal Son or Daughter, the Ideal Worker, the Ideal Friend and so on.

And with those labels we can start to explore each one in depth and pull it apart. What makes the Ideal Parent? Why? What are the beliefs and assumptions underlying the narrative? And once we’ve really examined what makes the Ideal part, we examine the experience and again, really pull that apart. Our aim is to bring the two circles closer together. The smaller the gap – or the incongruence – between the two, the less the anxiety we experience. Our aim is two move from two circles to some overlap – remember the Venn diagram? – and then make sense of the two positions.

Applying the Ideal Self model

So how do we translate the Ideal Self model into real life? Let’s take the mess up at work scenario. We’re called to task on a mistake and our beliefs and assumptions fasten on the Ideal Worker. The Ideal Worker Self doesn’t make a mistake, of course. And the Real Worker Self? “I always mess up”. You can see how the two positions can then be challenged to bring some logic and reality to the situation. The Ideal Worker Self is allowed to mess up and the Real Worker Self doesn’t always mess up. In our examination we’ve moved the positions closer together, we minimised the incongruence and, in doing so, we’ve lessened the anxiety.

In the same way, we can look at the Ideal Parent Self. The Ideal Parent Self should never shout; should always be patient; should ensure that every school run is like a scene from Enchanted! The Real Parent Self – when challenged in the therapy room – recognises that sometimes they hate the school run, full of shouting and nagging and sometimes relish in the special moments it provides, with all on time, fed and packed and singing along to the radio together. And as we recognise this, we can also recognise that the Ideal Parent Self is actually not so different! The circles have shifted, the Venn diagram appears – perhaps moving towards an eclipse! – and the anxiety has lessened.

A work in progress

Therapy gives us the opportunity to stop, to reflect, to feel the feelings and to consider what’s coming up for us in different situations and in our responses and behaviours. A robust therapeutic relationship allows me to challenge the client and to encourage them to examine their perceptions, their assumptions and their beliefs as we look at the experiences they describe. 

Drawing on Rogers’ Ideal Self, we challenge the client’s narrative and we do it from both sides, as we describe both The Ideal Self and The Real Self. The results are enlightening and give the client food for thought. We recognise the ‘should’ in the narrative; the critical voice narrating their experience and how they are unknowingly comparing themselves to their previously unchallenged Ideal concepts.

It’s a work in progress and a concept that we can all use. The ‘should’ is usually the telling word. When what we’re experiencing runs counter to the ideal we’ve created. Next time you hear yourself use the word, considering what’s it telling you. And challenge your narrative. Pull apart the Ideal and the Real and see if in, doing so, you can move them closer together, to minimise the incongruence between the two and the anxiety it brings.

Lisa Daitz is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in North London and online

Further reading

Why do we get triggered and what can we do about it?

Psychology of willpower: why good intentions aren't good enough for your brain

Enough is enough: is your ambition making you happy?

Understanding your self-critic and how to stop being so hard on yourself

The benefits of being curious about yourself