What’s wrong with me? I have a job—I mean, I don’t love it, but it’s not too bad. I have a partner—we have problems, but at least I have someone. I have a few friends too. If I have all of these things, why do I feel so lost, alone and purposeless in the world? If you have ever found yourself anxiously pondering these questions, it may because the life you are living is not the one that you aspire to. Carl Rogers posited that all people have two selves‚ an actual self and an ideal self. Through the process of self-actualization, you work towards achieving your ideal self.
Let’s take the case of Kathy as an example. She has a great job and her salary allows her to live very comfortably; in fact, she was recently promoted, has a coveted corner office, and exercises considerable creative control in her advertising firm. Kathy has been in a relationship with her boyfriend for years; he recently proposed and she accepted. He earns a generous salary as a corporate attorney and tells her that he can’t wait to have children. Kathy’s friends are so happy for her, but also envy her great catch—a successful, wealthy guy who is ready to commit and become a father. Plus, when they do have children, Kathy’s parents will be able to help out since she lives in her hometown a couple blocks away from them. On the surface, Kathy seems to have it all, which only furthers her confusion at these vague, but increasingly strong, feelings of discontent. She ignores these feelings for as long as possible, but eventually they nag her into action and she decides to start therapy.
Kathy begins therapy and as she presents her so-called perfect life to her therapist, she begins to weep uncontrollably. She begs her therapist to explain what could possibly be the source of her sadness and panicked feelings when she “has it all.” Throughout the course of therapy, Kathy remembers a long lost dream of becoming an English professor and writing a memoir of her international travels. It had been years since she thought of this. She landed an entry level job in an advertising firm after college and starting climbing the ladder quite rapidly. Somewhere along the way, she met a nice man and even though she never felt totally invested in the relationship, he was nice and they had fun, so she stayed with him. Kathy began to recognize that she had allowed her life to simply happen to her, and that it had been years since she had been a real active participant in her life.
Finally, Kathy discovered the source of her anguish—her actual self was not only foreign to her ideal self, it had been years since she had even been able to see her ideal self. With the source of her pain identified, she begins to wonder, “how do I begin moving toward my ideal self again?” Firmly entrenched in her life, used to her money, her companion and comfortable lifestyle, what can she do? Can she walk away from everything? Does she need to walk away from everything in order to become her ideal self? Are there compromises that can be made? These are questions that Kathy and her therapist will work together to tackle on her therapeutic journey. The answers will often be surprising and the work may change her life in ways that are dramatic and—at least in the beginning—quite painful. But isn’t that the roller coaster of life—surprising, full of ups and downs and always changing? In the end, the thing about reconciling your actual self and your ideal self is that the work is never really done. The process of self-actualization is a lifelong one, but it is a journey worth embarking on. As you move closer and closer to your ideal self, you are likely to feel more and more comfortable in your own skin, and that’s always a good thing.
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