Self-discrepancy theory states that our selves, or the core understandings of our identities, are split according to three components: the ideal, ought, and actual self. The ideal-self is the person we aspire to be, the ought-self is the person we want others to be and the person others want us to be, and the actual-self is the person we actually are. The theory was developed by Edward Tory Higgins in 1987, and since then much research has been aimed at identifying the three selves’ existence relative to one another and which of them is the most predominate. Not surprisingly, the actual-self dominates the other two.
Self-discrepancy represents a conflict that wages inside our own heads—and between our partners—every day. My spouse wants me to stop smoking, but cigarettes are the only things that remedy my stress. I know I should lose weight, but food tastes too damn good. My father wants me to become a doctor, but I’d rather be a pilot. I want to do well on that exam, but I’m too lazy to study for it. The list goes on. Do any of these conflicts sound familiar to you?
I am a classic example of a self-discrepant person. Need proof? I know that I should completely cut alcohol out of my life because it’s hazardous to my organs, but I still enjoy the occasional drink after a long day at work, or with a good friend. I know that I should revamp my diet because I consume too much grease and am probably clogging my arteries, but I can’t stop eating hamburgers, pizza, and pasta. I know that I should stop playing video games so often and start devoting more time to pursuing a career in psychology and expanding my reservoir of knowledge for the sake of it, but I love grinding my character in Destiny. And finally, I know that I should advertise my YouTube videos to stimulate viewership and conduct research on the stock market to make informed decisions on my investments, but I don’t care enough to do either of those things, so why even bother?
And yet, by sitting around and waiting to take initiative, I am actually doing more harm than good to myself. By continuing to drink alcohol, I am further eroding my organs. By continuing to consume greasy foods, I am routinely putting myself at risk for heart disease. By continuing to play too many video games and not pursuing a career and expanding my base of knowledge, I am setting myself up to live with my parents until I’m 40 and making myself stupider. And by not advertising my YouTube videos and investing in the stock market, I am wasting my time producing the videos in the first place and losing money.
If I was a truly self-sufficient person, I would write 5 of these articles a week instead of just 1 every other week. I would market my YouTube channel 8 hours a day to maximize audience retention and engagement, and I would release at least two, high-quality, 30-minute long video essays a month. I would quit my weekend job at the local supermarket and find a better one. I would practice meditation to more effectively manage my emotions. I would go to the bar to talk to women and get out of my shell. I would address every single criticism that I’ve ever had, or currently have, of myself—and then some.
The fact remains that I’m not 100% self-sufficient. Most of the time, I’m 10-15% self-sufficient, and 20% self-sufficient on a good day. That’s not very… sufficient of myself.
Can you imagine where humanity would be today if it utilized 100% of its potential? We probably would have cured every known disease, colonized the galaxy, and transcended space and time itself. But we know that human beings are not THAT perfect. How could they be? They’re notoriously flawed creatures. We’ve accomplished many great things, but only to a certain degree. We still quibble among, and go to war with, each other. We still haven’t cured some of the most deadly diseases. And we still haven’t traversed and uncovered the secrets of the far reaches of the galaxy. At least we invented the fidget spinner and sliced bread.
Perhaps our aggressive laziness could result from our propensity to favor pleasure over self-improvement. The human brain is largely rewarded through instant gratification, and not through evaluation of long-term consequences. Given the proper time and training, it can learn to delay gratification in the interest of its longer-term goals, but for the most part, it demands to be rewarded instantaneously and without obstructions. It explains why there are alcoholics, pornography addicts, and obese people—if they really wanted to improve themselves, they would’ve done so a while ago.
Self-discrepancy seems to be a conflict that arises from incessant instant gratification. In essence, we weigh the amount of pleasure we can derive from any given activity (i.e., playing a video game, partying, or reading a text book) relative to whether or not such activity is befit to our well-being. And almost always, our hedonistic instincts kick into overdrive.
So what can you do to reach your potential? Close the gaps between your ideal, ought, and actual selves as much as you can. I’m not saying that I’ve done it already because it’s a conflict I struggle with every day, but I have become more aware of it.
It’s true that while you’ll never reach your full potential, you can come as close to your full potential as absolutely possible. And that’s about the best you can do for your short (and sometimes miserable) time on this God-forsaken floating rock.