Striving for the Ideal–In Others

The crescent moon slowly emerged over the turquoise, Caribbean waters lapping against the shores of Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park.  Just minutes earlier, the blazing sun crept below the horizon silhouetted by the Loggerhead Key lighthouse.  The moon provided a soft, faint glow that guided the lonely traveler in the night and understated its powerful pull on the tides, whereas its diurnal counterpart tended to covet a bolder, outgoing role.  Each necessary in their own way, one seemed happy to congregate with other celestial lights while the other — soon to rise — seemed destined to illuminate a new course.

So it is with all of us in our daily lives.  Each person aspires to particular goals, outcomes, or qualities that he or she feels is part of their own unique calling.  It is what psychologists often describe as the ideal self, which is often contrasted with the actual self.  Our ideal self is not only made up of qualities, such as warmth or unselfishness, but also particular goals, such as being a mother.  But our actual self, the person we currently are, often falls short of this idealized persona.  So, even subconsciously, we seek to use various means of getting closer to the ideal self that we want to become.  The notion of the ideal self is different for every person.  Some find themselves drawn to models of quiet servitude while others feel their strengths are best suited to direct others.  But regardless of the pathway, one thing is clear.  It almost never happens alone.  In 2011, Liz Murray wrote a memoir entitled, Breaking Night, which detailed the story of how she went from being homeless to a Harvard graduate.  When I heard her speak a few years ago, she lamented the fact that the movie about her made it seem as if she had done it all “by pulling herself up by her own bootstraps.”  The reality, she said, was that so much of her success was due to the support of individuals, including one particular mentor, who helped her seek out her ideal self by enhancing the strengths she possessed and challenging the victim role she had previously embraced.

As with Ms. Murray, those who are close to us can either aid or hamper our pathway to the ideal self.  Research has identified a phenomenon called the Michelangelo Phenomenon, in which close partners, such as spouses, actually act as sculptors in illuminating and promoting a person’s ideal self.  They do this first by recognizing the difference between their significant other’s actual versus ideal self, then finding supportive, yet directed ways to help their partner see these disparities, too.  They affirm instances in which their partner is moving towards achieving their goals while finding daily ways, through regular behaviors, to make it easier for the ideal self to emerge.  For example, if the significant other wants to become healthier, the partner not only praises steps made in this direction, but also finds ways to support this regularly, such as cooking better foods or watching the kids while he or she goes out for a run.  Studies have indicated that when this occurs, not only does the significant other experience greater well-being, but the relationship also improves and is likely to last longer.

Something else happens, too.  As noted by Dr. Roger Walsh in his striking review, Lifestyle and Mental Health, “So powerful is interpersonal rapport [regarding the Michelangelo Phenomenon] that couples can mold one another both psychologically and physically. They may even come to look more alike, as resonant emotions sculpt their facial muscles into similar patterns…” It appears that while striving to help the person attain his or her ideal self, a partner may end up having more impact than he or she would have ever known.  In contrast, when a partner attempts to exert influence on their significant other in ways that are only consistent with the partner’s ideal self, regardless of the significant other’s own ideal self, the result is called the Pygmalion Phenomenon.  This occurs when a partner believes that he or she “knows best” for their significant other, and attempts to force the significant other to conform in this way.  Research has indicated that this typically results in poorer relationship satisfaction and personal well-being.

When it comes to the self, many people hold to the idea that each person is pretty much who he or she has always been.  However, certain philosophers, such as Julian Baggini, challenge this notion.  In his secular view of the self posited in the book Ego Trick, he believes that we are ever-changing, and that our self is actually much more layered, and multi-faceted than we ever realize.  He suggests that although we feel a certain lifelong continuity, the reality is that the self we know is always going through revision, often in response to our relationships.  He asserts that who we are has a lot to do with the perceptions of our self that we and others hold dear.

For our kids, we must learn the difference between teaching values and knowledge versus directing them toward one particular calling.  There is no question that we must seek to teach our kids right and wrong, and nurture in them a respect for values, such as faith and hard work, that many of us cherish.  But along the way, we must be careful not overlay the criteria of our ideal self onto their own.  This is especially true in adolescence, a time when identity issues emerge supreme.  Years ago, I had a series of frank discussions with a father, who had been a long-time coach.  He was struggling to come to grips with the person his son was becoming, partially because his son’s goals seemed very different than his own.  Although he recognized the positive, empathetic qualities his son conveyed, he mourned the loss of the ideal vision as he saw his son taking a different pathway than he would have chosen for his own.

It makes me wonder.  If our ultimate purpose is to promote greater contentment and meaning in those closest to us, do our actions and behaviors coincide with this?  Although it intuitively seems that the best way to get what we want from others is to “keep pounding away until we wear them down,” most of us, in moments of honest reflection, realize that a particular psychological principle remains true; that is, the more stubbornly we pursue others in search of our goals, the more they often distance themselves from us along the way.  It serves as a reminder that each of us must seek to understand better what those closest to us see in their ideal self, and ask ourselves what we are doing to support this regardless of our own calling.  When this happens, we may find out that they, in turn, will do the same for us.  Good thing the moon and the sun will once again exchange admiring glances as another day recedes in anticipation of one starting anew…

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