Actual Self Versus Best Self

What does it mean to be your best self?

Positive psychology puts a great emphasis on encouraging people to realize their potential and be their best. Although this sounds nice and exciting, as one digs deeper it can become difficult to decipher what being your best self exactly means. Setting high goals? Being competent? Achieving outstanding performance? Meeting expectations? Being really good at the things that you do?

In all of these cases, excellence is measured with some sort of a reference value, and there lies the danger. Being our best selves does not have to be about setting very high standards for ourselves and criticizing ourselves each time we fall short of the kind of person we think we should be. Nor does it have to be about pretending to be more than who we are and feeling like a fake.

Being our best selves, I believe, incorporates a process of self-discovery, a heightened awareness of the self that makes us realize that we are actually much more than what we normally think we are. But given the ambiguity surrounding the definition of the term, being our best selves can mean different things to different people, and some of these conceptions can be maladaptive.


The best self, the ideal self, the ought self

According to Tory Higgins, a professor at Columbia University, people have different personal standards or self-guides against which they evaluate themselves. The fundamental purpose of having self-guides is to control and direct one’s behavior. Self-guides are a catalyst for change. They have an important self-regulatory function. They motivate people’s actions, and thereby can help people to develop and expand their capabilities, skills, and capacities.

Although such self-regulatory behavior is typically aimed at self-improvement, when we cannot measure up to our internal standards and fail to attain goals, the discrepancy between who we think we actually are and our personally relevant self-guides can have important consequences for our emotional well-being, as Strauman and Higgins pointed out. The more we are self-focused, the greater the emotional impact is expected to be.

People often evaluate themselves against internal “ideal” and “ought” standards. The outcome of these comparisons is motivational.

From the standpoint of the self, the ideal self is a representation of the attributes that we would ideally like to possess. It refers to our wishes, hopes, and aspirations. For instance, one person’s ideal self might involve being more outgoing.

From the standpoint of the self, the ought self is a representation of the attributes that we believe we should or ought to possess. It refers to our duties, obligations, and responsibilities. For instance, one person’s ought self might involve being better at meeting deadlines.


The significance we attach to each of these self-guides can have important and often negative emotional consequences. Research by Higgins and colleagues suggests that the discrepancy between a person’s current self and ideal self may produce feelings of disappointment, sadness, and dejection, whereas the discrepancy between a person’s current self and ought self may produce feelings of anxiety and agitation. It is of course bleak to think that we can never attain our ideal and ought selves, and thus we are doomed to feel agitated and depressed. Rather, the danger here lies in holding ourselves to superhuman standards that are almost impossible to attain.

The research on ideal and ought selves has important implications for positive psychology. If we perceive our best selves in terms of ideal and ought standards, our sense of emotional well-being will be contingent upon our success in upholding those standards. Thus when ideal and ought standards play a predominant role in shaping our perceptions of our best selves, trying to be our best selves has the potential to be maladaptive. A more adaptive approach is to distinguish our best selves from how we would ideally like to be and how we feel we ought to be.

Appreciating the Moment… Appreciating Ourselves

Savoring might be one good way to overcome our tendency to compare ourselves to some sort of a standard, either internal or external, as we define our best selves. Savoring involves being conscious of, and paying attention to our positive experiences through our own volition, as Bryant explains. Savoring is not just about enjoying positive events as they occur in the present; it can also incorporate the past and the future. That is, people can feel good by anticipating future positive experiences or by reminiscing about past positive experiences. Basically, savoring is about appreciating and enjoying each and every positive moment of our lives.


Appreciating the best in each moment can also ease the way to appreciating the best in ourselves in each of those moments. In this scheme, our best selves are not future or past versions of us. They do not involve a time frame or a reference value of some kind. We possess them right here and right now.

If we want to realize our potentials, we should definitely seek out new possibilities that will help us to develop and expand our capabilities, skills, and capacities. But in doing so we should also be wary about the danger of becoming obsessed with improvement and perfection. Savoring each moment with a self-compassionate attitude is also an important part of realizing our potentials since it heightens our inner awareness of all the strengths and virtues we already possess.

Thus, the uncertainty surrounding the definition of best self can do harm and do good, depending on how we understand the concept. Being our best selves does not mean being perfect according to some standard. Understanding this is the gateway to finding and maintaining inner peace.


Bryant, F. B. (1989). A Four‐Factor Model of Perceived Control: Avoiding, Coping, Obtaining, and SavoringJournal of Personality, 57(4), 773-797.

Bryant, F. (2003). Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBI): A scale for measuring beliefs about savoringJournal of Mental Health, 12(2), 175-196.

Higgins, E. T., Shah, J., & Friedman, R. (1997). Emotional responses to goal attainment: Strength of regulatory focus as moderatorJournal of personality and social psychology, 72, 515-525.

Strauman, T. J., & Higgins, E. T. (1988). Self‐Discrepancies as Predictors of Vulnerability to Distinct Syndromes of Chronic Emotional Distress. Journal of Personality, 56(4), 685-707. Abstract.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons Licenses
Two faces courtesy of alvaro tapia hidalgo
Balance courtesy of readerwalker
Bluebird and berries courtesy of John&Fish

This article authored by Irem Gunay was originally published on on April 27, 2013.

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The Cult of Thinking

We are constantly in an internal dialogue with ourselves. We comment, we evaluate, and we judge. Although such inner conversations may seem benign at first sight, what we say to ourselves about ourselves can in fact have an important influence on our emotional well-being as well as our beliefs about our capabilities.

Think of your own pattern of thinking for a second. How much do you focus on the judgments of others as well as your own judgments of yourself? How much time do you spend dwelling on self-critical, negative thoughts?

Self talk

Negative self-talk, of course, does not need to be flawed just by virtue of being negative. But if you have a tendency to focus on the negative all the time, the chances are you are self-sabotaging yourself. For example, you may consider yourself not good at basketball. This may make some sense if you have repeatedly performed poorly in the past. However if you think that you will not be good at any sort of sports at any time, then you are in the territory of overgeneralized negative thinking, which lacks accuracy.

Evaluating the Outside World: Bad is Stronger than Good

It could be equally troublesome to delude ourselves over optimistically about our own qualities. But this seems to be less common because the tendency to focus on the negative is built into our neural circuitry. A growing body of research from Baumeister and others suggests that negative information tends to influence our evaluations more strongly than positive information of equal magnitude.

For instance, the positive-negative asymmetry effect has been repeatedly demonstrated in the field of impression formation. In one such study by Ito and colleagues, participants evaluated descriptions of people with multiple positive traits of differing extremities as well as descriptions of people with multiple negative traits of differing extremities. The evaluation of the person with multiple positive trait adjectives was similar to the average of the evaluations given to people who possess each of those traits in isolation. However, for the person with multiple negative trait adjectives, the evaluation was less favorable than the average of the evaluations given to people who possess each of those traits in isolation. This asymmetry highlights the greater power of negative information over positive information as we form impressions.

Not only does negative information get processed more thoroughly than positive, but also bad impressions in general are less readily disconfirmed. From an evolutionary perspective this innate disposition makes a lot of sense. The tendency to focus on the negative has adaptive value when facing hostile environments including the risk of attack by predators.

A Cloud of Thoughts

Evaluating Self

What may be evolutionarily adaptive for evaluating the outside world may not be the best guide for evaluating ourselves.

Apart from being inaccurate and emotionally exhausting, overgeneralized negative thinking can also prevent us from reaching our full potential. Such biases in thinking often negatively skew our perceptions of ourselves. Negatively loaded labels harm our self-conception. How can we bring the best in ourselves if we constantly doubt our capabilities?

Monitoring Negative Self Talk

Inspired by Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Todd Kashdan provides an effective way to counter negative thinking by monitoring it instead of repressing it. In one exercise, he encourages people to think of an ugly, self-critical thought and go through the following steps:

  • Turn it into a short sentence starting with, “I am …” and sit with it without challenging it for 10 seconds.
  • Add the clause, “I am having the thought that I am …” in front of the self-critical thought and slowly say the sentence to yourself for five seconds.
  • Add the clause, “I notice that I am having the thought that …” in front of the self-critical thought and slowly say the sentence to yourself for another five seconds.

Different Ways to Think

Afterwards, he points out that among these three versions, the most accurate one is the final one. This exercise aims to change people’s relationships to their negative thoughts by creating a distance between the thinker and the thought. The realization is simple yet powerful: when we use the language of observation, we better realize that our thoughts are just thoughts.

What Happens to your Emotions?

Building on this exercise, we could also try to observe the emotions associated with such negative self-talk. What are the feelings that negative self-labeling evokes? Notice also the sensations in the body. How does experiencing negative emotions feel in the body? Stepping back, this kind of mindful awareness gives us more choice and flexibility in how we deal with negative thoughts and emotions.

If you think you do not have enough time to stop what you are doing and capture your self-talk, you should think twice. Busyshould not be a badge of honor. We could all be better off if we spent time tuning into our inner selves and trying to understand where such negative thoughts are coming from in our mind. Do they come from past experiences of failure, from insecurity, from things we’ve heard others say about us? Only then can we build the inner resources that will enable us to counter such self-critical thoughts. When self-doubt doesn’t get in the way, we can pursue unexplored life directions much more freely.


Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good.Review of General Psychology, 5(4), 323.

Ito, T. A., Larsen, J. T., Smith, N. K., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1998). Negative information weighs more heavily on the brain: the negativity bias in evaluative categorizationsJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(4), 887.

Britton, K. H. (2007). Self-talk: An intervention under construction. Positive Psychology News Daily.

Harris, R. (2009). Act With Love: Stop Struggling, Reconcile Differences, and Strengthen Your Relationship With Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, California. New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Kashdan, T. (2012). Becoming a mad scientist with your life. TED-X talk in Utrecht.

Photo Credits: All via Compfight with Creative Commons license

Self talk courtesy of

A cloud of thoughts courtesy of Humphrey King
Different ways to think courtesy of TZA

This article authored by Irem Gunay was originally published on on January 29, 2013.

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