The ‘Actual’ self & the ‘Ideal’ self

Children cannot understand the difference between their ‘actual’ self – who they are and their ‘ideal’ self – who they want to be. My cousin, then aged 3, believed that he would begin to fly like superman if he could just remain wearing the costume my uncle had gifted him. Weeks would go by with my aunt desperately trying to get him off those clothes, worried that he may simply jump off the balcony believing he was indeed Superman!

Around the time children turn eight, based on their comparison with peers and the environment they interact in, they begin to develop views of the ‘self’. Two primary factors that can result in an unrealistic perception of the self are excessive attention and lack of attention. And God forbid if the child is parented with one parent treating him/her as insignificant and the other over compensating to make him/her believe ‘entitled’ – the damage done to the self-image of the child can become a life long issue and struggle.

Egocentrism, Megalomania, Narcissism – these are all medical terms coined to label people excessively preoccupied with personal adequacy, power, prestige, vanity at the detriment of others, viewing themselves as ‘superior’ beings or entitled to special status. This could also manifest in the reverse with total lack of self esteem, vulnerable, filled with shame, becoming socially avoidant. Or very often a swing between these two extremes of always feeling either superior or inferior – incapable of building lasting meaningful relationships.

While these extreme behavioural patterns may have resulted in ‘Narcissistic personality disorder’ (NPD) being classified as a personality disorder needing medical attention, with 7.7 % men and 4.8 % women diagnosed with NPD in the USA, according the Stinson, NPD is on the rise among younger adults – probably a result of self-focussed individualism. Hate crimes, inability to wait or work to achieve things, and intolerance to others success are all a result of believing they are entitled to better things than their peers harbouring a desperate need to cut off the neighbours legs in order to look tall. While it is true that every sense of identity begins with an ‘I’, it is equally or more important to define the ‘I’ in the environment of a ‘we’ or ‘us’.

I know this sounds like research material for academic study. But unfortunately we are surrounded by people, perhaps including our own selves, with periods of Narcissistic behaviour. Power play is rampant in relationships – may be not in gross cinematic forms but in subtle manipulative ways. Are we even aware that we feel ‘entitled’ to the better share of the pie – be it decision making dominance, who gets the better car, who carries a better bag – even as simple as whose share of the pie is bigger – a creeping sense of superiority over the rest of humanity. Our vanity is such we rush to lay claim on the success stories of others – I have done that before, I won that award earlier than you, I visited that country decades before you – simply having to have the last word. Wedded couples discuss whose family has greater respect – decades after they have been married; the new boss has to show that he is the new boss; the teacher needs to prove to her ward of 6 years that she can make her life miserable if she so choose! In all a power play for dominance over another’s feelings! This superiority is of course the ‘ideal’ self according to the person – they wish they had that kind of power over others, could command respect, had all the money they ever needed and in short were treated like God by all others.

The ‘actual’ self of these individuals are most likely shrunk in inadequacy prodding them to wear a mask of power to get noticed. They need the ‘ideal’ self to live with themselves. If you try to burst the bubble of the ‘ideal’ self without first building the ‘actual’ self, you may end up harming them much more than they can ever handle. If by this time you decide to stop reading this article, you probably don’t yet distinguish from your ideal self and your actual self for everyone – yes, everyone does indeed have a actual self and an ideal self. Thats what keeps them going. When the gap between these two is huge, you live a life believing your own lies. When the gap between these is infinitesimal, you truly are striving towards divinity. But the gap remains if you are still breathing!

Sometimes such egocentric behaviour manifests as vulnerability with lack of self esteem. The person swings from feeling like ‘God’ to feeling totally useless. There is no stability in the processing of the self – it is either ‘I am better than the rest’ or ‘I am the worst of the lot’ confusing the very perception of ones place and role in the scheme of things.

May be not to such clinical standards, but most of us do oscillate from feeling ‘good’ about ourselves in the scheme of the universe to ‘inadequate’ about ourselves in the unfoldment of events. And it all begins with the gap between our ‘actual’ self and our ‘ideal’ self. But why is there this gap? Why can one not simply like and accept the actual self? How does one even get the concept of the ideal self? In simplistic terms one can blame it on society and argue that morality is after all an invention of man. But that is being naive! External rules and morals are enforced like an ‘L’ board during driving lessons to the young minds to teach them how to navigate without incident. But the permanent license ought to be given only when the inner compass is capable of aligning automatically to the magnetic right!

Even to the mature for whom right is always pleasurable and wrong always painful, there does exist an actual self and an ideal self – an aspiration to improve which is the key to life. But the difference here is that the gap is not too big and the actual self is not really hidden from the mind’s eye. The journey from the actual self to the ideal self is life. When the gap is too wide, people begin to become suicidal – too harsh a judgement on themselves denying them the right to live. The mind copes by negating the actual self, fantasising the ideal self to be the actual self – creating the egocentric Narcissist to promote the feeling of entitlement to life. If that keeps them alive, guess we need to respect their coping mechanism. Yet don’t we wish we could help them recover their beautiful actual self instead of a projected ideal self? As the popular meme goes ‘I’d rather be hated for being me than loved for being somebody else!’

I was attending a Hindu-Buddhist summit at Siem Reap, Cambodia in 2009. A wise Buddhist Sadvin was addressing the gathering when a young teenage girl got up to ask her – ‘You say vegetarianism is the right way to live. But Gauthama Buddha never said don’t eat meat!’ I was struck! Most people of Cambodia are Buddhists and yet you don’t get any kind of vegetarian food!!! In fact when I travelled for a month filming the Angkor regions for a documentary series in 2006, the only trouble we ever had was to locate vegetarian food. Of course the organisers had taken special care to ensure only vegetarian food was served during this two week Hindu-Buddhist summit. I was curious how the wise lady would respond. The Sadvin smiled and replied – ‘Buddha never said don’t eat meat because he knew he was addressing a society where meat was the staple food and a ‘moralistic rule’ will not result in true transformation from within. So instead he urged everyone to prepare their own food in the hope that when you snap the neck of that chicken something within you will also bleed’. In today’s world, when many a child probably thinks milk comes in a carton and has nothing to do with cows, that fish is a dish served with chips and not the life of the ocean; I found those words truly inspiring. So did the youngster. She immediately pledged that she would begin by giving up meat one day of the week and start to cook her own meals.

Perhaps when the Megalomanic behaviour of entitlement raises its ugly head on those close to us, may be we should try to step away and give the reigns to experientially make them understand the value of others and their contribution in the making of the whole. I know, it raises its ugly head in our own self sometimes – may be many times! Our revered Mahatria gives us the solution. If we could just live life with ‘shreyas’ – everything that I am and I have does not need to diminish anything that you are or you have. Independant of everything else, I am and will eternally be just the way He wants me to be! When my actual self is transparent, my ideal self radiant and neither have anything to do with the other – with ‘shreyas’ I can work to actualize my ideal self without yielding to narcissistic behaviour.

Yes I am entitled – but so are you, my dear, so are you!

Written by Gita Krishna Raj  |  Published in infinithoughts in August 2015

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