My life is not idyllic—at least not to the extent I make it out to be. Over brunch with a friend, I catch myself reciting an elaborate script.
I detail how exciting my new job has been, how perfect my Jervis Bay getaway with my boyfriend was, and how ‘conceptually interesting’ I’m finding Week 10’s criminal law content.
As I speak, I create an alternate version of myself. An exuberant character never weighted by the torments of university life. But the person I’ve conjured isolates me from reality.
There is a far more accurate response when she asks how I am.
“I’ve been stuck in an interminable wheel of monotony.”
She would pause mid-sip of her gunpowder tea as I continue. “I’m neglecting my passions. I feel distant from my loved ones. I’m diverting my attention to things I don’t enjoy for the sake of a future career.”
Psychologist Carl Rogers believes that our self-worth is at its highest when our “ideal self”, or who we would like to be, is most consistent with our “actual self”, or who we perceive ourselves to be.
But when our ideal self is so distant from what we can realistically attain, we end up falling into an extreme state of incongruence.
Jacob*, a second year commerce student says he often struggles with not wanting to be his “actual self”. Though he strives to appear driven and goal oriented, he says, like many university students, he has no idea what he’s doing.
“There are times where I literally just crack. I have no immediate desires or ambitions for the future.”
As a defence mechanism, people like Jacob and I create a “constructed” self. This is the person we convince ourselves we are in order to mimic a feeling of actualisation. It’s the person who drinks a tad too much vodka raspberry at the end-of-semester party to appear extroverted and eschew their crippling social anxiety. It’s the person who ignores their qualms about completing a five-year law degree because they seek certainty in their chosen career path.
The pressure placed on a person to present themselves as confident, well-networked and academically gifted is all the more palpable in a university setting.
“I surround myself with motivated high achievers. But with that, I feel like there’s a need … to be, or at least appear to be, a high achiever myself,” says Jacob.
In an attempt to believe that we are that ideal person, we end up presenting the constructed version of ourselves to the people around us. The new version of ourselves that we’ve created blurs the boundary between our actual and ideal selves, and when this happens, we begin to lose sight of our own reality. Our identities become performative in nature; the thoughts and hopes we have before we go to sleep at night, the type of person we want to be and the actions we want to undertake, are different from the way we behave.
As Jacob put it: “I’m actually more content pretending to be content”.
In the end, it becomes a battle to conquer our inflated expectations and try our best to live as we are. If one day we all caught up with our self-ideal, there would be no incentive for us to grow as human beings. As Carl Rogers himself stated, “The good life…is a direction not a destination.” Once we accept this, there may no longer be a need for the constructed self.
*Names have been changed.