One of the things we deal with when we start a therapeutic process—or encounter on our path of learning—is the relationship between the ideal self we have in our mind and the real self that walks around in this body day to day.
The real self up against the ideal self is a subject addressed in many kinds of therapy. Rogers addressed it directly in his body of work on client centered therapy. As I form my consciousness of myself as a separate human being, I also gradually build a ‘picture’ of myself as I would like to be, or should be. I build relationships, join groups, interact with people at different levels and –just behind my everyday reality– I have ideas about how I could be better. Some of these ideas are from my own judgments and some are from feedback from others.
If this gap between real self and ideal self is fairly small, I have a healthy kind of tension that provides some energy for movement in therapy and for learning about myself in general. If the gap is too great I can be prone to shame, lack of courage, pessimism and even self-abuse.
One thing that interests me about this concept is the truth it holds about organizations, communities and nations. If there is a significant gap between what an organization claims itself to be and how it actually operates, the members of the organization can suffer a crisis of belief, commitment and loyalty. The difference between an idealistic mission statement and everyday practices can dramatically influence morale and drain energy from any group.
Churches are a good example. At a young age I looked at the difference between what was said in the pulpit on Sunday mornings and how church members behaved during the rest of the week. I quickly came to the conclusion that church was not going to hold much for me. But any organization that holds itself to high standards faces the challenge of living up to those standards or facing the consequences of the loss of energy and membership.
There is another, related issue: the lack of authenticity.
When my community adopts high ideals and individuals wed themselves to certain mindsets—compassion, loving behavior, lack of judgments—there is the tendency to think we have to be that way. We can become afraid of not living up to our own standards in the eyes of fellow members. (“I’d love to say this to him, but it’s pretty judgmental.”)
Life teems with this dilemma, of course. Can we be ‘good people’ and be open and honest in the same moment? Can I hold onto my vision of being compassionate and supportive when somewhere in the middle of myself I am hurt, angry and critical?
Sometimes the pillars of client centered therapy lean against each other in uncomfortable ways; congruence and unconditional positive regard. Which do I value more? Are they mutually exclusive? Can they exist in the same moment in the same person?
These ideas and values to which we have dedicated ourselves are ideals. They are conditions that we strive to create in a relationship. Often we fail. Intimate relationships dissolve. Organizations founder. We struggle with being ourselves in the face or our own critical natures.
At this stage of life, I fall back on one thought: I only have one chance, moment by moment, to be fully myself. Authenticity, when it is pure and self-responsible, eclipses my wishes and attempts to be compassionate, understanding and accepting. Authenticity, in fact, is a path to those ideals. When I am clear about my own experience—as imperfect as it may be—I can process that with you and move on to an open heart.
My job is not to be ideal; my job is to represent myself as fully as possible.
The relationship I’m in and the community I’m part of will—hopefully, ideally—foster and support this. In the end, it’s up to me: can I be real with you?