I used to hold an image of a woman in my mind. She was me, but not me. She was actually, everything that I was not. She was tall and I am not, she was model thin and I was not, stunningly beautiful and I was not, she was talented and everybody loved her and I was unlovable. She was rich and famous and on top of the world and I believed that if only I could be her then people would love me. She was more than an image actually. She was someone I would daydream about being all the time. I’ve never admitted this before to anyone, it’s kind of embarrassing but analyzing this Ideal Self taught me a lot about my core beliefs about myself, and all the places where I believed I was lacking. What it also did was create an impossible standard, one I could never achieve.
I recently read a fantastic book entitled Conquering Shame and Codependency by Darlene Lancer, one of the best books, I believe, on Codependency out there and I would recommend it to anyone looking to break free from Codependency. She breaks it down and provides reasons to what and why codependents believe what they do and what drives their behavior. She provides specific illustrations of types of behaviors and where codependents fit. The following examples are illustrations she provides to explain the self-schemas and what happens when we are born into dysfunctional environments.
The Real Self
The Real Self is our authentic self, who we truly are, without generations of dysfunction handed to us at birth, without crippling beliefs about how we don’t measure up. Our real self is comfortable in our own skin, it’s when we feel accepted and at peace with who we really are.
The real self feels free to express their needs and wants and their vast array of emotions without fear. The real self is free, unencumbered by fear, shame or chronic sadness. Children who grow up with parents that are accepting and supportive and know that they are separate beings and not extensions of themselves, foster children that are confident and comfortable being themselves.
The Ideal Self
The ideal self is the image that I wrote about in the opening paragraph. It’s the you – you wished you could be. The ideal self is created when our caregivers teach us that there is something wrong with our real self. It’s what develops when our immature emotional development is not encouraged, supported and treated with love and understanding, but is instead fed a healthy dose of shame.
Lancer says, “Over time as we internalize our shame, we reject the real self and construct a new identity by imagining a fictional self that is shaped by our personality, defenses and experiences. “ Lancer believes that we create the ideal self to survive our environment and as a beacon of what we should be, but instead of helping what it actually does is it creates a huge divide between who we are and who we believe we have to be in order to be loved.
The Codependent Self
The codependent self is disconnected from their real self. As Lancer says, “(The codependent self) can’t function from his or her innate self, but organizes thinking and behavior around another person.”
Codependents have a seemingly unshakable belief that they are unworthy of love and are deserving of poor treatment. As I’ve said many times, Codependency really is a dysfunctional relationship with the self and when we boil it all down what remains is just another way the psyche tries to cope with toxic shame.
The Ideal Self and the Codependent self are the result of children born into environments where their individuality and freedom to express themselves was not fostered or encouraged. Its what happens when children learn to suppress their true selves – their needs and wants for attention or safety. Lanser tells us that when that happens, “the child loses touch with innate cues and responses which impairs the healthy growth of the autonomous self.”
Codependents deeply feel like there is a void inside of them, that they are not whole and are in need of someone else to complete them. They regularly put others first, while ignoring their own needs.
In my Skype sessions with clients I will often ask them, “What do you like? What do you enjoy doing? “ And many of them can’t tell me, or they break down and cry, because they are so disconnected from themselves and their true self is so inaccessible to them, cognitively and emotionally, that they can’t even connect with it and come up with an answer.
The goal for all who wish to break free from codependency is the development of an autonomous self, one who is fully in touch and connected to their own wants and needs, one who consistently practices self-care and who feels completely whole all by themselves, one who can communicate effectively and makes sound decisions all on their own through logic and experience, not through guilt or shame.
One of the ways in which we do this is by letting go of the ideal self. The ideal self is an unobtainable construct that served as a coping mechanism when we were children. It’s how we learned how to survive and what we believed we needed to be in order to get the love and approval we so desperately sought. But as healthy adults its keeps us from being who we are and from accepting our true self.
The Ideal Self isn’t the us that needs to lose 20 Lbs. It’s not our self-improvement model we hope to obtain. Most of us have goals. The Ideal Self is an unobtainable, unrealistic creation that we hold that is completely out of our reach. Holding onto the ideal self forces us to reject the true self – it keeps us divided and always lacking, so the key is to let go of the ideal self and start embracing who you really are.
I really liked my ideal self. I wish I could have lived her life. She was a rock star and a super model all in one – two things I will never be. When I let her go I became more present and focused on me and the moment. I, the real me had things to do and was too busy to slip into a daydream about what my ideal self would do. Focusing on the moment and who you are forces you to connect. When you live in the real world you gain practice seeing things for what they truly are and not how you wish they would be.
It’s funny, I was looking at one of my fourth grade report cards, and one of the comments said, “Savannah always seems to be daydreaming and staring out the window.” How old are you in grade four? 7-8? Even then I was well on my way to being disconnected and wishing I was somewhere else and somebody else.
I remember that sad little girl. I ache for her sometimes, but I’m glad that I didn’t spend my whole life without figuring out the mystery. It’s never too late to discover your authentic self. Let go of who you wish you were and embrace who you really are and take center stage of your own life. It’s time.
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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at freedigitalphotos.net