Monday, 16 January 2012 08:34

The Real Self Versus The Ideal Self

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We have an obligation to study and understand our selves (personalities, self-concepts and what lies beneath the mask of personality). Each of us is the end product of 13.7 billion yeas of evolution from the Big Bang to the present. He is not a mistake; he is what nature evolved. Our duty is to study him and understand him from biological, sociological, psychological and spiritual perspectives.  We must strive to improve ourselves and have the wisdom to know what cannot be improved and live with it.


Since many persons obsessive-compulsively act as if they are their ideal selves and loathe being their imperfect real selves, I decided to help them by giving them the below write up on the real self and the ideal self. You do not have to pretend to be an ideal self for no human being is an ideal perfect self. You have a real self, figure out what it is and live from it. Even a child can see when you are behaving from the false ideal self.

Many Igbos pretend to be ideal perfect selves and somehow fancy that they have deceived folks into seeing them as they want to be seen.  They have deceived no one for we still know that they are like us, imperfect human beings.


Be your real self; if you do you become relaxed and can then smell coffee and roses. Life becomes beautiful when the individual stops pretending that he is who he is not (perfect) and is himself (imperfect) and presents that humble self to other people to relate to.

Social conflicts arise when folks want to be seen as the big selves they can never become. You hoodwink no one into seeing you as god for you are not god. You a human being made of flesh and blood hence vulnerable, weak, powerless and imperfect. We strive for power but are never powerful, for anyone who so desires it can put an end to our lives. How powerful are you if other people can end your life?

Every human being has some neurosis.  There is no such person as a completely physically and psychologically healthy person. You, therefore, ought to study and understand your own neurosis, heal it and thereafter live more happily, peacefully and lovingly.




The real self is the individual’s bodily self (and whatever lies behind the body). The bodily self is seldom perfect and therefore is seldom satisfactory to its owner.

All of us have issues with our bodies. As a result of their issues with their bodies, many persons hate and reject their bodies; they then use their minds to invent idealized perfect bodies that they want to become.

(At this point pause and ask yourself this question: what self-do you value, the real self or the imaginary ideal self? If you value the imaginary ideal self you have low opinion of yourself even though you may think that you have positive self-esteem.  Self-confidence lies in accepting the real self, not the phantom ideal self.)


The formation of the idealized self-image begins very early in life, generally, from the moment of birth and is evident by age six (when the child comes to formal schooling). The formation of the ideal self-image is always rooted in a problematic body (and or negative social experience, such as racism)  that forces the child to see his body as not good enough and reject it, hence himself and seek to become an idealized self.

The hatred of the real self and pursuit of a false but idealized self-image leads to negative self-esteem, the esteem of a false ideal self is not the same thing as the esteem of the real self.

A neurotic, that is, a person who hates his real self and talks and behaves as if he is his wished for ideal self, may seem bold but, in fact, has low self-esteem, for he hates his real self.

Any number of inherited medical disorders and or social pathologies (such as social rejection of certain people) that traumatize the child may dispose him to hate and reject his body and seek an alternative idealized body and self.


By age six the child has already formulated a self-concept for him; an idea of the person he thinks that he is. As George Kelly pointed out, ones inherited body and social experience plays roles in the construction of one’s self-concept.

The self-concept has two sides to it: the real self and ones wished for ideal self. The real self knows that one is imperfect and powerless Vis a Vis reality.

The ideal self is the imaginary self that wishes that it had all the power in the world and could do whatever it wants to do. The ideal-self fancies that it is perfect and superior and is better than other selves. This is the child in us; the child sees an overwhelming world and feels inferior and wishes that he is superior to that world; the child wishes that he is the master of the universe.

Children are narcissistic and engage in magical thinking; they imagine themselves superior and perfect and all powerful; with magical wands they make the world bend to their wishes.

The real-self accepts the reality that no human being is superior to other persons and that no one has power to make the world bend to his whims. The real self knows that although people have different talents that ultimately they are the same and coequal.


The normal person, more or less, speaks from his real self hence recognizes his limitations; because he accepts his limitations the normal person is humble.

The neurotic, on the other hand, so completely identifies with his wished for ideal self that he tries to speak and act from it. Having identified with the imaginary big self he acts as if he is better than other persons. If you are close to the neurotic he is always boasting about how powerful he is and how he is better than other persons.


(Igbos are always boasting about how they are superior to other persons. From an objective point of view they are uncivilized. Without international laws prohibiting slavery they would today be capturing and selling their people into slavery. Why did I reach this conclusion? It is because throughout the era of slavery none of them fought to stop slavery. Today, they are kidnapping their people and holding them for monetary ransom. These are hardly the behavior of civilized persons! Civilized persons love, care and respect all people and work for all people’s wellbeing. Civilized people are not self-centered, they are social centered.)

The neurotic identifies with an imaginary ideal self and from the standpoint of that fantasy self puts other people down. He looks at other people not from his real self but from his imaginary ideal, all powerful and perfect self and from that impossible-self fancies that he is better than other persons. The neurotic is a proud and vain human being because he fancies that he is his imaginary ideal self.


The neurotic ego is a false self; it is a prideful self; it defends that false ideal self with the various ego defense mechanisms (repression, suppression, denial, projection, displacement, rationalization, reaction- formation, sublimation, fantasy, pride, guilt, shame, anger, avoidance, minimizing, justifying etc.).




A healer must have some sickness that has been healed. It is from healing himself that he understands other people’s sickness and how to help heal them.

All human beings are neurotic, in degrees, of course, and need healing. Let me, therefore, talk about my own neurosis and how it was healed. You can heal yourself if you are honest with your issues and confront them openly rather than hiding them and pretending that you are perfect. In reality you are sick.

The world is a sick place and needs healing. A healer must have had the sickness of the people otherwise he would not know what to do about it; he must have healed that sickness in him before he can show other people how to heal it in them.

Joseph Campbell, in his monumental work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, talked about this phenomenon. A hero to be finds sickness in him and goes to seek healing. He embarks on a hero’s journey of self-knowledge. Eventually, he finds the answer he is looking for and returns to his world. He then shares the knowledge he found with people in his world for they are all like him, sick, except that they do not know it whereas he knows it.


I inherited genetic disorders (cytochrome C oxidase deficiency and spondilolysis). They caused me tremendous physical pain; my body was traumatized.  I therefore hated my body and rejected it and wished to become a better body. By age six, at least, I was aware that I hated and rejected my body; I had seen it as not good and rejected it.

It was perfectly rational for me to hate my problematic body; anyone who inherited my pained body must hate it and wish that he had a better body (nature cursed some of us with problematic bodies and, interestingly, blessed us with a level of intelligence that very few human beings possess; there is always a silver lining in every dark cloud).


The relevant point is that neurosis has origin in empirical reality and that that is why most human beings are a bit neurotic. For example, in America whiteness is the preferred skin color; it, therefore, makes some sense for black children, as Kenneth Clark showed in his book, The Dark Ghetto, to prefer white bodies ( as shown by their preference of white toys to black toys) and hate their black bodies. Notice that even as we speak black women fry their hair to make it look white hair like. Michele Obama and Condoleezza Rice are so ashamed of their woolly African hair that they spend thousands of dollars straightening it.

Most black Americans are secretly ashamed of their black bodies; notice how the men fall over each other trying to marry light skinned black women. They secretly believe that white is better than black hence associate light skinned women with quality women. In Africa the women of the ruling class and nouve rich spend only God knows how much money trying to whiten their black skins. Imitation is the greatest form of admiration!


(This paper is not on race issues but if you have not grappled with the traumatizing effect of slavery and racism on black folk, I advise you to read some of the seminal literature on the subject,  such as Gunnar Myrdal, The American Dilemma; Gardiner and Oversay, The Mark of Oppression; Karon, The Negro Personality; Franklyn Frazier, The Negro Middle Class; Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the Colonized; Omanini, Prospero and Caliban, The Psychology of Colonized People;  Franz Fanon, Black Skin White Mask; Thomas Pettigrew, A Profile of the Negro American etc.)

The salient point is that certain exigencies of living make human beings hate what is and prefer what they judge as better (the poor admire and want to be like the rich). This does not mean that the preferred so-called ideal is realizable; generally, it is not hence the need to stop seeking it and accept who one is in fact.


For our present purposes, as a child I hated and rejected my real self. I then used my mind and imagination to invent an idealized self and identified with that false but ideal self (in pursuit of that idealized self I left Africa and obtained the doctorate degree from the University of California when my cohorts were not even yet at the university!).

Once constructed, I presented the ideal self to other children and wanted them to see me as the ideal self.  I feared that they would not see me as the ideal self. To avoid not been seen as the ideal self I withdraw from other children and mostly kept to myself (the blessing here is that I read and read that by adolescence I had read more books than some adults do in their entire lives).

As a child I was shy. In today’s psychological categories, at age six when I began schooling I had avoidant personality disorder (my first month at school was characterized by intense separation anxiety, my wishing to return home with my mother and not be left to be with strangers at school).

The avoidant personality desires to be accepted by other people. He believes that as he is he is not good enough and that if other people come close to him that they would appreciate his faults and reject him. People do reject those who are not good enough so his anticipation of social rejection is rooted in social reality. Personality is always a realistic response to one’s phenomenological reality. He feels anxious around people for he anticipates that they would reject him. To avoid rejection he avoids being around other people.


(I have just described your child if he or she is shy; so, pay attention and learn and take actions to correct your child’s problem. Albert Einstein was a shy, avoidant child; he was so afraid of making mistakes lest he is rejected that he did not talk until he was several years old!)

Avoidance of people is a defense mechanism designed to enable the shy child retain the illusion that he is the idealized perfect, superior self (that he thinks that he needs to become for other people to like, approve and accept him).  I wanted to prevent people from seeing me as an imperfect self and instead have them see me as the imaginary idealized perfect self.

Anxiety emanates from fear that other people did not see me as the idealized self. The idealized self does not want to be criticized, belittled, degraded, and humiliated. The ideal self-fears making mistakes at learning situations, especially at school and examinations; the prospect of failing at school hence seeming imperfect fills him with fear and anxiety.


Some such children actually drop out of school to go retain the idealized self-image. By not being at school where they are forced to learn in a group setting and do examinations which they could fail at or make mistakes and get laughed at (children can be cruel to other children)  they go retain their imaginary idealized perfect selves.

As Alfred Adler pointed out, failure in life is often rooted in pursuit of the idealized self for if one seeks the idealized-self one would not do anything lest one fails; one finds all careers and vocations and jobs too ordinary, that is, not measuring up to the standards of the idealized perfect self  and therefore does not want to do them; one wants an ideal job, especially one that would make one seem a superior ideal self and since there is no such job one does not commit to a vocation and work ones way from the bottom to the top of it.


Adler’s individual psychology posits that children, by age six, at least, had appraised the exigencies of being and recognized how powerless they are and that they react with compensatory desire to seem superior and powerful. Superiority and power are instruments with which they pretend to master the world.  Normal children eventually grow out of children’s sense of inferiority and restitutory superiority but neurotics are stuck in them.

The adult neurotic feels inferior and pretends to be a superior person. His pride and boastings are efforts to make him seem superior. In truth no human being is superior to others; maturity lies in giving up children’s narcissistic sense of power and accepting human limited power. We do not have power over important matters; we do not have power over death. Anyone who so desires it could kill one. How much power do you have if other people can kill you?  None! Denying ones vulnerability with fictional power does not change reality and make one godlike in one’s power and importance.


As one treats ones-self one treats other persons. The person seeking idealized self wants other people, social institutions and the world to be ideal and perfect.

People and the world are not ideal. White folks, Africans, Nigerians, Igbos etc. are not ideal; they are all imperfect. Judging them with the standards of the idealized perfect self is neurotic and gives one anxiety and gives them anxiety.

(The person seeking ideals tend to be critical; he tends to see other people’s faults and quickly blame them for being imperfect. As Erich Fromm pointed out, he needs to redirect this character weakness to strength by using it to correctly see people as they are, imperfect, but not beat them over the head for being imperfect. He can help people accept their imperfect selves and quit trying to seem perfect so that society would accept them.)

The idealized self does not sing in public or hesitates to do so lest he makes mistakes and seem not ideal and perfect. In not singing in public he does not make mistakes and thus retains the illusion that he is perfect.


All judgments are rooted in pursuit of the idealized self. You cannot judge you, other people and the world unless you have idealized standards of what they ought to be. No ideals no judgment.

No ideals and you accept what is as what is, which is neither good nor bad, just what is. You study what is scientifically and make the most of it without the illusion that it is good or bad.




If you seek ideals you fill your body with anxiety and stress; since no human being can live with high levels of anxiety and stress you must seek ways to reduce your anxiety and stress. People do so through over eating, alcohol, drugs, sex, sports etc.

Much of addiction to mood altering drugs, food and sex is rooted in having an anxious neurotic self, anxious body due to pursuit of idealized self and fear of not attaining it; when one’s body is tense and stressed one feels uncomfortable and seek ways to reduce the tension through pursuit of drugs, food, sex etc. (or exercises, as in positive addiction).

As child I was afraid of being made fun of, criticized by other kids, being poorly graded by my teachers. I was generally afraid of making mistakes lest other people see me as imperfect. I wanted other people to see me as perfect (to reinforce my idealized perfect self-image) and feared been seen as imperfect.


If teachers asked questions, I would not raise my hands up in the classroom for to do so meant risking making mistakes and feeling my idealized-self humiliated.  I would not do public speaking in the class room or debate or participate in plays…I literally memorized much of Shakespeare’s plays but would not participate in our school’s enactment of those plays (playing roles means making mistakes and being laughed at). I avoided sports to avoid making mistakes and avoid other kids laughing at my mistakes.

I was totally anxious and tense most of the time I was with other kids for I feared making mistakes and having them see me as imperfect and reject me.


Given my intense anxiety at school, I could have dropped out of school to prevent my idealized self from making mistakes and been laughed at.

I know kids who dropped out of school for similar reasons; not being at school meant that they did not make mistakes and were thus not laughed at. Being at school and the prospect of making mistakes filled them with anxiety. They reduced their anxiety by avoiding school and learning situations where they could make mistakes.

School psychologists call this phenomenon learning anxiety and or examination anxiety; actually, what is happening is that the idealized-self one identified with is afraid that it might make mistakes and one then is seen as not perfect.

(One ought to stay at school, take examinations and make mistakes and accept that one is not perfect for no human being is perfect.)


As a college student (university) I was filled with fear of being criticized by my professors. If I wrote a paper I feared that the professor might see it as not good enough and give me a failing grade (or an imperfect grade); which made me feel like I was not perfect hence made me feel anxious.

It was not the grade that made me anxious; it was my underlying desire to seem perfect that made me feel anxious at the prospect of making mistakes and being criticized, belittled, humiliated and degraded. (Some clinical psychologists could call this fear of making mistakes obsessive-compulsive personality disorder; the OCPD wants to seem perfect and fears seeming imperfect; he hesitates submitting his papers to teachers lest they see them as not perfect and give him less than perfect grades; he hesitates submitting his manuscripts to publishers lest they reject them; thus, he fills his room with writings that he seldom publishes.)

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176