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Actual Self Versus Best Self

written by Irem Gunay 27 April 2013

Irem Gunay received her Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Psychology with honors form Columbia University. She attained her first master's degree in Social and Developmental Psychology from University of Cambridge. Afterwards, she completed her second master's degree in Applied Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and worked at Martin Seligman's Positive Psychology Center in Philadelphia. She is the founder and current chairman of Turkish Positive Psychology Association. Full bio pending. Irem's articles are here.

What does it mean to be your best self?

Positive psychology puts a great emphasis on encouraging people to realize their potential and be their best. Although this sounds nice and exciting, as one digs deeper it can become difficult to decipher what being your best self exactly means. Setting high goals? Being competent? Achieving outstanding performance? Meeting expectations? Being really good at the things that you do?

In all of these cases, excellence is measured with some sort of a reference value, and there lies the danger. Being our best selves does not have to be about setting very high standards for ourselves and criticizing ourselves each time we fall short of the kind of person we think we should be. Nor does it have to be about pretending to be more than who we are and feeling like a fake.

Being our best selves, I believe, incorporates a process of self-discovery, a heightened awareness of the self that makes us realize that we are actually much more than what we normally think we are. But given the ambiguity surrounding the definition of the term, being our best selves can mean different things to different people, and some of these conceptions can be maladaptive.



The best self, the ideal self, the ought self

According to Tory Higgins, a professor at Columbia University, people have different personal standards or self-guides against which they evaluate themselves. The fundamental purpose of having self-guides is to control and direct one’s behavior. Self-guides are a catalyst for change. They have an important self-regulatory function. They motivate people’s actions, and thereby can help people to develop and expand their capabilities, skills, and capacities.

Although such self-regulatory behavior is typically aimed at self-improvement, when we cannot measure up to our internal standards and fail to attain goals, the discrepancy between who we think we actually are and our personally relevant self-guides can have important consequences for our emotional well-being, as Strauman and Higgins pointed out. The more we are self-focused, the greater the emotional impact is expected to be.

People often evaluate themselves against internal “ideal” and “ought” standards. The outcome of these comparisons is motivational.

From the standpoint of the self, the ideal self is a representation of the attributes that we would ideally like to possess. It refers to our wishes, hopes, and aspirations. For instance, one person’s ideal self might involve being more outgoing.

From the standpoint of the self, the ought self is a representation of the attributes that we believe we should or ought to possess. It refers to our duties, obligations, and responsibilities. For instance, one person’s ought self might involve being better at meeting deadlines.



The significance we attach to each of these self-guides can have important and often negative emotional consequences. Research by Higgins and colleagues suggests that the discrepancy between a person’s current self and ideal self may produce feelings of disappointment, sadness, and dejection, whereas the discrepancy between a person’s current self and ought self may produce feelings of anxiety and agitation. It is of course bleak to think that we can never attain our ideal and ought selves, and thus we are doomed to feel agitated and depressed. Rather, the danger here lies in holding ourselves to superhuman standards that are almost impossible to attain.

The research on ideal and ought selves has important implications for positive psychology. If we perceive our best selves in terms of ideal and ought standards, our sense of emotional well-being will be contingent upon our success in upholding those standards. Thus when ideal and ought standards play a predominant role in shaping our perceptions of our best selves, trying to be our best selves has the potential to be maladaptive. A more adaptive approach is to distinguish our best selves from how we would ideally like to be and how we feel we ought to be.

Appreciating the Moment… Appreciating Ourselves

Savoring might be one good way to overcome our tendency to compare ourselves to some sort of a standard, either internal or external, as we define our best selves. Savoring involves being conscious of, and paying attention to our positive experiences through our own volition, as Bryant explains. Savoring is not just about enjoying positive events as they occur in the present; it can also incorporate the past and the future. That is, people can feel good by anticipating future positive experiences or by reminiscing about past positive experiences. Basically, savoring is about appreciating and enjoying each and every positive moment of our lives.

Appreciating the best in each moment can also ease the way to appreciating the best in ourselves in each of those moments. In this scheme, our best selves are not future or past versions of us. They do not involve a time frame or a reference value of some kind. We possess them right here and right now.

If we want to realize our potentials, we should definitely seek out new possibilities that will help us to develop and expand our capabilities, skills, and capacities. But in doing so we should also be wary about the danger of becoming obsessed with improvement and perfection. Savoring each moment with a self-compassionate attitude is also an important part of realizing our potentials since it heightens our inner awareness of all the strengths and virtues we already possess.

Thus, the uncertainty surrounding the definition of best self can do harm and do good, depending on how we understand the concept. Being our best selves does not mean being perfect according to some standard. Understanding this is the gateway to finding and maintaining inner peace.


Bryant, F. B. (1989). A Four?Factor Model of Perceived Control: Avoiding, Coping, Obtaining, and Savoring. Journal of Personality, 57(4), 773-797.

Bryant, F. (2003). Savoring Beliefs Inventory (SBI): A scale for measuring beliefs about savoring. Journal of Mental Health, 12(2), 175-196.

Higgins, E. T., Shah, J., & Friedman, R. (1997). Emotional responses to goal attainment: Strength of regulatory focus as moderator. Journal of personality and social psychology, 72, 515-525.

Strauman, T. J., & Higgins, E. T. (1988). Self?Discrepancies as Predictors of Vulnerability to Distinct Syndromes of Chronic Emotional Distress. Journal of Personality, 56(4), 685-707. Abstract.

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oz 28 April 2013 - 3:42 pm

Item – Perhaps the solution is not judge ourselves or others. That’s what meditation gives me.


Judy Krings 29 April 2013 - 5:17 pm

Self-compassion reigns true to me no matter what the feelings are that pop up. Something I wished I and learned earlier in life’s game, but I am so happy to joyfully assimilate now. Positive re-appraisal is one terrific avenue to walk down, too. Thanks Irem.

Bob P 30 April 2013 - 5:02 pm

Irem, thank you for a valuable article. Moving toward our potential to be our best does raise many questions about that path to be better than we are. Self improvement is a necessary psychological goal. What if our best self is the self where we now are on that path, and our actual self is the self that is compromising that path. An example: Our economic system is unjust and I want less poverty, less unemployment, and more high-paying jobs. I like feeling that way and feel I am at my best in doing so. My actual self has a brokerage account that, if all goes well, will support my standard of living for the rest of my wife’s and my life. So I am committed to our economic system as is. It seems to me that paradoxes like this would also be a fertile field for positive psychology.

Randell Sandoval 7 May 2013 - 6:26 am

While current self-concept focuses on who one is now, by focusing on the future, possible selves allow for self-improvement, malleability, and personal growth. They provide a chance to experiment with and try on various potential futures (“Maybe I’ll be a teacher or maybe I’ll be a nurse. What would it be like to become a teacher or a nurse? How would I get there? What are the stages and obstacles along the way?”). The future is the target of much of our efforts as individuals. Homework is done and broccoli is eaten all in pursuit of some future state. As noted by Oyserman & James (in press), doing or not doing homework one night really does not make that much difference, but if each night’s homework is viewed in this way, homework will rarely get done— and that does matter. Whether one eats or does not eat the potato chips with lunch today does not make or break one’s likelihood of being overweight, but, over time, each of these small choices adds up. In this sense, current actions are taken due to individuals’ beliefs about their consequences in the future. Generally speaking, individuals are motivated to reduce the gap between their present and future positive possible selves while increasing the gap between their present and future negative possible selves.


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