The development of “self”

Lyn Worsley Resilience Doughnut 06 By Lyn Worsley, Clinical Psychologist

Over the past weeks I have been reflecting on how we develop our potential and what defines us as unique individuals.

The Self in psychology refers to the knowledge and sense of who we are as a unique person. It is how we feel comfortable with ourselves and the development of self is how we find our identity. In developing our sense of self, we experiment with copying others, modeling others behaviour, setting standards we want to achieve and discovering what we can do to reach our unique strengths and our unique ways of thinking. We do that with others and they reflect back to us what is good and not so good and we change to accommodate others and ourselves. It is an interactional thing. A relationship with others helps us to become who we are. But the psychological study of self is very interesting because there is a distinction made between who we want to be and who we really are. So those who set too higher standards or very low standards, on themselves can actually hinder their own development or their own potential.

I recently read a great article by Irem Gunay from the Turkish positive psychology association. In the article it discusses how 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” 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 difference between “the best self” and “the ideal self”, or the person we think we “ought” to be.

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, we cannot measure up to our internal standards and often fail to attain goals. Therefore the discrepancy between who we think we actually are and our personally relevant self-guides can have important consequences for our emotional well-being. The more we are self-focused, the greater the emotional impact is expected to be.

People often evaluate themselves against an internal “ideal” and “ought” standards. The outcome of these comparisons is what then motivates us to do things.

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. It might be being perfect and never making a mistake, or it might be a different body shape, or level of fitness, etc.

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. It might be that we do things to please others and keep them happy, ticking all the boxes.

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. Where as 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.

Practical ways to find our best selves.

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.

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 us 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 potential, 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 potential 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.  Being our best is being more like who we are and feeling our own potential. Understanding this is the gateway to finding a real sense of peace, and Joy.


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.

Coping with Difficult People

Posted by Joe Alberts, Clinical Psychologist

If you are like the rest of us, you will have to cope with difficult people from time to time. Some people are mildly annoying, but then there are also those who go to astonishing lengths to be difficult. Examples of this could be the boss who keeps moving the goal posts, the client who acts and speaks aggressively or the ex that seems to spend all day planning how to make life miserable for you! Their behaviour causes you to overreact, run away, freeze, swear, cry, a combination of the aforementioned – and others. How do we cope with the difficult people in our lives?

A wise sage advised long ago that the secret to dealing with a person with a malevolent disposition is not to change the person but to change yourself. A modern sage, Stephen Covey, counsels us to “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”. What needs to change in you to help you cope better with the difficult people in your life?

Let’s face it, we are all animals and as such we tend to react when we feel threatened. Walter Cannon, an American physiologist, first described the fight-or-flight response in the 1920’s. This physiological reaction, also called the acute stress response, is a chain of rapidly occurring reactions inside your body that help mobilise you to deal with a threat. A sudden release of hormones increases your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate. You can run faster, jump higher, scream louder and hit harder. Your rational thinking brain switches off and your reptile brain kicks in and this turns you into a fighting machine that has no regard for the consequences of your behaviour. This is a good thing and has saved countless lives but unfortunately also often escalates the conflict between two people who react to one another’s stress reactions. Some of us, however, freeze when we feel threatened enough and are unable to respond appropriately.  We are all unique and so is your specific response to feeling threatened. Know what it is and when the first sign appears take a long and deep breath. This will slow you down and in most instances greatly reduce the intensity of your fight-or-flight response, making it a lot easier to cope with your difficult person.

It is also helpful to identify your specific anger button(s). Do you react with anger when you are criticized, blamed or threatened? Some of us cannot stand whinging, nagging or people who tend to find excuses and not accept responsibility. The list of anger buttons is unending and you need to know what triggers your anger response. Knowing this will arm you when your difficult person pushes your anger button, in that you will immediately become aware of your acute stress reaction and you can breathe to calm yourself down and defuse the situation rather than escalate the conflict.

This does not mean that you always have to let your difficult person get away with it. Making your needs known in an assertive (not aggressive) way will help you maintain yourself when dealing with difficult people. One way to effectively communicate your needs in to use an ‘I message’. The term was first coined by Thomas Gordon in the 1960s while doing play therapy with children.

An I message has three components:

1. A specific and non-blaming description of the behaviour of the other person,
2. The effects of that behaviour on you (and significant others),
3. Your feelings about the behaviour. If appropriate you could also communicate a preference for different behaviour.

An example would be:

1. When you say I am always acting childish,
2. I feel frustrated and even angry and
3. I would prefer that you give me more specific feedback and allow me to explain why I chose to act the way I did.

In some cases, simply becoming aware of the effects of one’s behaviour and the feelings it provokes is enough to make people change negative behaviours. There is however some of you who find yourself in a toxic relationship(s). Toxic relationships are verbally or physically abusive and the difficult person does not respond to your repeated I-messages. If this is you it is time to take action. Talk to someone you trust and start to care for yourself. You may also need professional help. Psychologists are experts in the area of human behaviour and will help you to cope with your difficult person or find a place of emotional and physical safety.\

To find out more about Joe and his professional profile please Click here



Life & Death

2nd June 2014

Life & death

I just want to share a few thoughts with the bloggers here. Recently my mother passed away a week before the Easter. So I went back to Hong Kong to attend her funeral. After the Easter holiday when I went back to school, I had to work with a few students who had either their mother or father passed away. That was a bit overwhelmed for me as I just went through the grief and loss. However, I could share this grief and loss feeling with them, and it also gave me a chance to reflect on life and death.

Once upon a time a mother took her son to Disneyland and stayed there for a few days. The boy really enjoyed most of the activities there. On the last day his mother reminded him that it was about time for him to go home. When the child heard this he was very distressed and felt angry with his mother. He requested his mother to extend his holiday there and stay there for a couple of days. Instead his mother replied to him, “Son! Our home does not belong to here. We just stay here temporarily for fun. At the end of the day we have to go home. “ As a Christian it is a reminder for me that our life is in transition and our destination is eternal life. At one point I was a bit short-sighted and totally forgot my Christian belief. The following was an illustration of what mistake I made in the past.

A few years ago we had our family “reunion”. Three of my brothers and myself went to Hong Kong to meet my mother and two sisters. We had not seen each other for a long period of time. I had been longing for this occasion and was thrilled when I saw them. Of course we spent most of the time together and talked about our children. But at the end of the two weeks’, I felt a bit sad as we had to depart and to go back to our own country. At that point in time I had no idea that when we could meet together again. As I looked at the age of my brothers and sisters, I was a bit pessimistic at that time thinking that when we meet next time, some of the family members might be not be able to make it.

After a series of repetitive thinking on this topic, finally I worked it out with dismay. But I had to accept it. I understood that we have different stages in our life and we cannot avoid skipping these stages or going back to a particular stage that we like. I cannot reverse the life sequence. It also reminds me that I should not be so short-sighted in my Christian faith, and should embrace my Christian values with confidence.

I would like to share a story with you here where I find it very insightful. Don’t think uploading our ideas on the blog only happens in this digital world. It had already happened long time ago in Hong Kong in a village. In this village, the villagers had put up a notice board to inform their community about what the happening in the village. One day the villagers decided to let people share their ideas and feelings on the board in addition to the news in the village. They divided the blog into two columns, entitling LONG and SHORT.

One day when this little boy came back from school, he stopped at the notice board and felt curious about writing something on the blog. (see the table)

After a while a housewife came back from shopping. She went to the blog and expressed her frustrations there. (see the table)

In the afternoon when she went out to pick up her child from school, she wrote something on the blog again when she walked past (see the table)

Meanwhile an elderly woman whose husband just passed away recently walked past and read the blog. Then she wrote something on the blog.

LONG                                                                           SHORT
Boy: The time spend on the class is too long.                                        Recess is too short.
Housewife: The queue to buy her hot dog is so long.        However, the hot dog is too short.
Housewife: The time to spend on doing house chores is too long. The time for her playing majong (a kind of gambling game to play amongst four people) is too short.
Elderly woman: The time for death is too long.                                     Whereas life is too short.

Since after she wrote this message on the blog, no one ever wrote any more messages on the blog again. This metaphor tells us that we need to treasure every single second we live on earth especially with our loved ones as the time to stay with them is very precious. When we miss them, it would be too late to feel regret that I should have spent more time with him/her. Nowadays we have so many distractions to prevent us from spending time with our son/daughter, husband/wide, mother/father, grandparents, etc.

Often we only focus on how long we are going to live on earth. The death of a loved one reminds us that life is finite. At this point in time, we usually have to grieve for the loss. But if we could reframe this in another perspective about how meaningful we live our lives, then how long we live in this world won’t bother us too much as we can use these sources of meaning to help us endure the pain of grief when our loved ones no longer stay with us.

No one guarantees our life is free from suffering. We have encountered various sufferings in our life such as illnesses, uncountable disappointments, sometimes grieving the loss of our family members or friends, job loss, failing in examinations, fighting with our children, parents or partners, etc. I remember Viktor Frankl mentioned in his book Man Search for Meaning, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in suffering” tells us that suffering is inevitable and so we have to accept it. We cannot avoid the suffering, but we have the choice of how we can respond to the pain that accompanies the suffering. Using Mindfulness help us see things as they are, without trying to change them. It helps us dissolve our reactions to these emotions, being careful not to reject the emotion itself but to validate the presence of such emotion. Mindfulness can change how we relate to, and perceive, our emotional states; it does not necessarily eliminate them as we know that particular emotional state will not stay there forever.

I once saw this from the internet and find this very interesting. A man said to the Buddha, “I want Happiness.”
Buddha said, first remove “I”, that’s ego,
then remove “want”, that’s desire.
See now you are left with only Happiness. Whether this is true or not, from the mindfulness point of view, if we do not try to cling on anything or react with our emotions, peace is there.

May the peace and happiness stay with every one!

Written by Gabriel Wong
Clinical Psychologist

Frankl, V.E. (1959/1992). Man’s search for meaning. (revised ed.). Boston: Beacon.