April Wheeler: Don‚t you see? That’s the whole idea! You’ll be able to do what you should have been allowed to do seven years ago, you’ll have the time. For the first time in your life, you’ll have the time to find out what it is you actually want to do. And when you figure it out, you’ll have the time and the freedom, to start doing.
Frank Wheeler: This doesn’t seem very realistic.
April Wheeler: No, Frank. This is what’s unrealistic. It’s unrealistic for a man with a fine mind to go on working year after year at a job he can’t stand. Coming home to a place he can’t stand, to a wife who’s equally unable to stand the same things.
This is a dialogue from one of the most powerful movies I have seen recently – Revolutionary Road. It is full of strong messages and thoughts worth pondering upon. For people who haven’t seen the film, it is the story of a young couple, Frank and April, living in a Connecticut suburb during the mid-1950s struggle to come to terms with their personal problems while trying to raise their two children. But really, it is a powerful depiction of the strong conflict between living a life in line with your dreams versus living a life in accordance with the script of the times and the society one lives in. And how this conflict could become magnified in a relationship in the dynamics of interdependence.
A prominent researcher in social psychology – Dr. Tory Higgins – talks about different selves people have. First a person has the actual self – that is who she currently is. Then there are the two “self-guides”. The ideal self, that involves her dreams, aspirations, desires. And the ought self, her understanding of what others want her to be – the self she thinks she should be. The conflict portrayed in Revolutionary Road is one between the ideal and the ought selves.
It gets more interesting when we look at the implications of having a discrepancy between who you are – your actual self – and each of the two self guides.
According to the self-discrepancy theory of Dr. Higgins, when our actual self doesn’t align with our ideal self we typically feel depression-related emotions – disappointment, sadness and dejection. Indeed, in the movie we observe April experiencing all these feelings as she fails to do something that will get her closer to who she desires to be.
The discrepancy between the actual self and the ought self – who we think we should be, however, is associated with a different set of emotions. We experience anxiety-related emotions – fear, worry, tension, guilt. We can see April’s husband Frank getting agitated and anxious when his prospective boss makes a comment about how his late father would be proud of him when he accepts that well-paying new position – a position he was planning to decline to fulfill his and his wife’s dreams in Paris, instead.
Of course, emotions are not the only implications of these discrepancies we experience when we perceive our selves as not measuring up to our ideals and standards. There are also motivational outcomes as we deal with the emotional discomfort. That is when we start looking for justifications – like when Frank says, “Well I support you, don’t I? I work 10 hours a day at a job I can’t stand” after accepting the high paying position to the dismay of his wife. Quite different from his wife April’s striving for taking action and planning on moving to Paris to close the gap between their current life and what they’ve aspired for, “that they would be wonderful in this world”.
This pull & push between the ideal and the ought selves is a major force that motivates many people to take action and work with a coach. People who can relate to April who says, “I saw a whole other future. I can’t stop seeing it.” Of course, it is not the easy way and it takes a lot of courage – or backbone. However, the key shift happens when one realizes that leading the current life in order to be the person she should be is a far greater risk than taking the chance to go for what she really wants.
A few things worth thinking about:
- What are your aspirations, dreams, desires? What does your ideal self look like?
- How about your ought self – the type of person you think you “should” be?
- Which one is really more risky – striving for who you want to be or working on who you should be?
The type of discrepancy you are dealing with also influences the way you approach your goals – but more on this next time….