// Research has found that not always reaching your full potential is okay, but overthinking is a problem that can overtake your life.
For a lot of us, overthinking is a part of our normal day to day life. What if I am late to this meeting? What if I haven’t made a good impression? Will this new venture be a success?
Having aspirations helps us navigate life in a meaningful and fulfilling way, but it can also cause psychological distress when hopes are left unfulfilled.
New research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has found that it is not failing to be our ‘ideal-self’ that is problematic, but rather the tendency to focus on that lack of progress in a negative way that leads to psychological distress.
When actual is not ideal
The study, led by Associate Professor Joanne Dickson from ECU’s School of Arts and Humanities, explored whether ‘ideal-self’ and ‘actual-self’ discrepancies were associated with depressive and anxious symptoms. It also considered whether excessive negative thinking played a role in these discrepancies.
“The ‘ideal-self’ is the person we want to be – our hopes and aspirations. The ‘ought self’ is who we believe we ought to be – our duties, obligations, and responsibilities.”Professor Joanne Dickson
Professor Dickson said there are two key ‘self-guides’ that typically motivate us and provide standards for self-evaluation: the ‘ideal-self’ and the ‘ought-self’.
“Our findings showed that perceiving one’s hopes and wishes as unfulfilled and the loss of desired positive outcomes increases emotional vulnerability and psychological distress.
“Whereas actual-ought self-discrepancies were associated with anxiety (but not depression),” she said.
Professor Dickon also discussed a novel finding how the role of ‘rumination’ (repetitive negative thinking) and lack of progress in relation to our ‘ought self’ directly increased anxiety.
“It’s not failing to make progress toward our ‘ideal-self’ that is necessarily problematic but rather the tendency to repetitively think about this lack of progress that represents a significant vulnerability that, in turn, leads to increased psychological distress.
“It may be that fulfilling obligations, duties and responsibilities is more pressing or urgent than the pursuit of hopes and the more immediate negative consequences of not fulfilling these ‘ought to’ obligations may mean there is less time to engage in reflective contemplation,” she said.
So how can we minimise psychological distress in our day to day life? Is it as simple as always looking on the bright side of life?
Professor Dickson said that having ‘self-guides’ (standards to aspire to) are beneficial in giving a sense of purpose and direction in life and promoting well being, even if we don’t always reach them. It’s the focus on negative self-evaluation and self-criticism if we don’t meet those standards that is counter-productive.
“Reflecting on – and at times modifying – our self-guides may be helpful, particularly if we are caught in a spiral of negative self-evaluation that is accompanied by a constant sense of failing to meet overly high standards.
“We need to be kind to ourselves and keep our self-guides in perspective,” she said.
Remember, whether you’re striving to be your ideal self or you’re happy within your ought self, always take the time to be kind to yourself. Try not to dwell on any failures, but remain positive. It’s all learning.
To read the full study click here.
MAIN IMAGE: Woman lying in field (Supplied)