How to stop putting off your dreams: Self-discrepancy theory, why you procrastinate on your dreams, & what you can do about it.
We usually think of procrastination as avoiding doing something that we don’t want to do. But too often we find ourselves avoiding doing things that we do want to do.
It’s no mystery why we put off taking out the trash, going to the dentist, or studying for a test. Those things are unpleasant. But why do we put off our dreams and aspirations?: writing a screenplay, taking a trip, or starting a company.
We want to do this thing, so why don’t we do it? And why does it feel so bad when we procrastinate on the things we dream of doing?
Procrastination is defined as putting off something that needs to be accomplished. So, how do you define whether something “needs” to be done? Maybe you need to study for a test, but do you need to write your novel?
The answer lies in psychologist Edward Tory Higgins’s self-discrepancy theory. According to this theory, we have many facets to how we see ourselves. When one facet of your self concept is out of alignment with another facet of your self concept, it can make you feel bad.
According to self-discrepancy theory, there are three domains of the self:
- Your Actual self is who you actually are.
- Your Ideal self is who you aspire to be.
- Your Ought self is who you feel you “ought” to be. What duties or obligations you have.
When we procrastinate on something we don’t want to do, we are often experiencing an actual/ought conflict. Who we actually are (the person who isn’t going to the dentist) conflicts with who we feel we ought to be (a person who takes care of their health, and thus goes to the dentist).
When we procrastinate on something we do want to do, we are experiencing an actual/ideal conflict. Who we actually are (the person sitting in a cubicle) conflicts with who we aspire to be (the musician who tours the world).
So when something “needs” to be done, it’s because some facet of our self concept is telling us it needs to be done. That facet of our self concept is in conflict with who we actually are.
That’s why procrastinating feels bad. That’s also why procrastinating on what you don’t want to do feels different from procrastinating on what you do want to do.
Higgins’s self-discrepancy theory was groundbreaking because it identified exactly the kinds of emotions that came from different conflicts. If you understand the emotions that come from these various conflicts, you can stop putting off your dreams.
- An actual/ought conflict makes you feel guilt, anxiety, or self contempt.
- An actual/ideal conflict makes you feel disappointed, dissatisfied, or even depressed.
These conflicts can be a good thing. Your “ought” self keeps you from littering or showing up late. Your “ideal” self makes you dream, and helps you find the motivation to follow those dreams.
Your actual/ideal conflict can be great fuel for making your dreams a reality. It’s what gives you that drive to be the best possible version of yourself. It’s what gives you the drive to follow your dreams.
The only problem is, for each drop of fuel you get from your actual/ideal conflict, some other force is there to hold you back. These forces come from every facet of your self concept.
So far, Higgins’s self-discrepancy theory seems simple enough. Your actual self can be out of alignment with your ideal self or your ought self. These conflicts can motivate good behavior, or they can make you feel bad.
But there’s more. So far, we’ve only talked about what you think about yourself. Your self concept also includes what others think about you.
- Your Other Actual self is what other people think you’re actually like.
- Your Other Ideal self is what others aspire for you to be.
- Your Other Ought self is what others think your duties and obligations are.
Your actual self can be out of alignment with a whole set of other selves. Those conflicts can cause a host of other emotions. Each of these emotions can hold you back from following your aspirations.
- Your Actual self can conflict with the Actual self others see. Others think you’re a loser or a bigot, and you don’t think you are. This can cause a sense of shame.
- Your Actual self can conflict with the Ideal self others picture for you. You don’t drive a fancy car, but others think you have to drive a fancy car to be successful. Again, you may feel shame, but you will also feel unworthy.
- Your Actual self can conflict with the Ought self others picture for you. You want to take a year off before going to college, but others feel you ought to go right after high school. You can feel threatened or fearful.
These are just some of the ways that the facets of your self concept can conflict with one another. Any of them can be at conflict with your actual self. It can be hard to identify where all of your feelings are coming from.
To make things more complicated, none of this has to be grounded in reality. Your self concept by definition is what you think about yourself. This includes what you think others think about you.
So you might think your parents aspire for you to be a doctor, when they don’t. You might think the person sitting next to you at the cafe thinks you ought to not be listening to Nickelback at such a high volume on your headphones, when they don’t actually know you exist.
All of these facets of the self concept, whether from what you think about yourself, or from what others think about you — real or imagined — can put a real damper on the actual/ideal conflict that’s trying to drive you forward.
The result is what Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance.”
Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us.
Between the two stands Resistance. —Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Your dreams and aspirations—your ideal self—is the unlived life within you. Resistance is like a catch-all term for the ways the various facets of your self concept make you put off that dream.
- You can get caught up in perfectionism. You’re in conflict with your ought self.
- You can fear judgement. You’re in conflict with what others think you ought to do.
- You can criticize others. If they embody your ideal self, they may make you feel threatened.
When you explore the many ways you can be in conflict with other facets of your self concept, you can see why it’s so tough to pursue your ideal self and follow your dreams.
So what do you do about it? Here are just a few ways to reduce conflict amongst the various facets of your self concept:
- You can revise your beliefs. You might think you ought to be really good at something, resulting in perfectionism, but you can give yourself permission to be imperfect, thus reducing your actual/ought conflict.
- You can downplay the importance of those beliefs. You might feel that others have different aspirations for you, but you can remind yourself that those aren’t the aspirations that you have for yourself. You’ll reduce the conflict between your actual self, and the ideal self others have for you.
- You can focus on your ideal self. The more attention you give to one facet of your self concept, the more the other facets will fade into the background. If you examine your ideal self through journaling—or through action—your motivation can redefine the other facets of your self concept.
Following your dreams is a journey that takes you from your actual self, to your ideal self. If you have clarity of how other pieces of your self concept stand in your way, you can knock them down, one by one, and make your way to achieving your destiny.
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