The 3 Selves

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom - Aristotle.

Understanding the 3 'selves' that make us up as individuals and influence our experiencing can be really beneficial in learning what is holding us back from reaching our fullest potential. The first thing we're going to do, is look at what the 3 'selves' are.

According the person centred counselling theory, we're made up of 3 'selves':

1. The Real Self

2. The Self-Concept

3. The Ideal Self

The Real Self

This is the self that's present from birth. It knows what its physical needs are and what it truly desires. If this 'self' is allowed to grow unhindered, it will develop knowing what it needs from the environment and from others. It's like like real, true and authentic you. When someone asks you, what would you do if you could do absolutely anything and the opinions of others and circumstance wouldn't be factors, it's the real self that's replying. So, if other people's opinions didn't matter and neither did your circumstances, what would you really want to do??

The Self-Concept

This is made up of the ideas and beliefs that we have of ourselves. Our self-concept is multi-faceted and is made up of lots of different factors. These include:

- values from others (introjects in counselling terms) e.g. how I think/feel should look

- internal/external valuing e.g. How much I trust and value my view of self VS how much I trust and value how others view me

- conditions of worth e.g. I am worthy of love if I achieve xyz / I am loveable if I do xyz

The self-concept is a really complex theory but ultimately, it is heavily influenced by the external world; that is to say the feedback we get about ourselves from others, society, culture etc. In self-help/spiritual circles we may call the negative factors that affect our self-concept 'limiting beliefs'.

The Ideal Self

The is the self that we would like to be.

So, where can things go wrong?

It can become issue for us, if we are constantly ignoring the needs of the real-self. For example, if you're always doing things for other people and helping them out, despite the fact that you're mentally and physically exhausted, then this is a problem. You are ignoring your real needs.

Why are you always doing things for everyone else? Perhaps you have been brought up believing that it is right to sacrifice yourself for others (values from others). Maybe one of your parents exhibited this behaviour. Perhaps your mother praised you when you helped someone else but scolded you when you said no and you were told you were selfish? (internal/external valuing) Here, you have been taught that it is wrong to put your own needs first and that you should help others even at the expense of yourself. You may even have learned that you are only loveable/worthy when you put others needs before your own or make others happy (conditions of worth).

As you can see in this example, the self-concept has been affected by external figures and has lead to a denial of the real-self. Sometimes, the self-concepts we develop become SO ingrained that they feel 100% true for us and it's only after some serious personal exploration that we learn not all the stories we have told ourselves about ourselves are true.

What about the ideal self? I'm sure we all have images and ideas of ourselves as we would like to be and there's no harm in that because it is productive to be ambitious and to want to better ourselves. The trouble comes when the our ideal self is too far removed from our self-concept. If our ideal-self is someone who is educated and goes to college but our self-concept tells us we're stupid and not worthy then we're probably going to feel pretty bad about ourselves because our ideal-self seems too far away.

In order to reach our fullest potential, our ideal-self must closely match the behaviour and feelings of our self-concept. In simple terms, our actual experience of the world must closely match our self-concept.


I invite you to reflect on your own needs and whether you have been tending to them in quite the best way. It may help to journal about your 3 selves and to just explore what's coming up for you. What are the things you feel you 'should' do even though you might disagree with them or aren't sure why you even feel like you should?

What does your ideal-self look like? What kind of person is your ideal self? Perhaps make a list of traits that they have. Do you already have any similar traits? If your ideal-self is a morning person, do you get up early already? Could you get up earlier if you don't? Are there any changes you can make so that your current reality slides a little closer to your ideal?

I hope this post was insightful and as always, I'd love to hear your thoughts!



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