Setting stretch goals and aspiring towards something is a must for navigating life in a meaningful and fulfilling way, but these can also cause "psychological distress" when hopes are left unfulfilled, confirms new research.

"It's not failing to make progress toward 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," found the research by New Edith Cowan University (ECU).

In other words, it pays to be kind to yourself, say the key researchers.

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 anxious symptoms.
  • 'Rumination', or excessive negative thinking, played a role in this association.
Expanding on the hypothesis, Dickson said there are two key self-guides that typically motivate people and allow them to set standards to evaluate themselves: the ideal-self and the ought-self.

"The ideal-self is the person we ideally want to be - our hopes and aspirations. The ought self is who we believe we ought to be - our duties, obligations, and responsibilities," she said.

"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)."

The role of excessive negative thinking

Professor Dickson commented on the role of 'rumination', i.e. the tendency to engage in repetitive negative thinking: "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."

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In contrast, lack of progress on our ought self (i.e. duties, responsibilities, obligations) directly increased anxiety (but not depression), yet this wasn't worsened by repetitive thinking.

"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," Dickson added.

Advice for minimising psychological distress

Professor Dickson said self-guides are beneficial in giving a sense of purpose and direction in life and promoting wellbeing, even if we don't always reach them, but turning the focus toward negative self-evaluation and self-criticism 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.

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