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  • Writer's pictureRenee Shearing

The Prison of ‘Imaginary Me’

Artwork Sharon Boonzaier


As discussed in Let’s be Shameless, human beings have a tendency to shy away from owning the parts of themselves that they don’t like, are ashamed of or have decided are unacceptable.

In order to cope with this, we often prefer to identify with our idealised versions of ourselves.

I like to refer to this self as “Imaginary Me”.  

Imaginary Me embodies all of my most amazing qualities and consistently upholds my values and ideals. Imaginary Me behaves the way I believe I should and the way that I consider to be acceptable. Imaginary Me is everything that I strive to be. Imaginary Me isn’t a lie.  It is truly who I want to be.  It is the me that I am most proud of.

It is me on my best days.

It is the me that I aspire to be.

It is the me in my profile picture.

It is the me that I like to post on social media.

It is the me I want to be seen as.

It is the best version of me.

The problem about creating this imaginary idea of ourselves is that we create an expectation that we can never consistently live up to. We set ourselves up to fail.  We set ourselves up to disappoint ourselves – and to “disappoint” those around us who we have projected this imaginary version of ourselves onto.  We set ourselves up for more shame.

An unrealistic expectation

In our attempts to try and live up to the Imaginary Me that we have dreamt up, we can end up feeling victimised by this self-induced fantasy.  Under the pressure that this constructed self creates, we begin to feel exhausted and overwhelmed and then we crave some sort of reprieve or a reward.  If those aren’t forthcoming, we stage a rebellion -- a rebellion against that slave driver and unrealistic “Imaginary Me”!

We might find ourselves secretly indulging in hedonistic practices, in opposition to this PERFECT and unrealistic version of ourselves. And then, when we “catch ourselves” in the act of the rebellion we chastise ourselves, followed by making promises to be better and uphold the ideal of this Imaginary Me.

It becomes exhausting. And yet the cycle continues.  And each time it does, the self-loathing gets worse.

Imprisoned by my own Fantasies

Sadly, the less-perfect “Real Me” gets banished to the shadow. Real Me becomes not good enough.  We prefer to uphold the image of Imaginary Me who knows better, does better and looks better. And in some cases we project this expectation onto other people, tricking ourselves into thinking that it is THEM who expect us to live up to this perfect version of ourselves that WE promised them we would be.

In a way we become imprisoned by this idealised version that WE have created in our refusal to accept who we really are. Our Imaginary Me becomes our prison and our captor - and what develops is a feeling of being controlled, losing autonomy and wanting to break free.

We create a dissonance between who we really are and who we strive to be. This dissonance can be symptomatically expressed as one of the following:

  • Fury, self-loathing and indignation, which often manifests as the rebellion seen in addiction and eating disorders;

  • When we feel powerless against and oppressed by this self we might experience anxiety and depression;

  • The inability to look at ourselves requires distraction and can be expressed in the form of obsessive compulsive behaviours and phobias.

Again our energy and attention is focused on avoiding the truth of who we are, and a damaging split is created between Imaginary Me and Real Me.

It is in the gap between these two that discomfort, and the shame and disappointment of not living up to who we really want to be, builds up. I describe this gap as a warm moist space where the bacteria of unease grows.

And then the dance begins -- the dance of avoiding seeing the reflection of who we really are.

Having worked with people in therapy for more than 20 years, I have noticed that the greater the incongruence between Real Me and Imaginary Me, the greater the discomfort in people’s lives. From what I have observed, wherever you find Addiction, Eating Disorders, Anxiety, Depression, OCD, Phobias, you will find Incongruence.  The two go hand in hand.

The journey to recovery

We describe the journey away from these conditions as recovery.  

Recovery has two meanings. The first is a “return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength” and this is the one we refer to when we speak about recovery from the above conditions. The second is “the action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost”.

What we have lost is the REAL me.  The true me.  

How do I Measure Up? Hiding the Incongruence Inside Me

We lose pieces of ourselves as we walk through life and discard, disown and banish the pieces we don’t like and trade them out from some imagined version of ourselves that we prefer and are proud of. We believe it because these imaginary selves are based on our true values and ideals.

They are in alignment with what we want but not in alignment with who we are.

But what happens to those pieces that we have discarded? We think they will disintegrate and disappear if they are banished. This not the case – we can’t make the truth about ourselves disappear.  And the more we try to hide it, the more it haunts us.

So instead of discarding or destroying parts of ourselves, our only hope is to adopt the attitude suggested in Let’s be Shameless --  to take ownership of these parts, come to terms with them and either accept them or OPENLY work on transforming them.

A gracious acceptance

One of the main objectives in my therapy process with clients is first to identify these two parts:

Imaginary Me and Real Me. Then we look at the two and how they differ.  We need to come to terms with some of the aspects of Real Me, and make friends with this part. We can then understand that Imaginary Me is an idealised version of myself. It reflects my values and my ideals, but it doesn’t always reflect my true desires or inform my actions.  

It is the me that I expect I should be.  But it is not always the me that I show up as.

The healing process is as simple as owning this.  Saying something like,

“I wish I was more like that, but I’m not”. No explanation, no justification, no promise to be better -- just an honest and gracious acceptance of who I really am.

Let me share an example of this from my own life.

I recently had a landscaper advise me on my garden.  In the conversation, I mentioned that my irrigation system was broken and needed repair.  Her response to me was, “But you don’t really need one. Don’t you find it therapeutic to stand and water your garden, taking that time to appreciate it and see it’s beauty?”

I looked at her and I said “You know what?  Imaginary Me would TOTALLY love to do that.  I love the image of myself walking around the garden with a hose seeing how all my plants are growing; but the truth is, Real Me will NEVER do that.  Real Me would rather lie on the couch with a cup of tea and look at the garden.  So let’s go for the irrigation option!”

The Alchemy of True Integration

When I am congruent I get what I want without having to disappoint myself.  It’s that simple.

Think of all the time and energy we waste, striving to be something that we never really had any real intention being anyway. How great to just let ourselves off the hook of being the idealised versions of ourselves.

I am not suggesting that we give up on our values and short change ourselves, but rather that we make friends with who we are, meeting these parts with compassion, love and humour. We can lower the bar when it comes to our expectations of ourselves and take ownership of our shortcomings.  We can put the necessary measures in place to ensure things get done and we don’t let ourselves down.

We can develop a sense of congruence between who I am and who I say I am. We can then see clearly.  No shame.  No blame. Just honesty.

When we are truly able to accept ourselves as we REALLY are we find peace and are finally able to enjoy who we are and our lives. It is my experience that congruent human beings are happy and at peace.

Who wouldn’t want that?

Artwork Sarah Heinamann

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