Staff Perspective: Self-Discrepancy and Suicidal Ideation

Staff Perspective: Self-Discrepancy and Suicidal Ideation

Personality psychologists over time have theorized about various aspects of the “self.” E. Tory Higgins was one such psychologist who conceptualized various self domains, to include the “actual,” “ideal,” and “ought” selves (Higgins, 1987). The “actual” self can be defined as one’s self-concept. The ought self is comprised of those characteristics one believes they “should” or “ought” to possess (secondary to their duties, obligations, and responsibilities). Finally, the ideal self represents one’s aspirations or “ideals.” Higgins argued that individuals are motivated to reach a state where their self-concept matches their ideal and ought selves, and that failure to do so results in specific forms of emotional distress.

A series of empirical studies revealed that discrepancies among various domains of the self resulted in distinct psychological syndromes. In particular, discrepancies between one’s actual and ought selves tended to result in agitation-related emotions, such as guilt, and social anxiety. In contrast, discrepancies between one’s actual and ideal selves tended to result in dejection-related emotions such as disappointment, dissatisfaction, shame, and depression.

A tendency to possess self-discrepancies has also been shown to be associated with specific parenting styles experienced during childhood. Specifically, a tendency toward actual: ought discrepancies tends to be associated with prior exposure to a parenting style involving the administration versus withholding of punishment, whereas actual: ideal discrepancies are more likely to be present in individuals who were exposed to parenting styles based upon the administration versus withholding of reward.

Some critics of self-discrepancy theory have argued that the extent to which self-discrepancies predict emotional states may be somewhat conditional. To address this criticism, a subset of Dr. Higgins’ research explored how actual: ideal and actual: ought self-discrepancies interact with one’s “can” and “future” selves. The “can” self represents one’s sense of self-efficacy about achieving specific ideal and ought standards. The “future” self represents a person’s beliefs regarding whether or not their ideal or ought standards will be attained in the future.

Our predictions regarding the relationship between self-discrepancies and suicidal ideation was at least two-fold. First was the possibility of a direction association between self-discrepancies and suicidal ideation. We predicted that both actual: ideal and actual: ought discrepancies would be significantly associated with suicidal thoughts. We further predicted that self-discrepancies which individuals felt they could not rectify (“can” discrepancies), and/or would not change in the future (“future” discrepancies) would be associated with suicidal ideation. The second possibility was that the potential link between self-discrepancy and suicidal ideation would be mediated by negative affective states, to include depressive symptoms, and hopelessness.

This study examined the relationship of various types of self-discrepancies to suicidal ideation, examined cross-sectionally. The study was one of 152 undergraduate participants, who completed a battery of questionnaires, to include the “Selves” questionnaire, an idiographic measure of self-beliefs which asks individuals to list the attributes which best describe themselves, the attributes which best describe their “ideal” standards, and the attributes which best describe their “should” or “ought” standards. Participants further completed measures of depressive symptoms, hopelessness, and suicidal ideation.

Both actual: ideal and actual: ought discrepancies were significantly associated with suicidal ideation. We further found that across the eight different actual: ideal and actual: ought 3-element self-discrepancy combinations, only one particular type of actual: ideal: future discrepancy was associated with suicidal ideation. Specifically, actual: ideal discrepancies which individuals did not believe would improve in the future, were associated with suicidal ideation. Another way of viewing this type of discrepancy is that it reflects a sense of hopelessness specific to the self. This type of discrepancy was also part of the best-fitting model predicting suicidal ideation.

Covariance structure analyses indicated a best-fitting model suggesting that, actual: ideal and actual: ideal: future self-discrepancies contribute to hopelessness, which in turn contributes to depression and suicidal ideation. The results of this study suggest that self-discrepancy, as a form of negative self-evaluation, may contribute to an individual's risk for suicidal ideation. These findings also corroborate previous work on the important relationship between hopelessness and suicidal ideation, and suggest that a sense of hopelessness with respect to the self may be an especially important risk factor.

Clinically, these findings provide us with another area for potential exploration in the context of a comprehensive suicide risk assessment. With respect to our work with Active-Duty Service members, many of us have met with patients who possess very clear ideals in terms of their military career and achievements. To the extent that individuals experience actual or perceived failure with respect to their military aspirations and don’t feel hopeful about the prospect of attaining these goals, it may, for some Service members, confer risk for suicidal thinking.

Cornette, Strauman, Abramson. & Busch (2009). Self-discrepancy and suicidal ideation, Cognition and Emotion, 23 (3), 504-527.

Dr. Cornette is a clinical psychologist and subject matter expert on suicide working at the CDP HQ.  In this capacity, she has developed the CDP’s two-day workshop on suicide