Despite the appeal of possible selves, as presented by Markus and Nurius (1986) and further elaborated on by Erikson (2007), I chose to argue the contrary position against possible selves.
Markus and Nurius (1986) define possible selves as “ideal selves that we would very much like to become. They are also the selves we could become, and the selves we are afraid of becoming (p. 954). They also state that “possible selves can be viewed as the cognitive manifestation of enduring goals, aspirations, motives, fears, and threats…they provide the essential link between the self-concept and motivation” (p. 954). Markus and Nurius (1986) represent that their conception of possible selves explicates phenomena such as inconsistencies between self-concepts and perceptions of others, behaviors, and changes to self-concepts. Further, Markus and Nurius (1986) suggest that through the conception of possible selves a “more direct connection between motives and specific actions” is possible (p. 961).
Erikson (2007) picks up the mantle of possible selves, and further clarifies the concept, suggesting the following definition: “Possible selves are conceptions of our selves in the future, including, at least to some degree, an experience of being an agent in a future situation. Possible selves get vital parts of their meaning in interplay with the self-concept, which they in turn moderate, as well as from their social and cultural context” (p. 356).
First, I agree with the fundamental statement “unity is one of the defining features of selfhood and identity” (Baumeister, 1998, p. 682). This is not to say that our sense of self is not a complex construct as clearly indicated by the concepts presented by Baumeister (1998) specifically relating to the self across three domains: reflexive consciousness, interpersonal being, and executive function.
Second, the theory of possible selves presented by Markus and Nurius (1986) seems a further elaboration of Higgins self-discrepancy theory which “proposes that people store self-knowledge not only in the form of actual beliefs about the self but also in the form of ideal and ought beliefs about the self. The idea self contains people’s beliefs about their personal aspirations, …; the ought self contains people’s believes about their personal obligations and duties,… (Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010, p. 593-594) and it is the discrepancy between these versions of the self that motivates changes in behavior and/or self-concept.
Third, the concept of possible selves is posited as unique in that it considers negative past events as well as positive future events in construction of virtually unlimited possible selves; however, a self-schema is defined as “a cognitive generalization about the self, derived from past experience, that organizes and guides the processing of self-related information contained in the individual’s social experiences” (Markus, Smith, & Moreland, 1985, p. 1495). Therefore, negative past experiences are fully integrated within the self-schema, which guides all future information processing and experiences. This means that evolving self-concepts and future selves already have input from past negative experiences, as well as positive hopes and dreams.
Fourth, there are an unlimited number of experiences and circumstances that result in alterations of self-concept and/or self-schema. Positively anticipated experiences may very well be anticipated or dreamed about; however, there are myriad negative transformational life experiences that can and will intercede to alter some individuals’ future selves. These types of experiences are not dreamed about or even conceived of. On the contrary, these types of experiences are the kinds that people push furthest from their minds at all costs. There is nothing in Markus and Nurius (1986) possible selves theory to accommodate for the impact these types of events may have on self-concepts. Will these events permanently change their self-concept? Will their self-schema rebound?
I personally believe a strong identity or sense of self is what allows individuals to ride out transformational life experiences. I believe there is an authentic self. There is clearly evidence that we present different versions of our self in different situational contexts; however, I define my sense of self to encompass many domains: traits, interpersonal, and other. I am not just a wife or mother, daughter, sister, or friend. I am not just friendly, academic, loyal, or Christian. I am more than the sum of my parts and in some ways less. My personal life experiences have included three marriages, two divorces, the birth of two children, and the loss of one son. I had a tumultuous and contentious family of original, but currently live with my father, son, and husband. I have had jobs I did not like, and jobs that I loved. I have lost a job I loved more than anything and believed was “where I was meant to be.” I have found and lost my dream home, only to find a new dream home. These experiences have enabled me to see that I have survived the worst and although my perspective may be less optimistic than when I was younger, in some ways I am also more appreciative of the life I have. In fact, in some ways I believe I am more aware of my sense of self than I have ever been in my life because I have navigated many of life’s most critical moments, whether I have been ultimately successful or not is yet to be determined.
Baumeister, R. F. (1998). The self. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th ed., Vol 1 ed., pp. 680-740). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Erikson, M. G. (2007). The meaning of the future: Toward a more specific definition of possible selves. Review of General Psychology, 11(4), 348-358. http://dx.doi.org/http://doi.apa.org/getdoi.cfm?doi=10.1037/1089-26220.127.116.118
Fiske, S. T., Gilbert, D. T., & Lindzey, G. (Eds.). (2010). The handbook of social psychology (Vol. 1, 5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Markus, H. R., & Nurius, P. (1986). Possible selves. American Psychologist, 41(9), 954-969. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037//0003-066X.41.9.954
Markus, H. R., Smith, J., & Moreland, R. L. (1985). Role of the self-concept in the perception of others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(6), 1494-1512. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1684