The Identity Gap


Identity is a big topic for me in my writing.  Who are you?  Who am I?  How well do we really understand ourselves as a person, and perhaps more importantly, how well do we accept ourselves?

Along this lines, one idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while is the idea of an “identity gap”.

To me, an identity gap is the gap between who we ARE and who we WANT TO BE.


Related to my post on fantasy, we all have an idealized version of self; this picture of who we wish we were, and how we wish our life looked.  This ideal is related to our dreams, and may be influenced by the things we see around us or the expectations that were placed on us growing up.


However this is just an ideal, and I don’t think ANYONE is their idealized version of “self”.  And for that matter, I don’t think anyone ever achieves it.

This concept of an identity gap has huge implications for the level of happiness a person has in their life.  And I think this happiness is directly related to three questions:

  1. How big is the gap between who you want to be and who you are?
  2. Do you accept that your idealized version of self is simply an ideal, and not reality?
  3. What are you doing to improve yourself and close the gap between who you are and who you want to be?


What is your Ideal Self?

This is a tough question to answer.  But I guess another way of look at it is, when you were a teenager who did you think you would be?  What did you think it actually meant to be an adult?

This is an area where man oh man, I think a lot of us screw up something fierce.

On one hand, we have all these adults all around us modelling what life as an adult looks like.  So you would think we would actually learn something from that.

On the other hand, we have tv shows, and advertising telling us how amazing we are, and how special we are, and how we “deserve the best”.

I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that even when all the evidence around us is telling us life as an adult is pretty mundane, there’s also a part of that expects life to look like a beer commercial.


I don’t think many teenagers/college students take a look at their parents and say “yup, that’s who I’m going to be when I grow up”.

For some reason we think we are different, and special, so of course our life will be different.  We will set goals, and achieve all of our wildest dreams.


A few posts back used a line I found:

What screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.

That line seems simple at first, but it’s also one of the most profound things I’ve ever read.

How things are “supposed to be”.

What life is “supposed” to look like.

What “love” is supposed to look like.

Who we are “supposed” to be.


I’m reminder of a scene from movie Boyhood.  It’s kind of a bizarre film, as it doesn’t really follow a traditional mold; but it’s also really powerful.  It was filmed over 12 years, and during the film you actually see the characters age and grow up.

In it Patricia Arquette starts out as a young mother with little education.  And during the 12 years of the film her children grow up, she is married and divorced twice, and gains an education and becomes a college professor (I think).

Late in the film there’s a scene where her son is leaving for college and she breaks down.  She reflects on all the things that have happened in her life, all the things she has done and accomplished.  And then she says:

I just thought there would be more.


I just thought there would be more.

Life hasn’t matched up to the picture she had in her head.  There was an identity gap, and when comparing reality to ideal, life ended up being a disappointment.


I think this happens often.

For some reason we expect “more”.  And real life isn’t able to measure up.

In our society right now, depression rates are up.  Anxiety rates are up.  People talk about happiness as if it’s this magical thing that they can achieve.  This goal in life that will make everything better.

So how do we make this better?


An Ideal is a Dream

I think one of the first things we need to do is accept that our ideal is simply something to strive towards, and not something we are likely to ever achieve.

And that’s alright.

We are all just “regular” people.  We aren’t any better than anyone else, and we do not deserve special treatment.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t have goals – because we should.  We need them, as goals give us something to strive towards.

Instead of just looking at our imaginary end state, we need to be able to set small milestones or goals, and celebrate the little successes we have along the way.

Because sometimes our ideal isn’t actually realistic.

So we shouldn’t measure our success in life against it’s end state.  We need to be able to look at where we are now, and appreciate it each and every day.


How are you Trying to Improve?

Let’s say I want to make a fence.  What do I need to do?

Does it help me to wake up everyday, look in my yard and think “man, I wish I had a fence”?

Ummm, no so much.

How about if I buy some wood and some screws, and put them in my yard and just leave them there?

I suppose that gets me a bit closer, but again, it’s not very helpful.


Instead, a few things need to happen.

  • First I need to understand where I am today.
  • Next I need to understand where I want to be.
  • Then I need a plan to get from point A to point B.
  • Lastly (and perhaps most importantly) I need initiative. I need to be willing to do something about it.


So everything starts with accepting yourself for who you are TODAY.

We all have strengths and weaknesses, good sides and bad sides.  And until we accept ourselves for who we are today (warts and all), we can never move forward or improve.  We are never able to live in the present moment, and able to appreciate the life we DO have.

When people are focused on their identity gap, they are focused on who they are not instead of who they are. And when THAT is the focus?  If someone is focused on what they are missing or who they are not, I don’t think they will ever be happy.  Because it doesn’t matter how much you improve, you can always get better.  And people who are focused on what they are not are unable to live in the moment and appreciate the things they DO have.

So any improvements need to first start with self acceptance.



Once you have accepted who you are today, you are now in a position to better understand the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Ironically, once you have accepted yourself it may not matter as much.

Because although we can always be “more”, when we have accepted ourselves we know we are “enough”.


32 thoughts on “The Identity Gap

  1. Wow- this is spot on. And, something I struggle with. I have to acknowledge to myself “Yeah-I’m not that great at this or that, but I want to be…or I will never be.” And, then I have to be kind enough to myself to accept it or try to change it.

    You said “For some reason we think we are different, and special, so of course our life will be different. We will set goals, and achieve all of our wildest dreams.”

    I just finished listening to a book by David Brooks called “A Road to Character”, on of the things I am allowing to stay present in my mind is that many of the character examples he brought up (some greater than 100 years old) had the idea that they were not special AT ALL.
    More than that, their individuality wasnt important at all. Manners and self restraint were imperative because society as a whole was more important than the individual.
    The thing I struggle with is that this runs completely contrary to my own banner of “Authenticity”. Because they didnt express who they really were then, not even to the people closest to them. There was alot of supressed emotion- including anger and fear, and happiness or joy, there were alot of unrealized dreams, ect.

    But, I do believe that as a whole we have stepped into the “me- first”, and “me above all else” sort of mindset. We often live in a world where its our rights to have whatever we want- we have the means, the agency, the freedom. But, I think we are misguided to think that getting what we want will be of any real benefit to us.

    The point of the book, and something I am leaning towards is the thought that our fulfillment of self is often achieved by losing it to something greater. Whether that is marriage, or a cause, or religion. We seem to do better when the focus isnt us, but when it is something greater than ourselves.

    ***Just to note, I know that at times my attempts to help others are complete washes, and I can even say things that dont do what I would like them to do (namely, lift someone up as opposed to spark negative thoughts) I can come across as polly-anna ish in my attempts to help others. I think this is one of those things that I have an identity gap in. …and honestly, it is only one of many : o !

    Thanks for writing this- its really on target.


    • Hi Lindsey,

      thanks for commenting. I have to say, I also believe that fulfillment of self can be found in something greater. For me at least, I find value in being “part” of things. Being a parent, being part of a team, part of a work environment, part of a team. I don’t lose myself in these things, but instead I find a greater sense of purpose when I feel I am able to make positive contributions to something “bigger” than me.


      • So, I had some delayed thoughts on the whole “lose yourself” thing. ..
        Interestingly, part of David Brooks definition of humility has to do with “forgetting” yourself, and I can equate that with “losing” yourself.

        And, there is also the biblical stuff about losing yourself to find yourself.

        I think we may interpret “losing yourself” as a loss of personality, or individuality. As if the person has somehow lost the integrity of who he or she is. As though they had no boundaries and just became some gelatinous goo, or smoke that disappears and is absorbed in the furniture.

        But, I don’t think that is what it means.
        I think it means something more along the lines of losing self consciousness, losing concern for oneself, as one is fully being themselves.The moment you stop to think about how you may appear, you have stopped being yourself.
        I think that is what it means to really be alive.

        But, even if losing yourself meant some sort of integration with other people, I don’t think this would be wrong, either.

        I believe that is true because we don’t exist in a vacuum, we don’t live alone. Your personality, your identity, your self does depend a lot on the people around you.
        Certainly as you develop but also when you are adults.

        In the religious context it very much meant/means, give over your life and as the circumstances that play out, there you will find yourself.

        Anyway- just some thoughts.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. So what you’re saying is, I can’t just wish that massive pile of laundry in my basement to be finished, I actually have to create steps to get it done?
    In all seriousness I am going to go out on a limb and say this is the main issue for most thirty something adults(I seriously didn’t feel this way in my 20’s). I am one hundred percent not where I thought I would be and when you are headed into your late thirties you start to realize your life is actually just going to be completely different than you once thought. It’s not all bad. I wasn’t a child or teenager that longed to have kids one day. Now I have four. I thought I’d have some financial peace by this time. Also not there. The list goes on. Some of it is far better than what I imagined and some of it not so much. I think our society is set up in such a way that makes us all kind of feel like we aren’t what we should be. It’s worse since the rise of social media. It’s hard clear your mind of all the nonsense and easy to be reminded about 200 times a day where you’re falling short. The worst part about it for me is that there are so many things I need to and should accomplish that I actually don’t know how to separate tasks to get from point A to B!
    I think you posted this at a perfect time. This time of year brings this feeling out in me.
    I’d also like to mention that I think those “high school letters to my future self” should be banned. I got one a few years ago from myself and yikes…..;)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Natasha,

      actually I’m pretty sure if you leave the laundry there long enough, the laundry gnomes will come and take care of it for you. You should try it.

      As you said, I think a lot of people hit their mid/late 30’s and kind of go “what the hell, this isn’t what I was expecting”. By late 30’s early 40’s, divorce rates start to climb and I think this plays a big part in it.

      As the line in the post goes – what screws us up most in life is the picture in our head of how it’s supposed to be.

      If we can get past that usually broken image and accept life for what it actually is, I think things are generally pretty good. Some people can’t get past that though, and their reality seems like a dissappiontment to them.

      And I completely agree with your comment about social media. We need to remember that when we see people in a social setting, we’re seeing the image of them that they want to portray. We aren’t seeing someone’s issues and problems (which always exist). Social media makes this worse, as people post a “highlight reel” of their life. And although at some level we all know this, when we are constantly seeing the highlights of our friends/family and comparing it to our own lives, our own lives often feel like they don’t compare. But it’s a false image.

      Thanks for the comment, and just wait a bit longer for the laundry gnomes.


  3. Hi Natasha!
    I don’t have any great words of wisdom or anything. Just an affirming nod. Yeah. life is hardly ever how we plan it. The magic happens when we can love what we have …and I am still working on that!
    Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong always help me in that department, so I thought I’d share. 🙂 …Just for fun :)!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are sooooo right. Thank you! Thing is, I do love my life just as it is. There are some things I am working to change of course, which is likely why I read blogs such as this. Music is an enormous part of my life. As a child I played music for inspiration, and as an adult I listen. It really can kind of give a refreshed feeling. My artist of choice gets some eye rolls when I tell people, but what we works right?!;)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Ah, music. Life would be empty without it. And as for getting eye rolls, music is one of the MANY things in life that are just opinion. If something works for you, great, it works for you. I have a bunch of songs I love that I have yet to find another person who can stand. But for some reason, they are songs that I “feel” when I listen to them.

        Each persons opinion is equally valid – to them. There are very few things in life that are absolutes which can be seen as black or white.


      • Music is powerful. So powerful. It can make you feel less alone, more inspired, happy, sad, etc.
        As for eye rolls I don’t even care. My favorite musician for the last 15 or so years has been John Mayer. I always laugh when people make fun of it because really, how do you argue with taste? Different music means different things to people so I care not:)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have long held a theory that the Identity Gap is one of the causes of the Mid-life Crisis. For me, I too was not happy where I was several years ago and decided to change jobs. Ironically, that step started a journey of self discovery and now I’m in a much better mental space than before, accepting who I am, and trying to improve.

    I took stock of my life in my late 30s and wanted a change. I think this line of thinking is common for people in their 30s, but it doesn’t lead to anything unless there is a significant difference in who you want to be and who you actually are. The greater the disparity, the more radical the changes are.

    It’s just too bad that it usually destroys families in the process. I’m just glad that I was not with anybody at the time to hurt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, this is where I think self awareness and authenticity are really important. When someone has those things, I believe their identity gap is usually fairly small. And they also are less likely to have unrealistic expectations about what life is “supposed to” look like.

      Ultimately though, people have to do whatever they feel is right for them. It’s really unfortunate when others are hurt in the process, but I guess everyone makes their own choices and is in control of their own lives. So if they aren’t where they want to be, then I guess I can understand when they need to make changes.

      Tying back to the last few posts though, it’s really a shame when families are destroyed by someone searching for something that is fantasy land, and not actually real.


      • I think you’d be surprised how many people do the opposite when family is involved. Sometimes it’s not even about fantasy land, just basic happiness. However, I personally know a few people that decided to forego happiness in that area(and I don’t mean by having affairs)to make sure their family isn’t torn apart.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, whether someone chooses to forgo happiness in their relationship or chooses to blow up their family, I would argue that in both cases they are choosing what is right for them. Personally, I disagree with both choices (kind of).

        I don’t think anyone should “resign themselves” to staying in an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage just to keep their family together. I also think affairs are always wrong, and people should always get out of a relationship before they go down that road.

        But those aren’t the only options.

        I truly believe that ANY situation can get better, if people would only learn to communicate, listen, practice empathy and active appreciation. I think maybe sometimes we need to rewire our brains on what life actually looks like, and focus on the good in our lives.

        I really believe that in most cases where people are unhappy, due to hedonic adaptation a big part of the problem is they have stopped seeing the good parts of their life and are focussed primarily on the bad or on what is missing. And once in that negative mindset, it’s very hard to climb out.

        To me the “best” choice (especially when family is involved) is to do our best to improve our current situation and make it the best it can be. If we do that, chances are things will improve quite a bit. And if they don’t, then at least we can tell ourselves we gave it every possible chance. If people have truly done their best to make things better, and given it enough time to have a real chance, and things are still “bad”? Then going your separate ways is really an act of kindness, and an act of love even. Because you are accepting what cannot be, and setting each other free to find something else in life.


      • I agree with you to an extent but what you’re missing is that only accounts for one half of that relationship. One person could try their best, ask for counseling, and even communicate to the fullest extent but that really only goes as far as what the other person is willing to give back. My brother went through a divorce and he was of he same mindset. He was willing to work through anything with his wife. She wasn’t as invested. At some point he had to pull he plug. There were no kids involved but it was still a marriage and obviously life changing.
        I do think people can choose to stay in a not so ideal situation and know that it likely won’t get better no matter how much they try, but do it for the overall happiness of their children. I don’t think it’s wrong. Sometimes people just sacrifice one “dream” for another. It’s a simple as that.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Natasha, I may have missed that in my description – but I definitely haven’t missed that side of things. I understand that all too well.

        Even still, I think what I said above still applies. As a member of a relationship/marriage, I may want things to work out. That may be what I want more than anything in the world, and I may be willing to do whatever it takes and put in whatever work I feel is needed. But I can’t control what the other person feels, or what they do.

        So I still have a choice to make.

        Do I “stay” in a situation where I am not happy just for the kids? Or do I move on?

        Some people go one way, others go another. It’s an individual choice, and no one can really tell someone else if their choice was right or wrong.

        In the case of your brother, I would think that your brother can look at himself in the mirror at night and say “hey, I did my best – it just wasn’t enough”. And that’s alright.

        I can’t say anything about his ex. I’m sure she did what she thought was best for her too. If she wasn’t invested, then nothing he was going to do was going to change that.

        Can she look in the mirror and say she gave it her best? From your description, I doubt it. It sounds like, for whatever reason she didn’t want it anymore. And that’s her choice.

        A few posts back I wrote something on regret. I think maybe your brother can live freely without regret here, because he gave it his all.

        His ex on the other hand probably can’t say that. So she *may* one day have regrets, because it sounds like she could have done more.

        Often people leave because they feel there is something “better” or different out there somewhere. And there always is. But what is enough? The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere. There will always be issues and problems with every relationship, and it’s up to us to decide which ones we can live with.


      • Well said. This topic is one I personally flip flip opinions on. I think many people I’m family situations give up WAY too easy and call it quits before ever trying. I also think there are people that will never ever strive to make things better. It’s confusing when you go through it because on the one hand you look could at yourself as a complete failure and constantly question if it was enough and were you just looking for something better, or were you actually in a situation where you DID deserve better.
        So many difficult questions that will likely never have a right or wrong answer.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I agree, there’s no real right or wrong here.

        I don’t believe in giving up easily – I believe relationships go through ups and downs, and it’s getting through stuff *together* that makes people stronger as a couple.

        So to me, I accept that bad times are just part of life, and figure things can always get better.

        But you always have to be able to put “we” at the same level as “me”. As soon as one or both people start focusing on “me”, the relationship is in a world of trouble.

        In terms of deserving better – it really depends on what’s happening. If there’s physical abuse, I say get out asap. If there’s consistent mental/emotional abuse, same thing. I think even in *healthy* relationships there will be a degree of behavior that can be seen as emotional abuse, but is it the exception to the rule?

        And a huge one is, is the other person actually trying? Effort goes a LONG way with me. And I accept that the effort someone can put in is inconsistent. Sometimes they can do more, other times less. A relationship doesn’t have to be 50/50 (few are).

        If a person is not even trying though, and this goes on for an extended period of time (and they show no interest in changing that behavior even when it’s been pointed out that it’s causing conflict), then sometimes all you can do is move on.

        I have huge issues with relationships that fail because someone has expectations of what life is supposed to be like (that may or may not be realistic), and they have never even really communicated it to the other person, and then one day they are out.

        Another blogger coined the term “tsunami divorce”, where someone thinks things are pretty good until suddenly BAM, it’s over. And they had no real idea that anything was wrong, and no opportunity to try and make things better.

        That happens A LOT – and it’s bullshit.

        People aren’t mind readers, and even if it’s clear someone isn’t happy, if they haven’t voiced the degree of unhappiness or given any real clue of what’s going on or opportunity to improve things, it’s so unfair.


      • All good points. I just think expectations are so different from person to person. There are some obvious ones I think most people agree on. They expect not to be abused, not to be cheated on, but I think those aren’t what people question for the most part. It’s the in betweens. Not feeling loved, refusal of communication, not feeling valued. I’m not talking fairy tale crap I’m talking the very basic concept of feeling like you can rely on someone else. Lifting each other up. Working together.

        Liked by 1 person

      • With you 100% there. When it comes to not feeling loved my one caution would be to question where that actually starts – with a lack of giving or a lack of receiving. Sometimes people ARE trying, but due to different love languages or something like that one person isn’t feeling loved the way they want/need. When that’s the case, I think it can be addressed with stronger communication, and a willingness to adapt someones own approach to a different persons needs.

        Not feeling loved, refusal of communication and not feeling valued all kind of come down to trying. If someone is clearly trying, I’m usually inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt that through effort you can find a way that works for both.

        And you say working together – that’s huge, and comes back to a focus on “we” instead of “me”.

        I think I said this earlier, but I think a relationship is all but doomed when one or both people focus on me at the expense of we. You become a couple for a reason. And we has to always be there.


      • Too much deep thought. Must retreat to shallow thoughts such as Facebook page likes.
        Seriously, love this blog. Speaking of Facebook, does this one have a page like Matt’s?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha, nice. How’s this then – relationships work better when both parties think the other is hot.

        As for facebook, no. I thought about it, and even started to set one up a few years back. But it seemed too much like work.

        I enjoy writing for the writing process, the thinking behind it, an as a relatively creative endeavor. And I do try to get new stuff out on a fairly regular basis. But I’m stretched fairly thin, so facebook seems like just another thing to try and keep track of.


      • Understood. Makes perfect sense. I on the other hand rely on Facebook for my photography business so I’m on it more than anything else! I miss a lot of “regular” website stuff when notifications get mixed up in inboxes so I thought I’d ask.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. “When people are focused on their identity gap, they are focused on who they are not instead of who they are. And when THAT is the focus? If someone is focused on what they are missing or who they are not, I don’t think they will ever be happy. Because it doesn’t matter how much you improve, you can always get better. And people who are focused on what they are not are unable to live in the moment and appreciate the things they DO have.”

    Wow, this is like a replay of discussions my wife and I have been having recently. I have been trying to get our relationship on a different plane for a year now. And just to put a little color on that, we went ten years literally without touching each other and the few times we’ve tried to connect sexually this year have not gone very well – so I don’t think it’s crazy to say there’s a lot that could legitimately be addressed, by anyone’s standards, if we want to get back to a warm, close, connected, cooperative alliance.

    But I tend to be someone who sees a glass as half empty where she sees the same glass as half full, and that applies to most parts of life.

    After a lot of personal reflection and digging, I think my viewpoint is linked to growing up with the belief that I had to be perfect to be accepted, that my work had to be perfect, that the things in my life had to be perfect, and that has carried forward in my adult life.

    Of course, nothing ever is perfect, so that’s actually a really big issue. I get frustrated because we don’t have a marriage that meets my expectations (another, earlier blog post of yours, Drew). I get frustrated because *I* don’t meet my expectations. And although I’ve tried not to look at things this way, it’s probably true that some part of my head is thinking and acting out frustrations that my wife doesn’t meet my expectations.

    And as your post, especially the small part I quoted, points out, it’s really hard to be happy with life, with marriage, with your partner, if you aren’t happy with yourself.

    But on the other hand, if I look at myself honestly, I am not content to stay at the developmental level I’m at, and I think that’s not just ok, but good. And I do have at least general goals about what kind of person I’d like to be and how that person would be different from today. I think I am pretty much in alignment with the four bullet points above the part I quoted.

    So where does that leave me? I really don’t know. Self-diagnosed with toxic perfectionism, I guess, and definitely NOT happy with how things are, but wanting to explore and learn how to change.

    But also a person who tends to be motivated best by not being content with how things are and who may never really let go of that as a motivator in my life.

    Basically very confused, which is ok, since life is a process – but even as I say that I have to admit that my default view of progress and growth is that it’s something that’s supposed to achieve what I’d call a “point goal” as opposed to being an ongoing process that is good because each day it gets (we hope) a little better. Sorry to ramble…lots of stuff flying around my head and heart right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jack, regarding your backstory of where things with your wife were previously, I definitely remember.

      You’ve been one of my “regular” commenters for a while now – and I both appreciate that and remember the bits of your story that have come out.

      From some of your comments over the past few months I had the sense that you had shifted a bit from a person who had pretty much given up on his marriage to being someone who has some hope/belief that change can happen, and is trying to facilitate that change.

      I think that’s fantastic, as many people get caught in that negative cycle and can never get out of it. So that’s a really important step.

      I’m not sure how much of my older stuff you’ve read, but I think perfectionism is a terrible, terrible thing. To be clear here, I’m a HUGE believer in continuous improvement – but that comes with an acceptance on my end that perfection doesn’t exist, which is ok, because no matter where things are they can always get better.

      If you have the time/interest, there are a few short/inexpensive books I would recommend for you.

      First is “the gifts of imperfection” by Brene Brown. Fantastic book, and it talks about a need to accept ourselves for who we are, no matter where we are, in order to be happy/content in life.

      Another book is “The Paradox of Choice – why less is more” by Barry Shwartz. It’s a similar book in some ways, though this one deals a lot more with commercialism. But I think the basic ideas in it still apply and are very valuable.

      I’m a huge believe in the concept of “enough”. I think we all need to define to ourselves what “enough” is and what it looks like. And if we can’t do that, we will likely struggle with happiness and contentedness in our lives.

      To me enough has nothing to do with settling – it’s just about accepting that life doesn’t have to be “perfect” to be great.

      Thanks again for sticking with me here, and I hope things continue to improve for you.



  6. Pingback: What do you bring IN to your Relationship? | thezombieshuffle

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