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A new study examining the Self-Discrepancy Theory, which predicts emotional outcomes based on the differences between self-concept and the actual self, may provide another reason why some people suffer from depression.

Self-Discrepancy Theory  was developed in 1987 by Edward Tory Higgins, a psychology professor at Columbia University. The theory states that people have the following three concepts of themselves:

  • Ideal self: This is the person who you would like to become, including reaching your highest goals.
  • Ought self: This is the person who you should be, or ought to become, including all duties and obligations.
  • Actual self: This is who you currently are.

The theory predicted that discrepancies between the actual self and the ideal self would lead to depression; while discrepancies between the actual self and the ought self would lead to anxiety. For example, if your ideal self is someone who eats healthy and has a slim physique, but in actuality you avoid eating salads and are overweight, the discrepancy can lead to psychological discomfort. You can either change your circumstances, by going to the gym, for example, alter your concepts of your ideal self or learn how to manage any psychological problems that might crop up.

Ann G. Phillips and Paul J. Silvia sought to give the Self-Discrepancy Theory a test, due to conflicting findings in past research, by using a larger sample size than previous studies and by using advanced measurements, designs and statistical analysis. They relied on 245 undergraduate students at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for their study. The students, who were about 70 percent female, filled out three different measurements of self-discrepancies, a questionnaire on mood and anxiety and a self-reporting tool measuring depression and anxiety.

Their results supported some of Self-Discrepancy Theory’s predictions, particularly that differences between the ideal self predicted depression and discrepancies with the ought self predicted anxiety. The study’s key finding was that discrepancies between the actual self and the ought self also predicted depression.

If you’re suffering from depression, one of the underlying issues may be a conflict between your current life and internal ideas about how you should be or would like to be living. Speak to your doctor if you think you’re suffering from depression. There is a growing number of ways to treat depression and lots of support groups out there to help you heal.