The alternative self

203/365 by Brandi Eszlinger

She doesn’t look a bit like Gwyneth Paltrow

A few years ago I went to see Our House the musical based on the songs of Madness. The music was good. The choreography was good too. But what I really liked was the story, which was quite imaginative for a jukebox musical.

It tells the story of Joe Casey, who does something stupid to impress a girl and then faces a choice: stay and risk getting arrested or run away. At this point the the storyline splits in two, following the consequences of these options and the different versions of Joe that emerge as a result.

The idea of exploring alternative versions of ourselves and finding out what we could have become if we had made different choices is very appealing in fiction. Sliding Doors, It’s a Wonderful Life, Melinda and Melinda and many others.

I recently came across a paper which nicely mashes up two of my favourite themes: counterfactual thinking and identity development into the concept of alternative selves. It explores the impact of these alternative selves on our sense of identity.

Much of the thinking about our self-representation or sense of identity focuses on elements of self that have a basis in actual experience.

One of the ways in which we reinforce or challenge our sense of identity involves comparing our current selves with versions of ourself that are no longer  or not yet current.

We can compare our current selves to our past selves — the selves I have been. Am I the same as I used to be? How have I changed? What has stayed constant? Am I better or worse than I used to be? Have I actually grown up? This gives us a sense of progress and/or continuity in our identity.

We can also compare our current selves to our possible future selves — the selves I might be. What could I become? How close am I to the person I would like to be? Could I be better or worse than I am now? Am I turning into my mother? This also gives us a sense of progress and purpose in our identity.

Obodaru (2012) talks about another type of self comparison, one in which we contrast our current selves with possible alternative selves — the selves I could have been. Unlike past and future selves, alternative selves do not have a basis in our actual existence. These are what we could have been if we had made different choices at the turning points in our lives.

Not every turning point will produce persistent alternative selves. An alternative self only becomes part of our self construct if we repeatedly narrate the consequences of the alternative path or if a critical event in our lives draws our attention to what could have been.

Obodaru speculates that the increasing number of choices we face in our lives today make it more likely that alternative selves could become part of our self concept.

Alternative selves that play a major role in our sense of identity could have a profound impact on our choices and our actions. We may strive to become more like the imagined alternative, making the alternative part of our intended selves. Or we may react against it and seek to affirm our current identity. An inaccessible alternative may prevent us from accepting ourselves as we are and produce constant dissatisfaction. This seems to be the case for a client I described in an earlier post (Haunted by the ghosts of compromise).

  • Do you regularly imagine how else you could have turned out if things had been different?
  • What impact does this alternative self have on your sense of identity?
  • Is it inspiring or disabling?
  • What would your alternative selves say to you if they got the chance?
  • What would you say to them?

Further reading

Obodaru, O. (2012). The self not taken: How alternative selves develop and how they influence our professional lives. Academy of Management Review, 37(1), 34-57. DOI: 10.5465/armr.2009.0358

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