Possible Selves: Implications for Psychotherapy
Possible Selves: Implications for Psychotherapy
Waclaw Bak 0
0 Institute of Psychology, The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin , Al. Raclawickie 14, 20-950 Lublin , Poland
The paper is devoted to the therapeutic applications of theories and research concerning self-regulation issues. The key concept here is possible selves, defined as an element of self-knowledge that refers to what a person perceives as potentially possible. The main idea of using knowledge about possible selves in psychotherapy is based on their functions as standards in self-regulatory processes. The problem of the changeability of possible selves and self-standards is analyzed in the context of their role in behavior change. The paper also presents the assumptions of Self-System Therapy - a newly developed cognitive therapy for depression, drawing directly on self-regulation theory and research. Psychotherapists representing various approaches regard the patient's possibilities as an important instrument of effecting a change. These possibilities are usually understood as a kind of positive resource that the patient can draw on when making desirable changes in his or her behavior (Gonzlez et al. 2011; Kita 2011; O'Hanlon 1998; Yapko 1988; Zeig 2013). In the present article I draw on this idea, but I formulate a slightly broader perspective of looking at the client's imaginations of his or her own possibilities (i.e., the possible future states of the self) and at the implications of those imaginations for psychotherapy. I refer to the concept of possible selves as one of the major concepts in the contemporary cognitive theories of selfknowledge and self-regulation. It is understood not only as a kind of positive resource facilitating change but also as a cognitive representation of the ultimate goal of that change. The main idea of the article is that possible selves, being cognitive representations of alternative versions of the self, underlie so-called self-standards, which in turn constitute an important element of self-regulation processes. Research on self-regulation processes may be a source of compelling hypotheses concerning the pathogenesis of disorders as well as a source of ideas for innovative therapeutic interventions based on the achievements of cognitive
Possible selves; Self-standards; Psychotherapy; Self-regulation; Depression
personality psychology. In this context, I will analyze the problem of possible selves and the
role they play in behavior change. I will also refer to one of the new forms of cognitive therapy
for depression, which draws directly on self-regulation theory and research.
The Possible Selves Theory
Self-knowledge comprises not only beliefs concerning the current state of the self (called the
actual self) but also ideas and expectations concerning various potential states. The latter
aspect of self-knowledge has been described in the possible selves theory by Markus and
Nurius (1986). Although the possible selves theory does not explicitly address the problems of
psychotherapy, the results of many studies inspired by it may be a source of interesting ideas
concerning change in the course of psychotherapy.
According to Markus and Nuriuss (1986) classic approach, possible selves are a
Bfutureprojected^ aspects of self-knowledge, which refers to what a person perceives as potentially
possible with regard to himself or herself. Like all self-knowledge, possible selves are largely
based on past experiences, but their essence lies in clear references to the future. They may be
said to be imagined visions of oneself in the future (Erikson 2007; Hoyle and Sherrill 2006).
As such, they are cognitive representations of hopes, fears, and fantasies regarding oneself.
It must be stressed that even though the term Bpossibilities^ appears to have clearly positive
connotations (having associations with positive resources that can be Bused^ beneficially), in
the context of the theory referred to here such one-sided evaluation would oversimplify the
matter. Possible selves are imagined future states of the self, and ideas of the future are not
always positive. Thus, the concept of possible selves covers references not only to states that
are positively evaluated and anticipated with hope but also to those possibilities that one would
like to avoid, perceiving them as potentially threatening. The former are termed hoped-for
selves and the latter feared selves (Markus and Nurius 1986).
It is also worth noting that the plural is used in the concept of possible selves, clearly
indicating that we are not dealing with a single possible self but with a multielement set of
perceived possibilities. A person may generate many alternative versions of the self, either
relating to different life domains or within one domain. These are not representations of some
abstract personality traits or generic categories but comprehensive ideas of oneself in particular
roles and situations.
The Functions of Possible Selves
Markus and Nurius (1986) describe two important functions that possible selves perform in
personality. Firstly, they constitute the context for evaluating the actual self and thus they are
an important element of self-evaluation processes. The subjective evaluation of the current
state of the self must take into account some point of reference a certain potential state that is
a criterion in evaluating the current state. Secondly, possible selves play an important role in
motivational processes. They determine the direction of change and motivate the person to
take action in order to realize the hoped-for visions of the self and to prevent the realization of
the feared ones. Theoretically, any possible self can perform these motivational functions, but
real influence on behavior is the most probable in the case of such possible selves that
constitute cognitive representations of goals that are important for the self, which have been
described in detail and, additionally, include specific behavioral strategies of achieving those
To emphasize those motivational functions, the term self-regulatory possible selves is used
in the literature as distinct from self-enhancing possible selves (Hoyle and Sherrill 2006;
Oyserman et al. 2004). The latter type of possible selves mainly serves to reinforce self-esteem,
optimism, and hope about the future but has no direct influence on behavior. The possible
selves that mainly perform these emotional functions and do not clearly translate into
motivation to change are usually formulated at a higher level of abstraction; they tend to be
imprecise and not very specific. They also do not contain descriptions of action strategies
aimed at achieving the goal. In order to perform regulatory functions effectively, possible
selves should be formulated as specifically as possible and their content should relate to
strategies of achieving the hoped-for state or avoiding the feared state of the self. Another
important factor is the belief that a given possibility is achievable as well as a broader belief in
the controllability of ones own life. Moreover, in order to perform regulatory functions,
possible selves should be integrated with the remaining elements of self-knowledge and should
not come into conflict with significant aspects of identity (Oyserman and James 2009).
The Bfuture-projection^ emphasized above and the regulatory functions of possible selves
suggest potential implications for psychotherapy. If possible selves influence psychological
well-being (involvement in self-evaluation processes) and play an important role in behavior
change (the function of standards in self-regulation processes), then it seems reasonable to
consider their role in the process of psychotherapy. Assuming that the essence of
psychotherapy is change, the key issue for the present reflections will be the changeability vs. stability of
possible selves. Let us, then, consider to what extent and on what conditions possible selves
undergo changes and whether those changes occur in the course of psychotherapy.
The issue of whether possible selves are prone to change is not clear. In longitudinal
research conducted over 5 years in a group aged from 55 to 89 years, relatively high stability of
possible selves was observed (Frazier et al. 2000). On the other hand, Strauss and Goldberg
(1999) demonstrated that a change in the role a person performs may significantly change the
repertoire of possible selves. This research was conducted in a group of men who had entered
the new role of the father with the birth of their first child. Such a change led to new possible
selves being generated. What is more, the change promoted observable behavioral
commitment to looking after the child. This result is consistent with the theory proposed by Markus
and Nurius (1986), stressing the situation-dependence of the content of possible selves. A
change of situation stimulates changes in possible selves, which in turn facilitates adaptation to
the new situation.
It can therefore be said that although possible selves as such are fairly stable elements of
self-knowledge (particularly in people above 50 years of age), a change of the situational
context, as it were, imposes a different perspective of looking at oneself. Such a change in the
repertoire of possible selves happens spontaneously, provided that there has been a sufficiently
significant change of situation. It seems, however, that the modification of possible selves may
also be an effect of more planned and intentional interventions also as an element of
psychotherapy. Encouraging the client to enter new and previously unknown context broadens
his or her repertoire of possible visions of themselves and may promote change. Similar effects
can probably be achieved using imaginative techniques (Lazarus 1984), consisting, for
example, in mental preparation for performing a new role in life. The new context generates
alternative versions of the self, which probably help in adapting to the new situation.
This effect was confirmed in the research conducted by Dunkel et al. (2006), which directly
concerned changes in the repertoire of possible selves in the course of psychotherapy. These
researchers referred to Prochaskas model, which assumes that change in the course of
psychotherapy is a process consisting of the following five stages: precontemplation,
contemplation, decision or preparation, action, and maintenance (Prochaska and Norcross 2003). The
results obtained by Dunkel et al. (2006) suggest that the precontemplation stage involves the
smallest number of possible selves. This is the stage when a person does not have an intention
to change, does not realize the existence of the problem, and avoids subjects related to it. In
order to maintain this defensive state of unawareness, the person must avoid focusing on
themselves which results, among other things, in a limited repertoire of possible selves.
However, in the very next stage the contemplation stage the person begins to be aware of
the existence of the problem and consciously reflects on the possibilities of solving it. This, by
definition, involves a greater exploration of the self, resulting in an increasing number of
diverse possible selves. The study by Dunkel et al. (2006) referred to here showed that the
contemplation stage does indeed correlate positively with the number of possible selves
generated by a person. A similar situation occurs in the decision stage, when the repertoire
of possible selves is the richest. This is because the decision-making process involves
reflection on and imaginative processing of various possibilities, sometimes very different
from one another. However, immediately after the decision has been made the number of
possible selves decreases and in the following stages action and maintenance it is already
smaller (though still higher than in the precontemplation stage). The realization of one of the
planned options always entails abandoning the alternative options. As a result, the possible
selves depicting the abandoned alternatives grow weaker and gradually disappear. In the next
stage, the number of possible selves continues to decrease. At this stage, the person tries to
maintain the change made and experiences that the reality initially perceived only as a
potentiality has become a fact. It can be said that a possible self has materialized and its
content has become part of the actual self. Meanwhile, a new possible self can be generated
that will promote a new change and the persons further development.
Possible Selves as Standards in Self-Regulation Processes
The above reflections suggest potential applications of knowledge about possible selves in
planning therapeutic interventions. In order to pursue this issue further, let us look more
closely at the motivational and regulatory functions of possible selves. As mentioned above,
one of the main functions that possible selves perform in personality is precisely their role in
self-regulation processes. This issue has recently been an object of intensive research, whose
results enable a more detailed description of this phenomenon and the principles governing it.
VanDellen and Hoyle (2008) mention two possible mechanisms by means of which it is
possible to effect behavior change. The first one consists in increasing the cognitive
availability of specific behavioral responses. If a possible self comprises not only a description of the
end-state but also a kind of Brecipe^ for behavior that is supposed to lead to that state, then the
activation of such a possible self increases the cognitive accessibility and attractiveness of
particular responses and behaviors, which promotes change. The person engages in behaviors
that contribute towards a positive change because the accessibility of cognitive representations
of these behaviors is higher. The possible self works as a kind of know-how for a specific goal.
This process takes place independently of comparisons with the actual self, which are the
essence of the second mechanism of behavior change. This other mechanism is based on the
evaluation of the actual self, in which the possible self plays the role of a criterion or, in other
words, a self-standard. The result of the evaluation of the actual self in the context of the
standard sets off the self-regulation process.
Nowadays, many researchers emphasize that one of the central features of possible selves is
precisely their function of standards in the processes of self-regulation and behavior change.
Adopting such a perspective allows to place the concept of possible selves in the broader
context of classic self-regulation theories, according to which a change of the current state of
the self is motivated by the perceived discrepancy between the actual self and a particular
selfstandard (Carver and Scheier 1998; Duval and Wicklund 1972; Higgins 1997; Hoyle and
The general idea of this approach was formulated by Duval and Wicklund (1972)
as Objective Self-Awareness Theory (see also Silvia and Duval 2001). This theory
assumes that focusing on oneself almost automatically triggers off the process of
comparing the current state of the self with a specific standard appropriate to the
situation. If, as a result of this comparison a person can see that he or she is the kind
of person that the standard requires, they experience positive emotions, which
motivate them to remain in the pleasant state of self-awareness. If, by contrast, the
comparison reveals a significant discrepancy between the self and the standard, the
sense of not meeting the standard generates negative emotions. This aversive
emotional state motivates the person to reduce the discrepancy between the actual self and
the standard or to escape from self-awareness when changing the discrepancy is
judged to be too difficult.
Developing this idea, Carver and Scheier (1998) distinguished two types of standards and
two corresponding self-regulatory systems. If a standard describes a certain desirable state of
affairs, the self-regulation process consists in minimizing the perceived discrepancy between
the self and the standard striving to comply with the standard. If a standard has a negative
form and refers to a certain undesirable vision that is to be avoided (Ogilvie 1987),
selfregulation consists in maximizing the discrepancy between the self and the standard. A
different classification was proposed by Higgins (1987), who distinguished between ideal
and ought standards; these may be treated as more specific types of positive standards (Bak
2014). Regardless of specific differences between these theories, their essence lies in
recognizing that the relationship between the actual self and a particular self-standard generates
emotions and motivates to change.
The results of many studies show that discrepancies between the actual self and
selfstandards are linked to psychological disorders. This concerns many different forms of
disorders, but it is especially important in the case of mood disorders and anxiety disorders
(Bentall et al. 2005; Scott and OHara 1993; Strauman 1989). If we assume that one of the
factors behind the appearance of problems with mental health is the discrepancy between the
self and a standard, then the question arises of whether it is possible to modify this discrepancy.
When the discrepancy is too large, its reduction can be effected either by changing the current
self in such a way as to bring it closer to the standard or by modifying the content of the
selfstandard. This idea is referred to in one of the latest proposals of depression therapy, known as
Self-System Therapy (Vieth et al. 2003), which the next section will be devoted to.
Self-System Therapy (SST) is a proposal of therapeutic intervention aimed at people whose
depression problems stem from ineffective self-regulation (Vieth et al. 2003). The theoretical
basis of SST is Higginss (1987) Self-Discrepancy Theory, describing the relations between the
structure of the self and emotions, as well as a somewhat later theory by the same author
Regulatory Focus Theory (Higgins 1997), describing the promotion-focused vs.
preventionfocused self-regulatory styles. The originators of SST assume that one of the major sources of
depression is chronic failures repeated or individual but concerning very important life
domains in achieving desirable states of affairs. In the language of Higginss (1987, 1997)
theory, this means those aspects of self-regulation that are realized using promotion-focused
strategies as opposed to prevention-focused ones, which govern the avoidance of undesirable
Adopting such conceptualization of the sources of depression means assuming that an
improvement in the effectiveness of self-regulation should lead to a reduction in the intensity
of depressive symptoms. The authors do not say that the mechanism of pathogenesis they
postulate operates in every case of depression. What they do emphasize is that the proposed
new form of therapy is aimed at people whose depression stems from a strong
promotionfocused orientation in self-regulation accompanied by a large discrepancy between the actual
self and the ideal self (Vieth et al. 2003). Strauman et al. (2006) compared the effects of SST
with the classic cognitive therapy of depression. It was found that even though the two forms
of therapy did not differ in terms of overall effectiveness, SST was more effective with regard
to those individuals whose depression stemmed from self-regulation problems.
Assuming that what lies at the root of problems with promotion-focused self-regulation
strategies is a large actual-ideal self-discrepancy, it is concluded that change can be effected by
means of the following three mechanisms: (1) modifying the content of self-knowledge by
introducing new elements into it; (2) modifying the cognitive accessibility of particular
elements of self-knowledge increasing the accessibility of adaptive beliefs and reducing
the accessibility of those beliefs that are constituents of the large actual-ideal self-discrepancy;
(3) changing the perceived significance and/or consequences of particular self-beliefs.
Specific SST therapeutic techniques are similar in many respects to the techniques used in
the classic cognitive therapy of depression or in interpersonal therapy. However, they are
aimed at changing the maladaptive patterns of self-discrepancy and at Brebuilding^
promotionfocused self-regulation strategies. An important technique is the analysis of interpersonal
relations, in which, by experiencing the consequences of certain behaviors (or absence of
behaviors), the patient learned what it meant to be a good person or a bad one. However, what
is specific to SST is that interpersonal relations are not analyzed for their own sake but
constitute the basis for the analysis of the patients predominant self-regulatory style.
Another important element of therapy is the analysis of self-beliefs their sources, contents,
and functions, including the role they play in the development and persistence of depression
symptoms (Vieth et al. 2003).
Self-System Therapy is a short-term (about 2025 sessions) structured form of therapy
comprising three phases: orientation, exploration, and change (transformation). The orientation
phase takes up the first 57 sessions; its aim is to gain knowledge about depression and its
therapy, to name ones own depression problems, to begin discovering the relations between
self-regulation problems and depression episodes, and to make attempts at more effective
selfregulation. The second phase exploration takes up the next 812 sessions and is devoted to
exploring two critical aspects of the patients self-regulation: his or her goals and regulatory
style. The transformation phase usually takes up the last 8 sessions, which are focused on
helping the patient develop more effective strategies of achieving goals (desired states of
affairs). This happens through changing the maladaptive aspects of self-knowledge and
selfregulation and through compensating for those maladaptive aspects that are resistant to change
(Vieth et al. 2003).
The Changeability of Self-Standards
The above reflections point to the special significance of self-standards in the etiology
and therapy of depression. In accordance with the idea outlined here, one of the most
important sources of depression is not so much the fact that a person fails to live up
to his or her standards to a sufficient degree as the fact that those standards are
unachievable in the first place. In such a situation, encouraging the person to make
more efforts towards achieving the desirable state would not only be ineffective but
would even intensify the symptoms of depression. It would be more reasonable in this
situation to try to revise and modify the standard itself. At this point, a question
arises of whether and in what conditions this kind of change is possible.
In the classic version of Objective Self-Awareness Theory, self-standards were
treated as relatively stable (Duval and Wicklund 1972). In a situation of a large
perceived discrepancy between the actual self and a self-standard, the person
experiences emotional discomfort, which motivates them to make attempts to reduce the
discrepancy. Theoretically, such a reduction can be achieved in two ways: (1) by
changing behavior in such a way as to change the actual self and make it comply
with the requirements of the standard or (2) by changing the standard towards
adjusting it to the actual self. Initially, it was believed that, of these two theoretically
possible ways, a change of behavior was more probable than a change of the
standard. It was believed that a standard was a representation of a certain external
norm and that, as such, it was less prone to change. However, subsequent research
indicates that a change of standard is possible, although its introduction is less
intuitive and requires meeting certain conditions as well as using a more intentional
In a situation of perceived discrepancy between the self and the standard, the natural
tendency is to focus on the self and ones own inadequate behavior. The standard constitutes
a certain context to use the language of Gestalt psychology, it is the Bbackground^ for the
perception of the clearly distinct Bfigure^ of the self. A persons attention is focused on his or
her own behavior evaluated against the standard. The standard itself, being the background and
the context, is not in the center of attention and is thus not very likely to be spontaneously
subjected to in-depth analysis and reflection. Consequently, a modification of the standard
requires overcoming the habitual tendency to focus on the self, which means intentionally
turning ones attention away from the unsatisfactory present state and focusing on the standard
itself (Duval and Lalwani 1999; Silvia and Duval 2001). This is a prerequisite of setting off the
analysis of the standards contents and subjecting those contents to critical reflection, which
may result in a modification of the standard. In such conditions, the person may, for example,
conclude that the expectations they have of themselves are irrational or even harmful, which
may induce him or her to amend the contents of those expectations.
The above reflections indicate that appealing to the clients beliefs concerning the potential, not
yet realized versions of the self, referred to in cognitive psychology as possible selves, is
potentially useful in the process of psychotherapy. Not to question the approach, where
possibilities are understood as positive resources reinforcing motivation to change, the
approach presented here stresses that one of the most important functions of possible selves is
playing the role of standards in self-regulation. A possible self is a visualization of a goal that a
person strives to achieve or of an anti-goal that he or she wants to avoid. The approach
presented here, drawing on the theories and studies carried out in cognitive personality
psychology, inspired an interesting proposal of a therapy, referred to as Self-System Therapy.
Conflict of Interest Author declares that he has no conflict of interest.
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