From childhood to old age, one thing every person on the planet shares is a desire to grow and actualize their potential—it’s what positive psychologists call a drive toward self-actualization.

Many of us experience this particular form of “growth” mindset when we tune into the voice in our head coaching us to do better and to be better. This voice is called the “Ideal” self. It’s an internal yardstick we constantly measure ourselves against.

For many of us, the ideal self is a coach; our very own nurturing parent, popping up at different times to urge us to “stretch ourselves,” “take a risk” or to “really own an aspiration or dream.”

However, there are also people whose ideal sounds more like a critical parent. If you constantly feel like you’re falling short, expect to be called out at work as being a fake or an impostor, or you constantly tell yourself what you “should” have done—that's your ideal acting like a mental bully, exposing the gap between the person you feel you are and the person you aspire to be.

Mind the Gap

That gap between the person you feel you are and the person you aspire to be deserves your attention.

Why: If your ideal self feels manageable and motivational, you will experience self-acceptance, and acceptance creates feelings of self-worth and emotional wellbeing. It's a bit like a favorite outfit: You feel so good wearing it, you’re ready to take on the world.

If your ideal self feels manageable and motivational, you will experience self-acceptance, and acceptance creates feelings of self-worth and emotional wellbeing.
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Conversely, if the gap between who you are and who you feel you should be becomes too big, your ideal self goes into beat down mode and instead of self-acceptance you experience self-rejection. This often results in anxiety and feelings of low self-worth.

For many, the “gap” between the actual and ideal self is becoming more pronounced as we’re constantly inundated with more images of what our “ideal” self should/could/would look like and act like.

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Contributions to this expanding gap include idealized Instagram and Facebook posts; the job or qualification we feel we should have obtained by now; and, most of all, our tendency to internalize others’ expectations of us as our own.

We are hardwired to self-actualize. Our job is to connect, to learn, and to grow. But in order to do this, we need to heal the gap between our actual self and the idealized version causing us so much harm and distress.

Here are five ways to create a nurturing mindset that will stretch—not break—you, and replace anxiety with energy.

1. Stop. Listen. Learn.

The first and most important step in healing the self-acceptance gap is to stop and really listen to what your ideal is saying to you.

Really listen to what your ideal is saying to you.
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We do so much on automatic, we rarely check whether the “person” controlling our feelings of self-worth is friend or foe.

Really listening to the voice inside your head is the only way to gauge if the expectations you are working towards are realistic, attainable, and yours.

Many times, our ideal has been co-opted by our parents or significant others, and we are constantly falling short of someone else’s idealized version of who we should be.

Finally, by stopping and paying attention you will learn how to reframe your ideal as a coach, not a critic.

2. Manage Your Self-Talk

Next time you don't do as well as you expected or fail to live up to someone else’s expectations, notice how you respond.

If you internalize your feelings of frustration and end up feeling wretched and alone, these are signs that your ideal is in beat down mode.

Similarly, if you berate or criticize yourself and constantly pick over what went wrong, it's time to replace your ideal with a newer, more positive model.

3. Practice Self-Compassion

Studies suggest we are 75% more likely to have compassion for others than we are for ourselves. If you are experiencing chronic self-rejection, imagine talking to yourself as you would a friend.

When was the last time you berated or criticized a friend for falling short or for not “being enough?”

4. Don't Become What You Do

If the gap between your actual and ideal is controlled by your feelings of success at work or school, you are at greater risk of experiencing self-rejection.

Outsourcing your self-worth is fraught with risk. It’s important to love and embrace who you are as a person—not define yourself by a grade or job role or approval of others.

5. Dare to Dream

Self-acceptance isn't about cutting back on your goals and aspirations, it's about having an unshakable belief in the future you want. It’s having conviction in the belief that if you invest the time and effort, you will become that person.

Hold onto your dreams and if you haven't got one, try one on for size.

You’re only limited by what you can imagine for yourself. Just make sure your dream is something you want to go to bed excited about, not an unrealistic goal that gives you nightmares.

Self-acceptance isn't about cutting back on your goals and aspirations, it's about having an unshakable belief in the future you want.
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Self-acceptance is a mindset we must constantly nurture. The American broadcaster and mythologist Joseph Campbell captures both the chance for opportunity and danger we all face when embarking on a new path when he warned that, “Many of us get to the top of the ladder and find it's against the wrong wall.”

If you’re spending a lot of time feeling self-doubt or low self-worth, you’re probably climbing the wrong ladder. It's never too late to make a different choice and enjoy the nurturing embrace of accepting all of who you are and all of who you can become.


Read next: How to Swap Self-Doubt For Self-Trust

You're more than you stress and anxiety. Take back control using Shine's award-winning self-care program.

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