Your Three Selves and How Not to Fall Into Despair

It is easy to get lost in the struggle, especially when people are experiencing depression. With this article we hope to encourage readers not only as individuals but also in their relationships and with their communities.


I’m not sure who I’m meant to be.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to do with my life.

Individuals ask themselves these existential concerns throughout their lives. And, although they take up a lot of mental space in your 20s as you take your first steps into adulthood, they continue to haunt you in your 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s, but the tone of your reflection varies with time. As you become older, you start to wonder less about what you should do with your life and more about whether you’ve lived it correctly.

There’s a philosopher who spent a lot of time thinking about the existential dread that many men have experienced when standing in line at the grocery store or lying in bed at night; in fact, he’s the thinker who is credited with fleshing out the whole concept of existential angst.

It’s none other than Soren Kierkegaard who I’m referring to.

Kierkegaard was a philosopher who had some profound insights into the human condition, especially in terms of what it means to be a “self.” In his book The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard explores what it is to have a self, the many feelings and attitudes we might have toward it, and why we frequently feel concerned about what we’re meant to do with our life or who we’re supposed to become.

Kierkegaard isn’t the easiest writer to understand. I’ve read some of his work and wanted to hurl the book across the room because I don’t understand what he’s trying to say. However, if you understand what he’s saying about the self and our relationship to it, it radically alters the way you think about your own existence.

Gordon Marino, a philosophy professor, was the contemporary thinker that helped me fully comprehend and appreciate Kierkegaard’s concept of the self. Marino presents a simple, understandable explanation of what Kierkegaard was attempting to communicate in The Sickness Unto Death in his book The Existentialist’s Survival Guide.

I’ve included Marino’s summary of Kierkeegaard’s idea of the self below. It’s given me something to think about. Perhaps it will have the same effect on you.

The Three Selves of Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, according to Marino, would remark that our identity is made up of three selves: our concrete self, ideal self, and real self:

The Self Made of Concrete. We are now our physical selves. Perhaps you’re a guy from Ohio who runs a restaurant, has a wife and two children, enjoys cycling, and has a giving heart but suffers with anger.

The Perfect Self. The ideal self is the version of yourself that you want to be. You want to be a multimillionaire. You’d want to lose 20 pounds. You’ve always wanted to be an Ironman. You want to be more relaxed. You want to be a guy who knows what he’s doing. All of them are different manifestations of your ideal self.

The Real You. The genuine self is the self that God desires for you to be, or, as Kierkegaard put it, the self that is “laid openly in God.”


While Kierkegaard’s Christian beliefs informed his vision of the genuine self, Marino contends that it may also apply to non-believers. He claims that you might consider your genuine self to be your moral ideal. Or, to put it another way, your actual self is your “best self,” as Catholic priest Fr. James Martin puts it.

The egocentricity of the ideal self is transcended by your genuine self. It’s not about what you want; it’s about embracing what the transcendent desires for you. It’s a shift from questioning, “What does the world want from me?” to “What does my soul want from me?” This may be a frightening change. In his book Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard explores how being your genuine self frequently requires a leap of faith. But that’s a conversation for another day.

What Exactly Is Despair?

Our apparently unique self, according to our philosophical buddy Soren, is really made up of three selves.

He then goes on to define the situation of a person who is unable to achieve their ideal or genuine self.

He refers to it as despondency. And, since Kierkegaard is Kierkegaard, his understanding of despair is complex and subtle.

Despair is a common feeling that we associate with. As if you’re depressed and all you want to do is stay in bed with your shades drawn and listen to Snow Patrol. And despair, according to Kierkegaard, may certainly provoke such feelings.

Marino, on the other hand, prefers to conceive of despair as a condition of the self. It’s conceivable to be miserable and in despair, as we’ll see in a moment, or to be very joyful and in despair. The key takeaway here is to distinguish between sentiments and hopelessness.

So, according to Kierkegaard, there are several forms of despair one might be in. These aren’t all of the many varieties of despair, but they do include the most common ones.

The Anxiety of Not Developing Into Your Ideal Self

Let’s start with the disappointment of not being able to achieve your ideal self. Perhaps your ideal self aspires to be a surgeon. You’ve worked hard for years to achieve your objective, but your dream gets cut short for whatever reason. Perhaps you have no choice but to drop out of school due to circumstances beyond your control.

The concrete self who aspired to be the ideal self, according to Kierkegaard, would be in despair. More exactly, the thwarted physician would feel despondent at the fact that he must be himself in order to become a surgeon. He doesn’t want to be the self who isn’t a surgeon, and he despises himself for not being one. He’s in a bad mood.

I know how depressing it may be to fall short of your ideal self. I’ve made it a priority of mine to be more resilient in the face of setbacks throughout my adult life. It’s not that I’m incapable of bouncing back. Yes, I do. I just dislike how lengthy the process often takes, as well as my immediate reaction to adversity. At start, I’m a doomsayer. I sulk. I hold pity parties for those who are down on their luck. I eventually react to the setback in a constructive and successful manner, although I could do without all of the early emotional turmoil.


As a result, I’ve set objectives to quit behaving this way in the face of defeats and to act more resolutely. My ideal self is the man who is confronted with hardship and just lets it slide off his back.

However, I never achieve my ideal self. Then there’s the fact that I’m not my ideal self, which makes me dislike myself. “Why do I have to be this way?” says the narrator. I’m sorry. I’m in a state of despair.

The Anxiety of Not Knowing Who You Really Are

Let us now turn our attention to our actual selves’ anguish. According to Kierkegaard, there are several sorts of despair that might be felt in relation to this self. We’ll go through two of them here.

The first sort of genuine self sorrow is not even being aware that your true self exists.

This form of sorrow affects a large number of individuals. They don’t believe that life is about anything other than their own selfish goals. They aren’t aware that they have a self that God or the transcendent would want them to have. They aren’t thinking about life’s major concerns; they are simply concerned with the here and now.

People who attain their ideal selves, according to Kierkegaard, are particularly vulnerable to this form of sadness. Consider a man who has a stable existence. You did a fantastic job. This is a nice family. A simple yet lovely house. He’s free to pursue his interests and take holidays. It’s a wonderful life. He’s content. He’s living the life of his dreams.

But it never occurs to him that maybe God, the cosmos, or whatever it is wants him to be greater. Despite the fact that he appears to be happy, Kierkegaard would describe him as being in despair (remember, despair is a state, not an emotion), and this kind of despair, the despair of not knowing there is a true, transcendent self you’re supposed to become, is a graver kind of despair than the despair of not realizing your ideal self because the moral and existential stakes are much higher. For Pete’s sake, you’re not being the person God wants you to be! You’re not living up to your potential or duties.

The Anxiety of Knowing Your True Self But Doing Nothing to Acknowledge It

But suppose the aforementioned gentleman gets an understanding that life is about more than a great home, a solid career, and peaceful holidays. He recognizes that there is a transcendent self to which he must aspire. He’s on the verge of realizing his actual potential… but then he simply sits on it.

Yes, he sensed a rising to something more, but he quickly returned to existential slumber. This may occur in a variety of ways. Most of the time, we are preoccupied with earthly worries. Maybe our guy receives a text message from a coworker in the middle of his existential bliss, or the kids are shouting at each other in the other room, interrupting his existential ecstasy. Perhaps he’s itching to look through Instagram. Some family dancing to “Fancy Like” on your social media feed drowns out the inner voice of the sublime.



The fear of discovering one’s actual self is another factor that prevents individuals from doing so. Often, being your actual self involves abandoning personal goals and wants. Perhaps a guy feels compelled to quit his well-paid corporate position and pursue a career as a high school teacher. That is the genuine calling of his inner nature. But, in order to heed the call, you’ll have to give up your comfort, money, and position. He flinches and hangs up on his actual self because it’s too much for him. “Perhaps in a few years, genuine self,” she says. He mumbles, “When I’m a little more financially stable and the kids are out of the home.”

This individual is in a state of despair.

Don’t deceive yourself: conflating your ideal self with your true self is a recipe for disaster.

One thing to keep in mind while determining your genuine self is not to mix up your true self with your ideal self.

Many popular self-help books use vocabulary from existential thinkers such as Kierkegaard. So you hear self-help gurus speak about “finding your real self” and other such phrases. But, in most cases, this encouragement to become your actual self looks a lot like encouragement to become your ideal self: a person that is 20 pounds lighter, has a better career, or has more money. Those are the perfect versions of themselves. Ambitions fueled by ego. They aren’t bad people, but they aren’t Kierkegaardian real and transcendent selves. These gurus selling ideal selves as actual selves, I believe Kierkegaard would argue, are in despair and peddling despair.

Check out our podcast with Mark Edmundson on his book Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals for more on this dynamic.

So, how do you figure out who you really are?

So we’re meant to become our actual selves. How do we know how that self appears? For Christian Kierkegaard, this meant being the person God intends you to be – a child of God, a knight of faith.

How can you discover the self that God wants you to be? Reading the Bible, praying, and reflecting are all good things to do. The most crucial thing is to take action (see below).

So, what about the skeptic? I’m guessing it’s the same procedure. Instead of reading the Bible, you examine the finest of human thinking in order to determine what a prospective moral ideal may look like. You seek for instances of people who have responded to a higher call. You consider how your best self might seem and conduct.

What Steps Do You Take to Become Your True Self?

Take action to discover your actual self when you sense a stirring to do so. Don’t wait any longer. Procrastination was an existential threat to Kierkegaard. If you don’t open the door when your actual self knocks, you’ll be tempted to get caught up in your concrete self’s distracting day-to-day chores and the greater-meaning-submerging desires of your ideal self. Your inner self eventually stops calling because it knows you won’t reply. Then you turn into a Nietzschean Last Man potato head whose main goal in life is to feel comfortable and happy. “Here sleeps a potato head,” your gravestone will say when you die. He picked Netflix when the otherworldly came calling. At the very least, he seemed content.”


So, the next time you feel compelled to do good, to strive for greater heights, do it now, damnit! If you don’t, you’ll go into a deep, deep existential sleep.

Listen to our podcast with Gordon Marino for additional thoughts on having a meaningful life from Kierkegaard and other existential philosophers:




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