Joanne Dickson, Edith Cowan University – Negative Thoughts and the Ideal Self

It can be hard to stop ruminating on negative thoughts.

Joanne Dickson, associate professor of psychology at Edith Cowan University, says this pattern could be keeping you from being your ideal self.

Joanne Dickson (Associate Professor of Psychology) joined the Psychology Department in the School of Arts and Humanities at Edith Cowan University (ECU) in 2016.  She was awarded her PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2003. Since 2003, Joanne has held academic posts at the University of London (Birkbeck College) and the University of Liverpool (Russell Group Research University) before returning to Australia in 2016.

Joanne is the Research Lead for the international Motivation and Affect Regulation in Mental Health research group. Her main research interests are in the areas of motivation, prospective cognition and emotion-regulation processes, in relation to mental health and well-being. Joanne has supervised over 40 masters and doctoral student research projects to successful completion in these areas. She has published widely in esteemed journals has successfully attracted research grants to support her research.

Joanne has extensive professional research experience, including, several editorial roles (e.g., international editorial board consultant, conference scientific committees and as a peer-reviewer for prestigious journals and research councils. She has extensive experience as an external examiner of doctoral research and in research ethics and governance. For two terms, Joanne served as Chair for the Research Section of the British Psychological Society’s (BPS), Group of Trainers in Clinical Psychology.

Negative Thoughts and the Ideal Self


Having aspirations helps us navigate life in a meaningful and fulfilling way, but it can also cause psychological distress when hopes are left unfulfilled.

The research explored whether ‘ideal-self’ and ‘actual-self’ discrepancies were associated with depressive and anxious symptoms.

It also considered whether ‘rumination’, or excessive negative thinking, played a role in these relationships.

One hundred and thirty-eight university students participated in the study. They listed four adjectives describing how they would ideally hope to be and four adjectives describing how they ought to be.

And, then rated how distant they perceived themselves from each of their ideal and ought selves. They also completed measures of rumination, anxiety and depression.

Our research found that it’s not failing to make progress toward our ‘ideal-self’ that is problematic, but rather the tendency to repetitively think about this lack of progress that represents a significant vulnerability that, in turn, leads to increased psychological distress.

Having goal aspirations are beneficial in giving a sense of purpose and direction in life and promoting wellbeing, even if we don’t always reach them, but turning the focus toward negative self-evaluation and self-criticism is counter-productive.

Reflecting on and at times modifying our goal aspirations may be helpful, particularly if we are caught in a spiral of negative self-evaluation that is accompanied by a constant sense of failing to meet overly high standards.