We live our lives by ideals, consciously or unconsciously. Ideals, unlike goals, are not something we are trying to arrive at, but something we use to guide our decisions and actions. Honesty is an ideal for example. Getting a raise is a goal. It can guide our actions, but it is an endpoint. Ideals stay mostly the same, unless we decide to change them. Many of our ideals were learned early and remain unexamined and indistinct. One of the benefits of growth is becoming more aware of these guidelines and deciding whether or not we want to keep them or change them.
For example, many times I have worked with people for whom poverty is an unconscious ideal. What happens is that we notice that sometimes people who have money are bad people: They make their financial gains by exploiting other people. This is not always true, but these are the people with money that we read about in the newspaper. Without thinking about it, we conclude that people with money are bad, and by extension, people without money are good. Therefore, in order to be a good person, I have to have no money. Until we become aware that we have made this assumption, it continues to regulate our choices even though we do not know it.
Of course we cannot control all of the factors affecting our financial lives. But we can come to see how an unconscious ideal may be thwarting some of our best efforts. This process of the effects of our ideals applies to many areas of our lives–relationships, family, work, and self-caretaking. For example, if we have the unconscious ideal that taking care of ourselves is selfish, we may not see a physician when we need to.
Our minds, conscious and unconscious, are allies to us. These counterproductive inner ideals are not created for the purpose of causing trouble. They are learned as a means of doing the right thing and being good and constructive people. It is just that, without awareness, sometimes they get distorted or they are no longer relevant, and we need to become more conscious of how they are functioning in our lives and what we might want to choose instead.
Our ideals, when they are freely chosen, lead us to the most enlightened, altruistic, constructive choices in our lives. Even though it takes some time to become aware of them, raising our ideals into consciousness allows us to move toward becoming the persons we want to be. In the words of a ten year old child: “When I do everything the way I want to, I’m my own perfect person.”