Preferred and Actualized Selves


In post-structural, feminist theory, the humanist, Enlightenment idea of a unified, fixed, and coherent self is disputed. An alternate notion is put forward, that of “subjectivity” namely, the “conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself and her ways of understanding her relation to her world” (Weedon, 1997, p.32), which lead to differing subject positions or “ways of being an individual” (Weedon, p.3). These ways of being in the world are constantly shifting each time an individual speaks or thinks, leading to an infinite range of possible contradictory subject positions. “Subject positions” recognizes the lack of coherence in the self. From this array of subject positions, at any moment in time, an individual takes up or actualizes a particular subject position from an unlimited collection of possibilities that are specific to the occasion and context. The use of self is really a limitless operationalization of subject positions.

Some subject positions are a better psychological “fit” for the worker and are preferred because they reflect an internalized ideal of the self. When a worker is able to actualize a favoured subject position there will be little, if any, sense of conflict. But whether a particular favoured position is actualized is influenced by myriad micro and macro factors, which may not be entirely within a worker’s control. When workers are unable to enact subject positions that are preferred, negative emotional reactions may occur.


In a practitioner’s rural agency, intervention must be limited to short-term work of eight sessions. A worker has seen a service user for the allotted eight weeks. There are no other available resources for that client in this community. Forming a trusting relationship has taken most of the available time and there is still much to be accomplished with the client. The social service experiences the moral distress of wanting to continue to work with the service user and believes it is the most ethical response, but she feels constrained. She is a new graduate, a new employee to this agency, and finds her supervisor intimidating. Her preferred self is to advocate for the continuation of service. But in this instance her actualized self is not to buck the system and she terminates the work with the service user.


The terms “preferred” and “actualized” selves are analytical devices, which can be used to explain the emotional reactions that accompany the take-up of certain subject positions. They also provide a means to explore what might arise as an ethical dilemma because an individual enacts one subject position from a multiplicity of potential divergent subject positions. Despite the unavoidability of ethical trespass, the analytical tools of “preferred” and “actualized” selves offer a means to explore those occasions when a worker may be experiencing some sense of moral distress. In the case example just described, the new social worker could say to herself, I did not actualize my preferred self. What, if anything, can I do about this? Again, the value of the concept is to frame and name an emotional and cognitive experience for the worker. When Dr. Weinberg has shared this idea in workshops, practitioners have expressed relief and a sense of comfort to be able to talk about these dilemmas with these notions as a “handle.”

Other analytical tools: Ethical TrespassMoral DistressDiscursive Fields.