Self-Concept: Definition, Examples, & Psychology Theories
What is the self-concept? Where does it come from and what are the different pieces of self-concept, according to psychological theories? Find the answers here.
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What Is Self-Concept? (A Definition)
Self-concept is often defined as the image we have of our bodies, capabilities, impressions, etc.... (Bailey, 2003). But let's break the definition of self-concept down a bit more to understand it better. Some have suggested that self-concept involves a variety of different things we know about ourselves. So our self-concept may include knowing our material self, interpersonal self, and intrapersonal self (Epstein, 1973).
At its most basic, self-concept is the answer we give when asked the question "Who am I?" And of course, that answer includes multiple parts.
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Theory of existential and categorical self-concepts
Another important part of the self-concept is the realization that we are individual objects (although the extent to which this is true varies across cultures) and we can direct our own actions (Johnson, 1967). Our self-concept also includes an awareness that we are part of categories—categories based on our age, gender, race, etc... That means that our self-concept is a complex and multifaceted thing.
Is Self-Concept a 'Looking-Glass Self'?
Early psychologists noticed that we often perceive ourselves the same way that others perceive us. This tendency was referred to as the looking glass self (Epstein, 1973). They theorized that the self-concept emerges from social interactions because we humans are concerned with how others see us. Our 'self' then changes depending on which social role we're playing. For example, our self-concept may be different in the context of our romantic relationship than it is when we are at work. And we may have other self-concepts when are with our parents or with our friends.
Does Self-Concept Hold Together The Personality?
Our personality includes personal characteristics, values, and beliefs. There are a lot of parts to synthesize. So some people theorize the self-concept is something like the glue that holds all the pieces together or a map that shows how different parts relate to one another.
As we grow older and experience new things, these individual pieces of our personality change and evolve. So the self-concept has another role to play—it helps integrate new pieces into the whole. The self-concept may also determine which new aspects of personality are acceptable. If new parts don't jive with the old parts, they may not be allowed, thus ensuring that our sense of self remains reliable and in-tact (Epstein, 1973).
Is Self-Concept Stable?
Many theories suggest that the self-concept is quite stable (although our actions may deviate quite a bit from our self-concept). And we prefer it this way (Epstein, 1973). We want to think of ourselves as consistent, and the idea that our self could change radically across time or situations can be stressful and disconcerting.
Indeed, the self-concept may only include things that we are aware of and have control over. That way we feel like we have some stability of self, even if our self is not really that stable.
What Are the Most Important Parts of the Self-Concept?
Each of us has parts of ourselves that we believe are the most important (Epstein, 1973). For example, an athlete might view their athleticism to be of central importance to their self-concept even though they also enjoy cooking and are part of a big family. Some have even suggested that the self is arranged hierarchically, with relatively important parts above less important parts. But each of us decides which parts are important to us.
Is Self-Concept Just a Self-Theory?
We can think of self-concept like it is a theory we have about ourselves. The more nuanced and detailed the theory, the better it is. That means the more awareness we have about our feelings, characteristics, values, needs, beliefs, etc..., the better we'll understand ourselves. This may make us more flexible and open to new experiences (Epstein, 1973). On the other hand, a narrow self-theory may make us rigid, as we are unable to incorporate new ideas, perspectives, and knowledge into our self-concept.
Another thing that makes a good theory is when it is well-integrated and organized. And indeed, it is theorized that a poorly integrated self-concept might result in low stability. For example, if we have two values that contradict each other, we might bounce back and forth between them, leading others to view us as unreliable or unstable. And due to the looking glass self, we might then also view ourselves as unstable.
How we test and learn about our self-theory
Much of our initial self-theory is learned from our parents—they tell us what to believe, how to feel, and how to act. If we go out into the world and have experiences that contradict the self-theory our parents gave us then we may start to change and modify it (Epstein, 1973). For example, if a child is taught to believe in Santa Claus, and then one year Santa doesn't come anymore, the child may modify his beliefs. He no longer views himself as someone who believes in Santa Claus.
As we grow older, contradictory evidence may have less of an impact on our self-concept. Remember, we have a need for self-consistency. So it can be hard to integrate external information, particularly if it disrupts important aspects of the self-concept.
We often see this with politics. For example, it may be difficult for us to accept that an abortion may prevent a baby from being born or that eating a hamburger may result in an animal being cruelly treated because if we accept those beliefs, it can wreak havoc on how we see ourselves as a whole. Maybe we have gotten an abortion or eaten an abused cow. So it can make us question our values and mess with our self-esteem. So it's completely natural not to want to entertain possibilities that go against our self-concept.
Video: More On Self-Concept Theories
How Does Self-Concept Relate to Well-Being?
In addition to the aspects described above, there are other aspects of self-concept that may play a bigger role in well-being. These include:
Let's talk about each of these a bit to understand their unique roles in well-being.
What is Self-Image?
The terms self-image and self-concept are sometimes used interchangeably, but more often, self-image is defined as to how you see yourself. This may be literal, like when looking in the mirror. But it can also involve mental representations of yourself. These may or may not be consistent with what one sees in the mirror.
For example, the TV show 'The Swan' which ran in America in the early 2000s, shared the stories of women who dieted, exercised, and got plastic surgery until they looked beautiful (by society's standards). But changing these women's external appearance did not change their self-image—many of them still had low self-esteem and difficulty merging their new look with their existing self-concepts.
Indeed, our self-image is often quite resistant to change. This may be because we developed it when we were very young and it was likely confirmed through many social interactions throughout our lives.
What is Self-Esteem (or Self-Worth)?
Self-esteem is broadly defined as the extent to which we like or value ourselves. This generally includes evaluating two parts of ourselves (Tafarodi & Swann Jr, 2001).
Ask yourself these questions to get a better understanding of your current level of self-esteem (IPIP):
Usually, we fall somewhere on a continuum between yes and no. Getting a sense of where you fall on this continuum can help you better understand your self-esteem.
What Is the Ideal Self?
The ideal self is defined as the self we would like to be—our best self. It appears to originate from the ideal selves that our parents hold for us and communicate to us through childhood Zentner & Renaud, 2007).
In positive psychology, the ideal self is thought to include three parts (Boyatzis, & Akrivou, 2006).
Our ideal self is a vision of what we could be or do. That's why the ideal self is thought to be a helpful motivator—it inspires us to progress towards goals and improve our lives in beneficial ways. It may also include aspirations, passions, dreams, and purpose—all things that tend to be good for our well-being.
Why the ideal self matters
Here are some questions to ask yourself to better understand your relationship with your ideal self.
Do you know your ideal self?
If we don't know our ideal self, we may not have good direction or a map that helps us move forward. We may not know our desired future or who we want to become.
Is your ideal self important to you?
If we don't think our ideal self is important, we may give up on goals, fail to keep promises, or have difficulty living according to our values. Each of these things may prevent us from living our best life.
Does the image of your desired future fit with your self-concept?
If your desired future doesn't fit with your current beliefs, traits, and feelings, you may end up feeling distressed or experience unintended consequences when pursuing your ideal self (Boyatzis, & Akrivou, 2006).
Once we have a better idea of our self-concept, we use these insights to describe ourselves. So, for example, we might say things like:
Differences Between Self-Concept and How Others See Us
I tend to see myself as a creative, independent, resilient, and positive person, but I didn't see myself as especially supportive. And the most common thing people said about me was I am determined. I agree that this describes me, but I never realized that this was such a big part of how others see me.
Doing reflections on how you see yourself and then asking others to provide feedback can really open the door to learning new things about yourself. So I definitely recommend giving it a try.
Activities for Learning More About Your Self-Concept
In addition to the exercise above, there are other techniques you can use to learn more about your self-concept. To gain more awareness about yourself, consider trying out these activities.
Articles for Learning More About Your Self-Concept
Need some more help learning about who you are? These articles may be helpful.
Our self-concept is an important guiding principle that helps us navigate the world and understand our role in it. Parts of our self-concept may be good or not-so-good for our well-being. That's why learning more about our own self-concept may be beneficial.