Whats self concept

Self-Concept: Definition, Examples, & Psychology Theories

Self-Concept: Definition, Examples, & Psychology Theories

By Tchiki Davis, MA, PhD

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).

  • Material self. Our body, possessions, and other things in our lives.
  • Interpersonal self. The views others hold about us.
  • Intrapersonal self. Our emotions, desires, needs, values, etc...

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.

​​✓  ​Before we dive deeper into self-concept, we thought you might also be interested in taking our well-being quiz to learn more about your personal well-being.
✓  Or, if you're a well-being entrepreneur or coach, download our Wellness Business Growth eBook to get expert tips, tools, and resources to share with your audience.

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.

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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 mental 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:

  • Self-image. The way you see yourself.
  • Self-esteem (or self-worth). The extent to which you value yourself or believe you have worth.
  • Ideal-self. The vision you have of your best self.

​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).  

  • Intrinsic value. This refers to our belief that we are a good (or not-so-good) person. If we have intrinsic value, then we value ourselves just for being who we are. This is also sometimes thought of as the extent to which we like ourselves.
  • Instrumental value. This refers to our belief that we can do good things. If we have instrumental value, then we value ourselves because of the things we do. This is also sometimes thought of as the extent to which we respect ourselves.

Self-esteem quiz
Ask yourself these questions to get a better understanding of your current level of self-esteem (IPIP):

  • Do you feel comfortable with yourself?
  • Do you know that you will be successful?
  • Do you know your strengths?

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).

  • The image of our desired future. This may include dreams, aspirations, and goals.
  • Hope. This includes self-efficacy and optimism (beliefs that we can indeed achieve our goals).
  • A clear self-concept. This includes an understanding of our core identity and enduring traits. Our ideal self needs to fit with our values, beliefs, and who we are.

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, big 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).

Self-Concept Examples

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:

  • I am a strong woman. This self-concept likely comes from a mixture of personality traits, experiences that one lived through, and a perception of one's self as being capable of handling future difficulties.
  • I am spiritual. This may come from many years of engaging in behaviors that other people consider to be spiritual or from having a set of beliefs about the way the world works. It's probably both.
  • I am good at X (e.g., fixing a  car, being a lawyer, or other things). This might come from years of doing something successfully, and being praised by others for doing so.

Differences Between Self-Concept and How Others See Us

​In a past article, I wrote about my experience asking others to report on my strengths. It was actually really interesting to see how some descriptions of myself were the same as theirs, but others were not. Here, you can see a world cloud of often my friends and family used a particular word to describe me.

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.

  • What are your strengths? In this activity, you'll explore your strengths and how to make use of them.
  • Best Self Activity. In this activity, you'll explore your best possible self (or your ideal self).
  • Positive qualities. In this activity, you'll discover your positive qualities and attributes.

Articles for Learning More About Your Self-Concept

Need some more help learning about who you are? These articles may be helpful.

  • Self-Awareness: How to Be More Self-Aware
  • Introspection: Definition (in Psychology), Examples, and Questions​
  • "Who Am I?" + Other Questions to Know Yourself Better​
  • Be Authentic: 19 Ways To Be Your Authentic Self
  • Knowing Your Worth: How to Boost Self-Worth and Self-Confidence
  • ​Self-Reflection: Definition and How to Self-Reflect
  • Self-Affirmations: Definition, 195 Examples, & Lists
  • ​Self-Assessment: Definition, Explanation, & Tips

Final Thoughts on Self-Concept

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.

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  • ​Bailey 2nd, J. A. (2003). Self-image, self-concept, and self-identity revisited. Journal of the National Medical Association95(5), 383.
  • ​Boyatzis, R. E., & Akrivou, K. (2006). The ideal self as the driver of intentional change. Journal of management development.
  • Epstein, S. (1973). The self-concept revisited: Or a theory of a theory. American psychologist28(5), 404.
  • International Personality Item Pool (IPIP). ipip.ori.org.
  • ​Johnson, E. L. (1967). Existentialism, Self Theory and the Existential Self. The Personnel and Guidance Journal46(1), 53-58.
  • ​Tafarodi, R. W., & Swann Jr, W. B. (2001). Two-dimensional self-esteem: Theory and measurement. Personality and individual Differences31(5), 653-673.
  • ​Zentner, M., & Renaud, O. (2007). Origins of adolescents' ideal self: An intergenerational perspective. Journal of personality and social psychology92(3), 557​

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What Is It and How to Form One

How people perceive you defines you in their eyes, but how you perceive yourself — something known as self-concept — may define your persona and how you develop.

What makes you “you” has a lot to do with how you see yourself. If you consider yourself to be a kind person, for example, that can become a key component of your personal identity.

“I’m kind” is something you believe about yourself. It’s a part of your self-concept.

Self-concept is what you believe defines you as a person. It answers the question: “Who am I?”

In psychology, many theories on self-concept exist, but most of them parallel the notion that self-concept is a critical component of identity development.

Self-concept involves everything about you, from your moral stance and everyday behaviors to your recreational talents and political beliefs.

According to research published in 2020 that discusses the self-concept theory proposed by William D. Brooks and Philip Emmert in 1976, your self-concept may be primarily positive or negative and predisposes you to certain thoughts or behaviors.

Positive self-concept examples

  • believe you can make a difference
  • feel on par with others
  • receive compliments without shame
  • understand everyone has certain feelings or behaviors that may not be fully socially acceptable
  • have a willingness and readiness to work on yourself and resolve unhelpful behaviors

Negative self-concept examples

  • be sensitive to criticism
  • be over-responsive to praise
  • feel disliked by others
  • assume everyone views themselves in the negative
  • tend to be hypocritical
  • offer extreme negative criticism toward others
  • encounter social interaction challenges and barriers
  • be reluctant to interact with others

The world of psychology is vast, and identity development has been a point of interest for decades.

As such, many theories on self-concept exist, some independently of others and some building off earlier works.

One of the most widely accepted frameworks of self-concept was developed by psychologist Carl Rogers, who believed self-concept could be broken down into three primary components.

What are the 3 parts of self-concept?

According to Rogers, the three core parts of self-concept are:

  1. Ideal self: your vision and ambitions of who you want to be
  2. Real self (self-image): how you currently see and perceive yourself
  3. Self-esteem: how much worth and value you believe you have

Rogers believed how your ideal self and real self aligned was important to the development of your self-esteem.

If your ideal self did not match the reality of your real self, he suggested your self-concept was “incongruent,” and your self-esteem was likely to be negatively affected.

Real selves matching ideal selves was labeled as “congruent” and associated with positive self-esteem.

What are the four concepts of the self?

Within the framework for self-concept are coexisting theories, such as that of self-presentation, which suggests your self-concept influences how behavior can be a way to show others who you are.

In self-presentation theory, four concepts of the self exist:

  1. Public self: your view of yourself as defined by other people’s public knowledge of you
  2. Self-concept: who you believe you are
  3. Actual or behavioral self: the self created by your actions and habits
  4. Ideal self: the self you aspire to be

Self-categorization theory

In the 1980s and 1990s, John Turner, a social psychologist, proposed another self-concept principle known as self-categorization.

In his works, Turner felt two different levels of self-categorization existed:

  1. Personal: your sense of self as an individual
  2. Social: your sense of self as defined by the group you feel you belong to

Turner suggested self-concept was a combination of personal and social identities, and that people could define themselves on multiple levels based on their intrapersonal comparisons.

For example, as an individual, you may identify yourself as a strong athlete. However, as a member of a team, you may feel less confident as a performer if the team doesn’t do well.

Social identity concept vs. self-categorization concept

Social identity concept, pioneered by Henri Tajfel, a social psychologist, also investigates personal and social self-concept.

Unlike self-categorization, which involves self-placement in a group to which you feel you belong, social identity theory suggests you find meaning and consider it important to be a part of a specific group.

Self-categorization example: I’m Irish because I was born and live in Ireland.

Social identity example: I’m a member of my political party because I believe in what they stand for.

The looking glass self-concept

In 1902, Charles Cooley, a sociologist, introduced what was known as the looking glass theory, an extension of self-concept that suggested your sense of self was directly influenced by the perception of those around you.

For example, if you notice everyone laughs when you make a comment, you may start to define yourself as “funny.”

Sense of self can be an important part of maintaining your mental well-being.

In fact, older research from 2008 details how an unstable sense of self-identity is a symptom of bipolar disorder and can be for other mental health conditions, too.

Even if you feel as though you have a robust self-concept, there are resources available that can help you explore what self-concept really means to you.

The following resources may help guide you in self-concept development:

  • Discover Your Values
  • How to Know Yourself Better
  • How to Use Positive Affirmations for a Fulfilling Life
  • 30 Inspiring Quotes About Embracing Your True Self
  • Ready, Set, Journal! 64 Journaling Prompts for Self-Discovery

Self-concept of personality

A special form of consciousness is self-consciousness, where the personality acts as a subject and as an object of cognition. Through the process of self-consciousness, a person comes to know himself and relates to himself. Self-consciousness is characterized by its product - the Self-concept.

The concept of self appeared in the 1950s in line with humanistic psychology. Its representatives A. Maslow, K. Rogers, sought to consider the integral human self as a fundamental factor in behavior and personality development. nine0003

The first theoretical developments in this area belong to W. James. He divided the personal I into the interacting I-conscious and I-as-object.

The self-concept is defined as a set of attitudes that are directed at oneself and distinguish three structural components:

  1. The cognitive component is the “image of the Self”. It includes the content of ideas about oneself - role, status, psychological characteristics. Whether they are true or false, they seem convincing to the individual—reliable, sociable, strong, etc.
  2. Evaluative component or emotional value. Includes self-respect, self-criticism, selfishness, self-abasement;
  3. Behavioral component. It characterizes the manifestations of the cognitive and evaluative components in behavior, in speech, in statements about oneself, etc. These include the desire to improve one's social status, the desire to be understood, to hide one's shortcomings.

All components of the self-concept are closely interconnected, although they have a relatively independent logic of development. There is no unified scheme for describing the complex structure of the self-concept in the literature yet. nine0003

R. Burns, for example, presents the self-concept as a hierarchical structure, the top of which is the global self-concept. It concretizes the attitudes of the individual, which have different modalities, towards themselves.

The qualities that people ascribe to their own personality are by no means always objective, and other people are not always ready to agree with them. At first glance, objective indicators, such as height, age, can have different meanings for different people, which is due to the general structure of their self-concept. nine0003

The self-concept plays the following role:

  • Promotes the achievement of internal consistency of the personality;
  • Defines the interpretation of the experience gained;
  • Is a source of expectations about oneself.

It is human nature to strive to achieve maximum internal consistency and for this he is ready to take various actions to restore the lost balance. On the basis of ideas about himself, a person builds not only his behavior, but also interprets his own experience. In this regard, the self-concept acts as an internal filter and determines the nature of a person's perception of any situation. The situation, passing through this filter, is comprehended, receives a value that corresponds to the person's ideas about himself. nine0003

If there is a discrepancy between the self-concept and real behavior, then this gives rise to suffering. Despite the fact that the Self assumes an internal unity, the individual actually has many "images of the Self".

People tend to desire to have a positive "I-image", the denial of one's own Self is always experienced very painfully, because it is associated with such feelings as pride or humiliation.

Knowledge of oneself can be neither exhaustive nor free from evaluative characteristics of other people and contradictions. nine0003

Until now, the scope and content of this concept remain debatable.

H.C. Cooley, L.S. Vygotsky, E. Erickson, I.S. Cohn, R. Burns, W.W. Stolin and many other scientists.

Scientists such as Cooley and Mead at the beginning of the 20th century began to study the self-concept from the standpoint of sociology. This direction began to be called "social interactionism", but long before them, in 1752, A. Smith said that a person's attitude towards himself and his self-esteem depend on other people. You can see your own strengths and weaknesses if you rely on their attitude. Therefore, it is no secret that a person judges himself and his behavior in much the same way that he thinks that he is being judged. nine0003

Having developed the theory of the "mirror self", Mead and Cooley based their position on the thesis that it is society that determines the development and content of the self-concept.

The authors of the individual approach - D. Super, R. Acquier, D. Bugenthal - based their theory on the internal factors of the formation of the Self-concept. Representatives of the psychoanalytic school have proposed a different approach to the study of this phenomenon.

Thus, E. Erickson, relying on the views of Z. Freud, considers the self-concept through the prism of ego-identity, the nature of which is associated with the characteristics of the cultural environment surrounding the individual and his capabilities. The scientist describes eight stages of personality development, which are directly related to changes in ego-identity, indicates crises that arise on the way to solving internal conflicts that are characteristic of different age stages. Erickson pays special attention to adolescence and youth. He speaks of the mechanism of the formation of the self-concept as an unconscious process, in contrast to symbolic interventionism. nine0003

It is impossible not to mention such a researcher of the self-concept as R. Burns. He based his theory on the views of E. Erickson, D. Mead, K. Rogers.

His self-concept is related to the individual's self-esteem. This is a set of installations "on yourself." The author calls the descriptive component of the I-concept the image of the I or the picture of the I, and he calls the component associated with the attitude towards oneself self-esteem or self-acceptance. In his opinion, the self-concept determines not only what an individual is, but also what he thinks about himself, how he looks at his active principle and what are the possibilities for development in the future. nine0003

Exploring the self-concept of I.S. Kon believes that it enters the structure of the personality as an attitude and names two properties of the Self - differentiation and generalization, and also offers four laws according to which the image of the Self is constructed:

  1. Integration or a system of reflected, mirror Self. that the image of the Self is formed on the basis of other people;
  2. Social Comparison System. Comparison of the present with the past and future. Their achievements are compared with claims, comparing themselves with other people. Self-esteem is formed; nine0012
  3. Self-attribution system - attributing certain properties to oneself;
  4. The system of semantic integration of life experiences. With the help of integration, all previous systems are interconnected.

The self-concept in domestic psychology was mainly considered in line with the study of self-consciousness. This problem was dealt with by V.V. Stolin, E.T. Sokolova, S.R. Panteleev et al. Many theories in the study of "I" are divided by the authors into structuralistic ones - they consider the I-concept as a structure that performs certain functions and functional ones - exploring the "I" as part of mental experience and the structure of this experience. nine0003

At the first approach, the “I” will be complex and multidimensional, and at the second approach, it will be unified and holistic.

Thus, there are many approaches to the study of the self-concept in the scientific literature. All of them consider the problem in close connection with the self-consciousness of the individual from different theoretical positions, which sometimes contradict each other.

But the fact that the self-concept is an important unit of personality development and is formed under the influence of a person's life can hardly be disputed. nine0003

Image of I, I-concept - Psychologos

Film "Italian for beginners"

Self-concept - the prevailing idea of ​​a person about himself, as a person and personality.

The American psychologist W. James ("Principles of Psychology", 1890) was the first to propose the idea of ​​the self-concept and made a significant contribution to its development. According to James, the "global I" (personality) contains two aspects: an empirical object (Me), cognized by the subjective evaluating consciousness (I). I as an object consists of four aspects: the spiritual I, the material I, the social I and the bodily I, which form for each person a unique image or set of ideas about oneself as a person. In addition, James proposed a formula for evaluating the personality of oneself. The self-assessment formula is expressed in comparison of the achieved success with the level of claims:

self-esteem = success/claims

Movie "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs"

​​​​​​​Later, the "I-concept" was developed in neo-behaviorism (A. Bandura's social learning theory), in humanistic psychology (C. Rogers's studies) and is currently actively used in a variety of approaches in both psychology and pedagogy .

What does the Self-concept consist of? And the "I-concept" is an internal picture of oneself, what the individual knows about himself, how he sees, feels and represents himself. It's

  • I-image - a person's idea of ​​himself: about his mind, body, abilities, character traits
  • Subjective attitude of a person towards himself: acceptance or not, this or that self-esteem, high or not very self-esteem
  • Actions and reactions that a person considers "inherent to him", "worthy of himself", expressing his Self

A positive self-concept is a positive attitude towards oneself, self-esteem and self-acceptance, a sense of one's own value. Negative self-concept - a negative attitude towards oneself, rejection of oneself, a feeling of inferiority. nine0003

The stability and change of the self-concept

The self-concept is usually a very stable construct. A person's ideas about himself, as a rule, seem convincing to him, regardless of whether they are based on objective knowledge or subjective opinion, whether they are true or false.

This is more like a school essay, which is often born by chance, out of nowhere, and at the same time composed for a specific task.

Despite stability, the “I-concept” can and does change. Its change is usually influenced by:

  • contacts with “significant others”.

How “significant others” behave usually turns out to be a model or at least a guide. The way of life of parents is absorbed by the child.

What significant people think of us, as a rule, strongly influences our ideas about ourselves and the attitude towards ourselves.