What is Self-Concept?

Sometimes an answer to this question may rely on descriptions of our personalities: I’m kind, I’m self-motivated, I’m sociable, I’m smart. Other times, role and relationships descriptions may seem most relevant to our sense of who we are: I’m a teacher, I’m a mother, I’m the coach, I’m single. Still other times, the question of ‘Who am I?’ may be answered with reference to personal achievements (or lack thereof) or future ambitions, while other times, identification as a member of particular social categories may be of first importance: nationality when living or traveling abroad, or political affiliation during an election campaign.

Self-Concept is more often used to refer to people’s beliefsOpens in new window about themselves, about their own ideas of who they are, and their personal characteristics, abilities, experiences, emotionsOpens in new window and agendas.

Self-Concept is an all encompassing theoretical construct of one’s self, comprising the cognitive and affective components of one's self image. Psychological theorists distinguish between self image and self esteem.

Self image refers to the cognitive component of self concept, which include the characteristics and qualities a person attributes to own self (e.g. “I am determined and self-motivated”), while self-esteem refers to the affective component of self-concept, the sentiments or opinions a person maintains toward own self as an object of evaluation (e.g. “I feel good about being determined and self-motivated”).

The way in which people perceive themselves creates the mental image or self-concept they have of themselves. That image often differs from the concept others have of them. Self-concept can be described as everything that people think and feel about themselves. Your self-concept is thus a collection of perceptions of who and what you are. It includes your appearance, physical and mental capabilities, attitudes and beliefs, strengths and weaknesses (cf. Verderber 1990).

Indeed, self-concept may be defined as the way in which a person perceives himself or herself. It is influenced by all the knowledge that we have about ourselves. Such knowledge may comprise memories of specific events and experiences, traits, attributes, habits, preferences, beliefs, values, plans, hopes and fears, as well as our knowledge of our social roles and relationships.

People are not born with a self-concept; rather, it is shaped by our relationships with others. Think about the effects the messages of others have on you, especially those you respect. You will probably agree that positive messages make you feel accepted, worthwhile, valued, lovable and significant, whereas negative messages tend to make you feel small, worthless, left out, unloved or insignificant.

Thus, everything that we know about ourselves is our self—our self-concept. It can be divided into three primary categories:

A person’s self-concept can be positive or negative depending on the specific settings. For example, someone possessing a positive self-concept often feels that he or she will succeed with a given assignment because he or she has the ability to succeed. The reverse is the case for someone thinking he or she will fail; that is, a person will fail because he or she lacks the innate ability to be successful.

In general, the more positive you feel about factors such as your physical appearance, capabilities, and the impression others have of you, the more positive your self-concept and your communication about yourself. The more negative you feel about yourself and the impression others have of you, the more negative your self-concept and the way you communicate about yourself.

Sigmund FreudOpens in new window, the founder of psychoanalysis, stated that when someone is subjugated by an overactive superego (the conscience), the ego (the rational part of our personality) strives for an equilibrium involving the continual battles between the id (the part of our personality that seeks pleasure) and the superego. In other words, a person wants to be able to do things he or she knows is morally wrong, but at the same time, his or her conscience cautions that he or she should refrain from any illicit behavior because it is immoral. The superego is dominant, so it forces the person to obey, and if the individual gives in to temptation, he or she feels guilty, which in turns leads to a negative self-concept.

Development of Self-Concept

One’s self-concept never stops developing; rather, it begins in infancy and lasts for the rest of an individual’s life. When a parent or significant other begins to take an interest in the child’s development, the child is influenced by the attention and love exhibited, which influences his or her developing self-concept. Quite possibly the most important period in a child’s life is the first 2 years. If the child has received a strong psychological foundation, he or she will likely possess a healthy self-concept.

The manner in which a parent relates to his or her child on a daily basis is vital for the child’s future development. An infant learns to trust others because loving caregivers are there to meet the child’s needs. As the child ages, the parents must make sure that the child is allowed to complete more and more tasks on his or her own. As the child grows, so should his or her beliefs regarding his or her ability. The child should come to see that s/he is capable of doing new things, and this attitude will develop over time.

Erik EriksonOpens in new window, the famed Harvard psychologist, believed that each person must successfully conclude the conflict that is inherent in each stage. How each individual deals with the conflicts can influence greatly his or her self-concept. When we deal with crisis and conflict in a positive manner, our resulting self-concept is often positive, but the reverse is also true; if we deal with conflict negatively, our self-concept is apt to be the same.

The Eight Stages of Developing Self-concept

According to Erikson, individuals experience eight stages through their lives. Each of these eight stages (outlined below) is characterized by a set of unique crises.

  1. The infancy stage (0 to 12 – 18 months), is characterized by the crisis of whether we learn to trust others.
  2. The toddler stage (18 months to 3 years), is concerned with the crisis of whether the child feels he or she is able to investigate his or her surroundings.
  3. The preschool stage (3 to 6 years) focuses on the crisis of whether the child feels independent enough to do new things and, likewise, whether he or she feels guilt at trying new things.
  4. The adolescence stage (6 to 12 years) is concerned with the child becoming aware that he or she is different from others. More specifically, the child thinks he or she is capable of doing things on his or her own; the reverse is that the child thinks he or she lacks the wherewithal to attempt new things.
  5. The teenage state (12 to 20 years), following the adolescence stage, is characterized by the individual seeking to “know” who he or she is. A successful conclusion leads to greater self-understanding, whereas failing leads to a search for identity. In this stage, problems with alcohol and drugs first appear.
  6. The young adulthood stage (20 to 35 years) — During this stage, an individual feels that he or she is worthy of affection, begins romantic encounters that usually lead to marriage and parenthood. On the other hand, if a person feels that he or she is unlovable, emotional isolation from others is the norm.
  7. The middle adult stage — During the middle adulthood stage (35 to 65 years), the individual will likely lead a life that is full of activity that he or she finds rewarding, if the individual has a positive self-concept.
  8. The senior stage — From 65 years on, individuals experience the senior stage or the final stage of a person’s life. If the individual has a positive self-concept, it is likely that he or she will feel integrity; if a person possesses a negative self-concept, the individual probably sees his or her life as a waste of potential.

One critical component affecting an individual’s self-concept development is called referencing, which includes temporal and social referencing.

Temporal referencing occurs when individuals make a self-comparison from an earlier moment in their lives to a later time, and usually takes place in childhood and old age when relatively rapid changes occur because of physical and cognitive transformations.

Social referencing occurs when individuals compare their own lives with those of others and tends to occur during adulthood when any change is less noticeable.

Self-concept can be organized and arranged in an abstract way relative to personality traits, which allows individuals to judge themselves on any number of traits, such as laziness, intelligence, attractiveness, toughness, and so forth. Each person finds certain unique personality traits especially important for conceptualizing himself or herself. For example, one person might define himself as attractive and another person might emphasize her intelligence and ability to achieve tasks. This phenomenon is called self-schemas, which are the traits people use to define themselves.