What Is a Self-Schema?

Your beliefs about yourself can influence your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors

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The term schema refers to the cognitive structures we have to describe various categories of knowledge about the world. Like with many other things, we also hold schemas about ourselves. In psychology, these are known as self-schemas.

We all have ideas and beliefs about other people but we also hold the same sort of impressions about ourselves. These self-schemata impact our thoughts and behaviors.

What a Self-Schema Is

Self-schema are categories of knowledge that reflect how we expect ourselves to think, feel, and act in particular settings or situations. Each of these beliefs includes our overall perceptions of ourselves ("outgoing," "shy," "talkative"), as well as our knowledge of past experiences in similar situations.

As an example, if you have to give a speech, your self-schema might be that you are shy in situations where you have to speak in public. Because you have an overall belief about your personality, as well as past experiences talking in public situations, you probably have a fairly good idea of how you will feel, think, and act in this situation.

When people are very high or extreme in a certain area, they are described as being self-schematic in that dimension. For example, a person who believes that they are a "people person" and not remotely timid or shy would be said to be self-schematic in that area. If a person does not hold a schema for a particular dimension, they are said to be aschematic.

Self-Schema Definition

The American Psychological Association defines self-schema as a cognitive framework of beliefs and information about the self that guides and influences a person's perceptions and attention.

Self-Schema Examples

Among other things, people can hold self-schemas about behaviors, personality traits, physical characteristics, and interests. Examples of behavioral self-schemas include:

  • I'm assertive
  • I'm quiet
  • I avoid conflict

Examples of self-schemas involving personality traits are:

  • I'm shy
  • I'm friendly
  • I'm compassionate

Physical characteristic self-schemas might include:

  • I'm pretty
  • I'm overweight
  • I'm tall

Self-schemas relating to interests would be:

  • I love sports
  • I like art
  • I enjoy music

How Self-Schemas Work

There are a few key characteristics of self-schemas. Here are three to consider.

Self-Schemas Are Individualized

Each person has very different self-schemas that are influenced heavily by past experiences, relationships, upbringing, society, and culture. Who we are and our self-perceptions are strongly affected by how we are raised, how we interact with others, and the impressions and feedback we receive from societal situations.

As you might have already noticed, most of these self-schemas involve bipolar dimensions: loud versus quiet, mean versus kind, shy versus outgoing, active versus sedentary, and so on. People often think of them as either/or traits, but most actually exist as a continuum, with each person lying somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

Self-Schemas Form Our Self-Concept

All our various self-schemas combine and interact to form our self-concept. Our self-concepts tend to be highly complex, which is not surprising since we learn about and analyze ourselves probably more than anything else.

As we go through life and gain new knowledge and experiences, we are constantly adding to or even reconfiguring our existing self-schemas and self-concepts.

Self-Schema vs. Self-Concept

Self-concept refers to the image we have of ourselves, or who we believe we are. Self-schemas are subsets of our self-concept related to various cognitive aspects.

Self-Schemas About Our Future Selves

In addition to holding self-schemas about our current selves, some experts have suggested that we also have self-schemas about our future selves. These reflect how we think we will turn out in the coming years, which might include both positive and negative ideas about our future selves.

How Self-Schemas Form

Our initial self-schemata begins to form in early childhood based on feedback from parents and caregivers. The more involved or interested our parents are, the more positive our self-schema, while low levels of involvement by parents is associated with a negative self-schema.

Sociologists John DeLamater, Jessica Collett, and Daniel Meyers suggest, "Our self-schema is produced in our social relationships. Throughout life, as we meet new people and enter new groups, our view of self is modified by the feedback we receive from others."

Self-schemas are also shaped by the various roles we play throughout life. Our experiences as friends, siblings, parents, coworkers, and in other roles influence how we think and feel about ourselves and how we act in particular situations.

Fortunately, if you develop a negative or unhealthy self-schema, it can be changed. For instance, research indicates that after engaging in expressive writing, women with a history of childhood sexual abuse were able to change their sexual self-schemas.

How Self-Schemas Influence Behavior

So we know that we have self-schemas about how we think, feel, and act. But how much do these ideas really influence how we behave?

In one study, participants who rated themselves as self-schematic for independence or dependence were faster at classifying words associated with those traits as self-descriptive. For example, people who saw themselves as "independents" were quicker to identify with independence-themed words than aschematics who, in turn, were quicker than dependents.

Researchers have found that if you believe you are self-schematic on a particular dimension, you are more likely to perform well in that area.

How to Determine Your Self-Schemas

One of the easiest ways to get a better idea of your own self-schemas is to answer the question "Who am I?" Imagine that you are providing these answers only to yourself and not to another person.

Write down 15 different things that answer this question as they occur to you without spending a lot of time thinking about how logical or important they are. Once you are done, you should have a fairly good representation of some of your central self-schemas.

A Word From Verywell

Self-schemas are beliefs we hold about ourselves and how we will feel or act in certain situations. Everyone's self-schemas are different and just one portion of our self-concept. They're formed by our experiences and relationships with others.

Self-schemas are important because they influence our behaviors. The more we believe that a self-schema applies to us, the better we will perform on that dimension.

Additionally, if we develop a negative or unhealthy self-schema, it can be changed. So, if you want to change these self-beliefs, making them more positive, it is possible.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."