What Is Self-Concept?

What is self concept?

Verywell / Cindy Chung 

Self-concept is the image we have of ourselves. This image develops in a number of ways, including through our interaction with important people in our lives. Learn more about self-concept, including whether it can be changed and a few theories related to self-identity and self-perception.

What Is Self-Concept?

Self-concept is how we perceive our behaviors, abilities, and unique characteristics. For example, beliefs such as "I am a good friend" or "I am a kind person" are part of an overall self-concept.

Our self-perception is important because it affects our motivations, attitudes, and behaviors. It also impacts how we feel about the person we think we are, including whether we are competent or if we have self-worth.

Self-concept tends to be more malleable when we're younger and still going through the process of self-discovery and identity formation. As we age and learn who we are and what's important to us, these self-perceptions become much more detailed and organized.

At its most basic, self-concept is a collection of beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others. It embodies the answer to the question: "Who am I?"

Rogers' Three Parts of Self-Concept

Humanist psychologist Carl Rogers believed that self-concept is made up of three different parts:

  • Ideal self: The ideal self is the person you want to be. This person has the attributes or qualities you are either working toward or want to possess. It's who you envision yourself to be if you were exactly as you wanted.
  • Self-image: Self-image refers to how you see yourself at this moment in time. Attributes like physical characteristics, personality traits, and social roles all impact your self-image.
  • Self-esteem: How much you like, accept, and value yourself all contribute to your self-concept in the form of self-esteem. Self-esteem can be impacted by a number of factors—including how others see you, how you think you compare to others, and your role in society.

Incongruence and Congruence

Self-concept is not always aligned with reality. When it is aligned, your self-concept is said to be congruent. If there is a mismatch between how you see yourself (your self-image) and who you wish you were (your ideal self), your self-concept is incongruent. This incongruence can negatively impact self-esteem.

Rogers believed that incongruence has its earliest roots in childhood. When parents place conditions on their affection for their children (only expressing love if children "earn it" through certain behaviors and living up to the parents' expectations), children begin to distort the memories of experiences that leave them feeling unworthy of their parents' love.

Unconditional love, on the other hand, helps to foster congruence. Children who experience such love—also referred to as family love—feel no need to continually distort their memories in order to believe that other people will love and accept them as they are.

How Self-Concept Develops

Self-concept develops, in part, through our interaction with others. In addition to family members and close friends, other people in our lives can also contribute to our self-identity.

For instance, one study found that the more a teacher believes in a high-performing student's abilities, the higher that student's self-concept. (Interestingly, no such association was found with lower-performing students.)

Self-concept can also be developed through the stories we hear. As an example, one study found that female readers who were "deeply transported" into a story about a leading character with a traditional gender role had a more feminist self-concept than those who weren't as moved by the story.

The media plays a role in self-concept development as well—both mass media and social media. When these media promote certain ideals, we're more likely to make those ideals our own. And the more often these ideals are presented, the more it affects our self-identity and self-perception.

Can Self-Concept Be Changed?

Self-concept is not static, meaning that it can change. Our environment plays a role in this process, with places that hold a lot of meaning to us actively contributing to our future self-concept both through the way we relate these environments to ourselves and how society relates to them.

Self-concept can also change based on the people with whom we interact. This is particularly true with regard to individuals in our lives who are in leadership roles as they can impact the collective self (the self in social groups) and the relational self (the self in relationships).

In some cases, a medical diagnosis can change self-concept by helping people understand why they feel the way they do—such as someone receiving an autism diagnosis later in life, finally providing clarity as to why they felt different.

Other Self-Concept Theories

As with many topics within psychology, a number of other theorists have proposed different ways of thinking about self-concept.

Social Identity

Social psychologist Henri Tajfel developed social identity theory, which states that self-concept is composed of two key parts:

  • Personal identity: the traits and other characteristics that make you unique
  • Social identity: who you are based on your membership in social groups such as sports teams, religions, political parties, or social class

This theory states that our social identity influences our self-concept, thus impacting our emotions and behaviors. If we're playing sports, for instance, and our team loses a game, we might feel sad for the team (emotion) or act out against the winning team (behavior).

Multiple Dimensions

Psychologist Bruce A. Bracken had a slightly different theory and believed that self-concept was multidimensional, consisting of six independent traits:

  • Academic: your success or failure in school
  • Affect: your awareness of emotional states
  • Competence: your ability to meet basic needs
  • Family: how well you work in your family unit
  • Physical: how you feel about your looks, health, physical condition, and overall appearance
  • Social: your ability to interact with others

In 1992, Bracken developed the Multidimensional Self-Concept Scale, a comprehensive assessment that evaluates each of these six elements of self-concept in children and adolescents.

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Frequently Asked Questions

  • When is the development of self-concept finished?

    Self-concept development is never finished. Though one's self-identity is thought to be primarily formed in childhood, your experiences as an adult can also change how you feel about yourself. If your self-esteem increases later in life, for instance, it can improve your self-concept.

  • How does self-concept affect communication?

    Our self-concept can impact the method by which we communicate. If you feel you are a good writer, for instance, you may prefer to communicate in writing versus speaking with others. It can also affect the way we communicate. If your social group communicates a certain way, you would likely choose to communicate that way as well. Studies on teens have connected high self-concept clarity with more open communication with parents.

  • What is the difference between self-concept and self-esteem?

    Self-concept refers to a broad description of ourselves ("I am a good writer") while self-esteem includes any judgments or opinions we have of ourselves ("I feel proud to be a good writer"). Put another way, self-concept answers the question: Who am I? Self-esteem answers the question: How do I feel about who I am?

  • Why is a well-developed self-concept beneficial?

    Our self-concept impacts how we respond to life, so a well-developed self-concept helps us respond in ways that are more positive and beneficial for the self. One of the ways it does this is by enabling us to recognize our worth. At the same time, a well-developed self-concept helps keep us from internalizing negative feedback from others.

  • How does culture influence self-concept?

    Different cultures have different beliefs. They have different ideas of how dependent or independent one should be, different religious beliefs, and differing views of socioeconomic development. All of these cultural norms influence self-concept by providing the structure of what is expected within that society and how one sees themselves in relation to others.

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