What Is Self-Concept?

The Psychological Exploration of "Who Am I?"

What is self concept?

Verywell / Cindy Chung 

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Self-concept is the image that we have of ourselves. How exactly does this self-image form and change over time? This image develops in a number of ways but is particularly influenced by our interactions with important people in our lives.

Defining Self-Concept

Self-concept is generally thought of as our individual perceptions of our behavior, abilities, and unique characteristics—a mental picture of who you are as a person. For example, beliefs such as "I am a good friend" or "I am a kind person" are part of an overall self-concept.

Self-concept tends to be more malleable when people are younger and still going through the process of self-discovery and identity formation. As people age, self-perceptions become much more detailed and organized as people form a better idea of who they are and what is important to them.

According to the book Essential Social Psychology by Richard Crisp and Rhiannon Turner:

  • The individual self consists of attributes and personality traits that differentiate us from other individuals. Examples include introversion or extroversion.
  • The relational self is defined by our relationships with significant others. Examples include siblings, friends, and spouses.
  • The collective self reflects our membership in social groups. Examples include British, Republican, African-American, or gay.

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?"


Like many topics within psychology, a number of theorists have proposed different ways of thinking about self-concept. According to a theory known as social identity theory, self-concept is composed of two key parts: personal identity and social identity.

Personal identity includes the traits and other characteristics that make each person unique. Social identity refers to how we identify with a collective, such as a community, religion, or political movement.

Psychologist Dr. Bruce A. Bracken suggested in 1992 that there are six specific domains related to self-concept:

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

Humanist psychologist, Carl Rogers believed that there were three different parts of self-concept:

  • Self-image, or how you see yourself. Each individual's self-image is a mixture of different attributes including our physical characteristics, personality traits, and social roles. Self-image doesn't necessarily coincide with reality. Some people might have an inflated self-image of themselves, while others may perceive or exaggerate the flaws and weaknesses that others don't see.
  • Self-esteem, or how much you value yourself. A number of factors can impact self-esteem, including how we compare ourselves to others and how others respond to us. When people respond positively to our behavior, we are more likely to develop positive self-esteem. When we compare ourselves to others and find ourselves lacking, it can have a negative impact on our self-esteem.
  • Ideal self, or how you wish you could be. In many cases, the way we see ourselves and how we would like to see ourselves do not quite match up.

Congruence and Incongruence

As mentioned earlier, our self-concepts are not always perfectly aligned with reality. Some students might believe that they are great at academics, but their school transcripts might tell a different story.

According to Carl Rogers, the degree to which a person's self-concept matches up to reality is known as congruence and incongruence.

While we all tend to distort reality to a certain degree, congruence occurs when self-concept is fairly well aligned with reality. Incongruence happens when reality does not match up to our self-concept.

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 feel no need to continually distort their memories in order to believe that other people will love and accept them as they are.

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Article Sources
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  1. Bailey, J. Self-image, self-concept, and self-identity revisited. J Natl Med Assoc. 200;95(5):383-86.

  2. Crisp RJ and Turner RN. (2010) Essential Social Psychology. London: Sage Publications.

  3. Bracken BA. Handbook of Self-Concept: Developmental, Social, and Clinical Considerations. New York: John Wiley & Sons; 1996.

  4. Rogers CA. (1959) Theory of Therapy, Personality and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in the Client-centered Framework. In: S Koch, ed. Psychology: A Study of a Science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the Person and the Social Context. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Additional Reading
  • Weiten W, Dunn DS, and Hammer EY. (2014) Psychology Applied to Modern Life: Adjustments in the 21st Century. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.