We all have some concept of who we are. For example, we know our gender, our age, marriage status, career, and so on. These external facts and many more add up to a picture of what we look like from the outside. We also look inward, where we observe abstract features, such as our beliefs about the world and our typical reactions to challenges such as romance, authority, temptation or danger.
Initial construction of self concept
During childhood, we absorbed our self concept from caregivers who taught us what to think about ourselves. As adolescents, we continued to construct ourselves based on the things we learned from teachers, peers, and books. Through trial and error we discovered our preferences, dislikes, and competencies. We gradually built a stable image of ourselves. “This is me. That’s the way I am. That’s the kind of thing I do.”
One way to find a self is in its parts
It’s impossible to completely understand self-concept, but it is valuable to try. One way is to take an inventory of the various parts of self and watch how these parts influence the whole. Here is a list, by no means complete, of some of the dimensions to consider.
Clothing choices, hair styles, courtesies or lack of them, body language, all send signals about who you are. When do you dress up or go casual?
Competency, learning, curiosity
What can are good at? Are you an athlete, a musician, a student, a teacher? Do you like to solve puzzles? What do you wish you knew how to do? Do you allow yourself to learn new things? Or do you shy away from challenges?
Do you spend money on impulse, or do you spend as little as possible, and then only after debate? Are you eager or reluctant to share, donate, earn, to invest?
Play, creativity, adherence to rules
What rules do you follow slavishly and which ones are mere guidelines, meant to be broken? How rebellious were you during your teen years? Do you play, paint, write, dance, or imagine in order to escape the confines of ordinary life?
Romance, family, friends
Your responses to partners, parents, children, or friends emanate from deep within your story. So to understand yourself, consider the way you relate to various people. With whom, and when do you feel demanding or subservient, harmonious or edgy, bubbly or sullen?
Compassion, Tolerance, Acceptance
How do you feel about strangers, about the weak or “different,” or about people you consider “outsiders?” Are you threatened, or open your arms? Must you defend yourself against outsiders, or run towards them to learn more?
Your beliefs affect the way you see your place in the world. Do you believe in a God who nurtures more than punishes, or the other way around? Do you feel connected or alone in the universe? Do you have a responsibility to do the right thing when no one is watching? Is life a transition or the ending of everything?
Creative, dynamic, emotional tension among parts of self-concept
Descriptions of self-concept that at first glance sound simple turn out to be far more complex. For example, “I’m attractive” sounds straightforward, but it varies enormously over years, and even with a simple change in context. In a classroom you may feel attractive but at a modeling audition, you want to crawl under a table.
Even when making a simple decision, conflicting parts of your self-concept pull you in different directions. For example, when deciding whether or not to eat a candy bar, part of you wants to maintain your body shape while another wants to fulfill the desire.
Pressure to grow or resistance to change?
Each component of the story you tell about yourself contains additional subtext that tells you which parts can change and which parts must remain the same. For example, if you feel smart, it could either result in a smug sense that you already know everything or it could motivate you to continuously learn and challenge your own assumptions. If you feel angry, you might wish you could be calmer, or you might admire your anger and feel it is a powerful and important part of yourself.
Problems that arise in Self Concept
Your self-concept is the engine that generates your choices and desires, self-doubts and obsessions. If you experience problems, one place to look for the cause is in the story you tell about your Self.
Poorly formed self concepts
By the time your body has matured, hopefully you have formed a coherent understanding of who you are and who you are expected to become. Not all of us have had the opportunity to achieve the important work of defining ourselves. Some things that might interfere are a chaotic or abusive childhood or parents who were so preoccupied with their own life they couldn’t help you figure out yours.
The Dangers of low self-esteem
People who don’t think they are worth much have “low self-esteem.” They try to be invisible, and don’t want to “make waves.” Or they might tend in the opposite direction, pushing hard against the world in the hope that someone will notice they exist. The gang members in Gregory Boyle’s memoir “Tattoos on the Heart,” show both extremes. When he sits with them alone in a room and says, “What is your name” they look around and say “Who me?” They can’t believe anyone cares enough about them to ask them their name. To compensate for their lack of self-esteem they join a gang and defend the group’s honor by shooting its “enemies.”
This problem is at the heart of some of the worst social ills. People try to sharpen their own self-definition by excluding or hating people in other groups. Politicians routinely take advantage of this tendency. By whipping up anger against outsiders, they make constituents feel powerful and validated.
Narrow, pressured focus
Self concept can go awry when it is focused to narrowly. If your story limits you to only a small subset of your potential, you will naturally not feel fulfilled in other areas. Workaholics are good examples of this problem. They wrap up so much of themselves in one aspect of their lives that everything else withers.
Self story and the character other people see
There is a relationship between the way you see yourself and the way others see you. If your self-image is too far out of synch with the way other people see you, this will cause confusion and misunderstanding. By allowing your pubic persona to match your inner one, you can relate to people on a deeper, more authentic basis. To deepen your story, write your memoir.
Combat, crime, or betrayal can be so disturbing, it shakes your self-concept, and may even shatter it. Restoring balance takes time, and during that period, the earth under your feet feels unstable. Physician Jonathan Shay, an expert in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, calls severe PTSD an injury, rather than a disorder, as serious and debilitating as if it had damaged the working of the brain.
Self-concept that does not keep up with changes
When circumstances change, the self-concept might fall out of synch. For example, a middle aged person who has not embraced the march of time might engage in impulsive behavior in order to cling to adolescence.
Continue to repair and evolve
By the time we are young adults, we have formed a sense of ourselves that seems almost sacred in its finality. We use this initial self-concept to charge out into the world, without the time or wisdom to reflect on whether or not we are aiming for our true heart’s desire. We simply hope we are equipped to do a good job.
We start on life’s first rungs, with new relationships, careers, family, home. Not everything works out the first time, so we switch and try again. Meanwhile we are changing inside. We grow older and the world changes. Over time, the internal guidance system that was formed during childhood is falling out of date. It would help if we could turn inward and modernize our guidance system to suit our present circumstances.
Learning to tune your self-concept will equip you for a satisfying life. Not only does it help you adapt to changing circumstances. You can also go back and improve old patterns you thought you were stuck with forever.
Tools for Change
We need techniques to help us explore, tune up, and improve our original script. Such tools and techniques can help you re-organize your self-concept. But these are not necessarily ideas you have learned through ordinary channels. Most people don’t take self-development courses in college, and they don’t learn introspective techniques in the media. In order to change, we must dig into books and self-help systems and find these techniques ourselves.
Before the twentieth century, most people had one career, one family, one religion, and so on. As the industrial age sped up, people wanted to adapt to the rapidly changing world. The first step was Sigmund Freud’s talk therapy in which the therapist was a physician who fixed the patient. In the 1950’s Carl Rogers shifted the focus from physician to patient with his inspiring idea that people already know how to grow. In this new “client centered” version, talk therapy provided a safe place where clients could reflect upon their own desire for wholeness.
Religions often promote meditation as a means of connecting with inner reality. In the 1960’s, this practice became popular in western culture, for spiritual as well as self-improvement purposes. Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Wherever You Go, There You Are spread the ideas of meditation to hospitals as a means of managing stress and pain. It continues to grow in importance. Because meditation enhances self-acceptance, it might be logical to suppose that the practice weakens self-concept. However, it turns out that people who use the technique increase freshness, resilience and insight.
At the start of the twenty first century, another tool emerged to help people refine their self-concept. Writing a memoir develops a deeper understanding of how the parts fit together. In fact, after writing about yourself, you become an expert in your own development. You can see which parts could be accentuated, and which are slipping into the past. This writing project forms the basis for an important process of evaluation and defining yourself, and provides insights into your choices and your direction.
Self-concept unfolds into the future
Your self-concept is built from what you have experienced in the past. It is also the roadmap that guides you to the future. To improve your prospects for a satisfying future, learn where your roadmap is taking you.
Many thinkers in the last 100 years have offered models for how to achieve satisfaction. Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow proposed the path of self-actualization — that is, the pursuit of your maximum potential along lines you find most challenging. Stephen Covey suggested you write a mission statement about what you are trying to accomplish. Another guideline is offered by Viktor Frankl. He said the most important commitment in life is to find and follow your own higher purpose.
However you choose to do it, you will need to energetically make your way from “here” to “there.” Where is your roadmap taking you? It’s up to you to decide if that is the direction you want to go. Become aware of the influence you can exert over your future, and use this awareness to help you become the person you want to be.