What is Self Concept? It’s Definitions, Nature & Theories


Introduction to Self Concept

The self concept is the way we perceive ourselves and the ideas we hold about our competencies and attributes. In this article, we will discuss all about self, its nature, its theories and most importantly its role in our social life.

It is the accumulation of knowledge about the self, such as beliefs regarding –

  • Personality traits
  • Physical characteristics
  • Abilities
  • Values
  • Goals
  • Roles

In adolescence, the self-concept becomes more abstract and complex. Moreover, it becomes hierarchically organized into cognitive mental representations or self-schemas, which direct the processing of self-relevant information.

Parents, friends, teachers and other significant persons play a vital role in shaping a child’s ideas about self. Our interaction with other people, our experiences, and the meaning we give to them, serve as the basis of our self. The
structure of self is modifiable in the light of our own experiences and the experiences we have of other people.

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Definitions of Self Concept

  • Harter (1996)- ‘The self concept is our total image of us. It is our total picture of our abilities and traits. It is basically cognitive construct which determines how we feel about ourselves and guides our actions’.
  • Purkey (1988) – ‘Self concept is defined as the totality of perceptions each person has of themselves’.
  • According to Symonds (1957) self is the way individual reacts to himself. There are four aspects –
  1. How a person perceives himself?
  2. What he thinks about himself?
  3. How he values himself?
  4. How he enhances or defends himself?
  • American Psychological Association (APA) – self concept is  ‘One’s description and evaluation of oneself, including psychological and physical characteristics, qualities, skills, roles and so forth. Self-concepts contribute to the individual’s sense of identity over time,.

Nature of Self Concept

In order to understand the nature of self concept, we need to be aware that there is a difference between ‘self’ and ‘self concept’ A person’s self-image is based on how they see themselves. On the other hand, self-concept is a more comprehensive evaluation of the self. Moreover, it is largely based on how a person sees themselves, values themselves, thinks about themselves, and feels about themselves.

The development of self concept of a person happens keeping various aspects in mind. Aspects like Motivation, Need, Attitude, Temperament, etc. hence, the self concept is quite subjective.

What fuels this development or change ? The answer is introspection. We often look back and introspect our thoughts, behaviors and actions. This helps in fueling the change that is needed in an individual’s self concept. Consequently, it plays a huge role in molding one’s personality.

The structure of self is subsequently shaped through interaction with the environment, particularly the environment composed of  significant others ( e.g. parents, siblings, relatives). In other words, as the child becomes socially sensitive and as his or her cognitive and perceptual abilities mature. The self concept becomes increasingly differentiated and complex. To a large extent, then the  content of one’s self concept is a social product.

For example, a person is friendly and easy going, thus, experiences positiveness more. This will, in turn, affect his  / her perception of oneself positively. Therefore, that person is very likely to be an optimist.

Aspects of Self

There are four major aspects of self. They are self awareness, self image, self efficacy and self esteem.

1.Self Awareness 

It is the quality or trait that involves conscious awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors and traits. (Cherry, 2018 A). It is the understanding that a person has separate identity from others. According to Piaget, self consciousness starts emerging between 15-24 months.

2.Self Image

Self image is a personal view or mental picture that we have of ourselves. It is an internal dictionary that describes an individual including things such as intelligent, beautiful, ugly, talented, selfish or kind, etc. This aspect is dynamic and changing.

3.Self Efficacy

Self efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to accomplish some specific goal or a task. It depends on one’s trust in his / her own competency. Maddux (2002) defined it as ‘what I believe I can do with my skills under certain conditions’.

4.Self Esteem

Self esteem is respect one has for himself. According to Seligman, self esteem is ‘your overall evaluation of your worth as a person, high or low, based on all positive and negative self perceptions.

Theories of Self Concept

According to Carl Rogers, every individual has tendency to actualize himself. In addition, mentally healthy individuals have congruence between their experience and their self concept. Whereas, neurotic individuals deny awareness of their sensory and emotional experience.

For example, if a mentally healthy student is facing failure in exams, he will find out the reasons and will try to overcome his weakness. But those who deny this experience, may accept escapist attitude. Moreover, he / she may give false excuses, will not accept the failure and blame others for it.

There are two important concepts related to this :

Real self (self image)

Real self is what we actually are. It is very important for good psychological health. A teenager may perceive himself as beautiful or ugly, good or bad person. Self image directly affects how a person feels, thinks and acts in this world.

The real self, which is created and  developed through the actualizing tendency, it is the self that one can become.

It is our inner personality. It may not be perfect but it is our real part (Grice, 2007).

Ideal self

It is what we want to be. For example, a girl may want to be a dancer or a boy may want to be a cricketer. It represents our dynamic ambitions and goals.

By Ideal self, Rogers meant some goals which are beyond our reach. Rogers is suggesting something not real, the standard we can not meet. It is basically equivalent to the superego in Freudian Theory. (Hjelle & Ziegler, 1992)

This may result in the gap between real self and ideal self.

If ideal self and real self are similar, our self concept is accurate. High congruence between real self and ideal self leads to greater sense of self worth and a healthy, productive life. When there is large gap or incongruence between them, it leads to maladjustment.

Signs of Negative Self Concept in Adolescents

Several signs may indicate that an adolescent has a negative self-concept. These may include one or more of the following:

  • Doing poorly in school
  • Having few friends
  • Putting down one self and others
  • Rejecting compliments
  • Teasing others
  • Showing excessive amounts of anger
  • Being excessively jealous
  • Appearing conceited
  • Hesitating to try new things

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  • Baron, R. A. and Byrne, D. (1997). Social Psychology, 8th edition. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
  • egyankosh.ac.in
  • Maharashtra State Bureau of Textbook Production and Curriculum Research, Pune.
  • National Council of Educational Research and Training

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