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What Is Self-Concept and Why Does It Matter?

Learn about your self-concept and how it affects well-being.

Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

Our self-concept is the image we have of our bodies, capabilities, impressions, etc. (Bailey, 2003). It includes:

  • The material self. Our body, possessions, and other things in our lives.
  • The interpersonal self. The views others hold about us.
  • The intrapersonal self. Our emotions, desires, needs, values, etc. (Epstein, 1973)

Research psychologists noticed that the way we see ourselves is often similar to the way others see us. This finding is referred to as the looking-glass self (Epstein, 1973). This research taught us that much of our self-concept emerges from the social interactions we have with others. Our 'self' emerges based on the information others tell us about who we are.

Our self-concept also includes the self-awareness that we are part of categories based on our age, gender, race, etc. Some people theorize that self-concept is like the glue that holds all the pieces of our personality together. And, at its most basic, self-concept is the answer we give when asked the question "Who am I?"

Why Does the Self-Concept Matter?

Each of us has parts of ourselves that we believe are the most important (Epstein, 1973). For example, an athlete might view their athleticism to be of central importance to their self-concept, even though they also enjoy cooking and are part of a big family. Some have even suggested that the self is arranged hierarchically, with relatively important parts above less important parts. But each of us decides which parts are important to us.

​As we experience new things and gain additional information from others, the self-concept may determine which new aspects of personality are acceptable. If new parts don't jibe with the old parts, they may not be allowed, thus ensuring that our sense of self remains reliable and intact (Epstein, 1973). As we grow older, contradictory evidence may have less impact on our self-concept. So it can become harder to integrate external information, particularly if it disrupts important aspects of the self-concept.

How Does Self-Concept Relate to Well-Being?

Several aspects of the self-concept also play a role in well-being. These include:

  • Self-image: The way you see yourself.
  • Self-esteem (or self-worth): The extent to which you value yourself or believe you have worth.
  • Ideal self: The vision you have of your best self.

Self-image ​

The terms self-image and self-concept are sometimes used interchangeably, but more often, self-image is defined as how you see yourself. This may be literal, like when looking in the mirror. But it can also involve mental representations of yourself. These may or may not be consistent with what one actually sees in the mirror.

Self-esteem (or self-worth)

Self-esteem is broadly defined as the extent to which we like or value ourselves. This generally includes evaluating two parts of ourselves (Tafarodi & Swann Jr, 2001):

  • Intrinsic value. This refers to our belief that we are a good (or not-so-good) person. If we have intrinsic value, then we value ourselves just for being who we are. This is also sometimes thought of as the extent to which we like ourselves.
  • Instrumental value. This refers to our belief that we can do good things. If we have instrumental value, then we value ourselves because of the things we do. This is also sometimes thought of as the extent to which we respect ourselves.

Ideal self

The ideal self is defined as the self we would like to be—our best self. It appears to originate from the ideal selves that our parents hold for us and communicate to us through childhood (Zentner & Renaud, 2007).

​In positive psychology, the ideal self is thought to include three parts (Boyatzis, & Akrivou, 2006):

  • The image of our desired future. This may include dreams, aspirations, and goals.
  • Hope. This includes self-efficacy and optimism (beliefs that we can indeed achieve our goals).
  • A clear self-concept. This includes an understanding of our core identity and enduring traits. Our ideal self needs to fit with our values, beliefs, and who we are.

Our ideal self is a vision of what we could be or do. That's why the ideal self is thought to be a helpful motivator—it inspires us to progress toward goals and improve our lives in beneficial ways. It may also include aspirations, passions, dreams, and purpose—all things that tend to be good for our well-being.

In Sum

Our self-concept is an important guiding principle that helps us navigate the world and understand our role in it. Parts of our self-concept may be good or not-so-good for our well-being. That's why learning more about our own self-concept can be beneficial.

Adapted from an article published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.

References

​Bailey 2nd, J. A. (2003). Self-image, self-concept, and self-identity revisited. Journal of the National Medical Association, 95(5), 383.

​Boyatzis, R. E., & Akrivou, K. (2006). The ideal self as the driver of intentional change. Journal of management development.

Epstein, S. (1973). The self-concept revisited: Or a theory of a theory. American psychologist, 28(5), 404.

​Tafarodi, R. W., & Swann Jr, W. B. (2001). Two-dimensional self-esteem: Theory and measurement. Personality and individual Differences, 31(5), 653-673.

​Zentner, M., & Renaud, O. (2007). Origins of adolescents' ideal self: An intergenerational perspective. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(3), 557​

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