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Psychology of Self-Concept

  • Who are you? No, I’m not quoting a song. I’m asking a serious question. If you don’t know who you are now, how can you become who you want to be in the future?

    Like any journey, a map can’t help you if you don’t know where you are. You can know your destination, but you can’t get there without knowing where you’re at now. You won’t know which direction to travel.  

    Don’t stress though. Today I’m going to walk you through the powerful idea of self-concept. By the time we’re done, you’ll know more about who you are, what makes you that way, how to change, and the shocking benefits of having a more positive self-concept.


    What exactly is Self-concept? 

    Self-concept is the overall idea you have about who you are—physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and all the other aspects that make you, you. Self-concept affects how you think, feel and behave in the world. It’s the overall image you have of yourself, inside and out. 

    It’s also useful to understand that self-esteem refers to your overall sense of value or worth. This is related to your ideal self, the person you’d like to be. And, both of these are parts of your overall self-concept, also known as your self-image.  

    The origins of self-concept as an idea in the West can be traced back to the 1600s and philosopher Rene Descartes who reasoned that existence depended upon perception. More simply, “I think, therefore I am.” 

    On this foundation, many psychologists, including Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, built on the idea of the self and the importance of self-interpretation. But, the most important voice in shaping the ideas behind self-concept was psychologist Carl Rogers. He claimed the self was the central ingredient in human personality and personal adjustment. 

    His theory was that we’re all trying to bridge the gap between how we view ourselves and who we’d like to be. When the real self and the ideal self were one and the same, he called this self-actualization.

    This became an incredibly influential theory in psychology and is a huge part of why self-concept matters so much. As you’ll see in a minute, modern science has finally caught up to what Rogers knew almost 8o years ago: your self-concept has a huge impact on your life, your mood, and even your success.  

    So, if that ever comes up on Jeopardy, you’re prepared. But let’s talk about what you can use right now.  


    How is your self-concept formed? Where does it come from and what shapes it? 

    One major factor is socioeconomic class. Doctors Michael Kraus and Jun Park conducted an experiment where subjects were asked about their social class then had to divide resources. The results showed a tendency for people who rated themselves as lower on the economic ladder to report higher levels of negative self-conscious emotion.

    This shows that the self-concept of fewer material and social resources is likely to create an additional burden for people who feel they lack high economic or social status. It creates the sense that the self is undervalued. 

    Another major factor in shaping self-concept is the environment. One study looked at 64 elementary schools where students were run through a review known as the Coppersmith Self Esteem Inventory. This study found that students with more highly trained teachers had higher self-concept scores across the board. This lends credence to the idea that at least part of your self-concept is shaped by forces out of your control.

    This idea is further backed up by modern genetic science. Doctors Shelley E. Taylor and Shimon Saphire-Bernstein at UCLA recently discovered that a gene known as OXTR can influence your self-concept. People with one variation of this gene have been shown to be less optimistic, have lower self-esteem and feel less in control than people with other variants.  

    A study of twins from Finland backs these findings with results that indicate that self-concept is more genetically heritable in teenage boys than girls by a margin of 82% to 31%. 

    Finally, age has one of the largest impacts on your self-concept. Self-concept primarily develops through childhood and early adulthood when it’s more easily changed or updated. It can be changed in later years, but it is more of an uphill battle since people have established ideas about who they are. 

    Adolescence is where the development of one’s self-concept really explodes. This is the stage in which people (about age 12-18) play with their sense of self, including a time when they experiment with their identity, compare themselves with others, and develop the basis of a self-concept that may stay with them the rest of their lives.

    As researchers in Spain have observed, in general, people experience gradual increases in positive self-concept up to age 44, after which there was a gradual decrease. This decline from age 45 onwards may be explained by the relative decline that progressively affects aspects of life such as health and job performance. 

    So, with factors outside your control and limits imposed by age, it seems like you don’t have any control over your self-concept, right? 

    Come on. I wouldn’t have spent all this time to make a discussion if things were hopeless.

    Though psychologists agree that once we enter adulthood, self-concept becomes more difficult to change, that certainly doesn’t mean we stop growing as people, especially if we work at it. Psychologist Thomas Szasz said it best when he noted that “the self is not something that one finds. It is something that one creates.”  

    Even the geneticists I mentioned earlier agree with him. “Some people think genes are destiny, that if you have a specific gene, then you will have a particular outcome. That is definitely not the case," says Dr. Taylor.

    “Genes are just one factor that influences psychological resources.”

    But, if self-concept becomes harder to change as we get older and it’s influenced by things outside our control, why bother worrying about it?  

    Why not just heat up some pizza, watch TV, and skip the effort of self-improvement? Well, for starters, because your self-concept could make the difference between eating frozen pizza on the couch and eating filet mignon on a yacht.  

    No, I’m not kidding. How you think about yourself influences your day-to-day life in ways you probably never considered. Let’s look at the evidence. 

    A meta-analysis of 12 studies covering over 15,000 people, co-authored by professors at the Universities of Florida and Iowa looked at the effects of positive self-concept on job performance. They found extensive support for the idea that positive self-concept individuals outperform negative self-concept individuals in the workplace. 

    This echoed a European study from 2006 that also found that negative self-concept can cause negative psychopathological symptoms like jealousy, withdrawal, low social integration, and impulsiveness. But, that positive self-concept can mitigate or reverse these effects. 

    A 2018 study from the University of Texas shows how even marketers have figured out how to take advantage of your self-concept through an idea called Self-Concept Attachment. Surprisingly, consumers become more attached to a brand when it matches their perceived “actual selves” rather than their ideal selves. Marketers can convince you to buy lower quality goods and services if you have a negative self-concept.

    Self-concept also influences academic achievement through a positive feedback loop, as actions beget similar actions and identity to match. In a longitudinal study, Psychologist H.W. Marsh found that students with a more positive academic self-concept achieved greater academic success the following year. 

    This is one major reason people find it hard to change. Your self-concept sets limits on your behavioral possibilities. The image we have of who we are contributes to our personality and our actions, which creates a feedback loop into our image of ourselves. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where those who believe in themselves keep trying and those who doubt themselves give up. Both groups end up proving themselves right. 

    So self-concept impacts our mental health, purchasing decisions, academic achievement, and our job performance. It’s clear that positive self-concept is important. So let’s take a second to be clear about what that means.

    To understand positive self-concept, it can help to examine the traits of negative self-concept. These traits can filter out the reality of how life is and create an alternate, darker, reality that you, unfortunately, accept as truth. You might have a negative self-concept if you:

    • Fail to give affection.


    • Always compare yourself to other people.


    • Succumb to jealousy.


    • Consistently reject compliments.


    • Always criticize yourself and others.




    • Undermine your own personal needs in favor of other people’s needs.


    • Suffer from poor emotional and physical health


    One or two items on this list aren’t too much to worry about. But if you see four or more of these traits in yourself, you likely have a negative self-concept. If you find yourself noticing very few of these traits in yourself and even notice the opposite in your life, then you likely have a positive self-concept.

    Either way, there’s always room for growth. The only question is, how?

    The answer, of course, is expensive surgery and rare oils that can only be bought from my online store.  

    Or, more realistically, a dedicated commitment to change and an acceptance of the fact that lasting change is only achieved through slow, sustained progress. Not quick fixes sold by con men.  

    The first key is the decision to change. Before you can become a better version of yourself, you have to decide what you want to change. Whatever it is, write it down so you can see it every day to remember what your goal is. It might seem daunting to put in the effort required to revise your self-concept, but like most tasks, getting started is the hardest part. 

    The next step is repetition. Just keep going. If you’re struggling with physical self-concept, focus on your diet. If you’re struggling with emotional self-concept, look in the mirror every morning and be kind to yourself. Yes, at first this will take effort. It won’t be easy. But if you do it long enough, eventually it’ll become second nature. Stick with it and you can actually change how you view yourself. 

    Another great resource is exercise. Numerous studies show us that self-concept and self-esteem are improved in people who increase their cardiovascular fitness. So after dinner, go take a walk before settling down to the couch for some TV time.  

    Finally, some people find that improving their self-image is most easily done with professional help. Many therapists are using something called the Status Dynamic Approach to help patients change their self-concepts. In its simplest terms, this process involves giving the patient a higher status in the therapy session than they assign themselves in day-to-day life to allow their self-concept to change experientially.    

    Whatever route you take to improving your self-concept, be honest about who you are now, and set a goal for who you want to be. It’s a journey. Figure out the start and end points first. Then enjoy the ride. 

    Let’s review what we’ve learned today. We’ve learned that how you see yourself, inside and out, is your self-concept. We've learned that self-concept is harder to modify as we get older, but that scientists and psychologists agree that it’s never too late to change.

    Most importantly, we’ve learned that working on your self-concept can improve almost every aspect of your life. There are lots of forces influencing you in this world, but ultimately, you control your own destiny. You decide what to do with this life. So go do it.

    Take the first step right now and tell me in the comments what you’d like to change about your self-concept. 

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    References: HYPERLINK ""df/10.1089/cpb.2008.0286 HYPERLINK ""6.pdf

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