Self Concept Theory in Psychology

Who are you? No, really? This is a big question, but it can be answered with just a few words. 

  • “I’m a student.”
  • “I’m a man.”
  • “I’m a nice person.”
  • “I’m a healer.” 

The list goes on and on. 

The way that we identify ourselves and think of ourselves influence our mood, our motivation, and what opportunities we are willing to take in life. This is our self-concept. Let’s break down the definition of self-concept, how it differs from similar concepts, and how psychologists developed multiple theories of self-concept.

What Is Self-Concept? 

Self-concept is the general term for how we define and see ourselves. This includes how we see and experience our physical body, our emotions, and who we are. When we identify as a man or tell ourselves that we are a nice person, we are pulling from our overall self-concept. 

How Do We Build Our Self-Concept?

We start building our self-concept from the moment we are born. Every experience that we have, everything that we learn, and every interpretation of this information forms our self-concept. Notice that I included our interpretation of this information. Our interpretations aren’t always based in reality. Our self-concept isn’t always based in reality. In knowing that, you can help to pull yourself out of a bad place and start to look at yourself in a more positive way. 

What Influences Our Self-Esteem 

Self-esteem is a piece of self-concept. (I’ll get into that later.) Michael Argyle was a British social psychologist that looked at how self-esteem fits into our overall self-concept. He believed that self-esteem was influenced by four different factors:

  • The reaction we get from others 
  • How we compare ourselves to others 
  • Social roles
  • How we identify ourselves 

When Is Self-Concept Developed? 

Of course, these factors aren’t always cut-and-dry. Our interpretation of these factors is what really shapes our self-concept. This sounds complicated, but humans naturally lean into this process. We start to develop our self-concept starting when we are under the age of 2

Are Self-Concept and Self-Awareness The Same?

We see a lot of words that have “self-” as the prefix:

  • Self-concept
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-awareness

But are all of these the same thing? 

Not exactly. Often, one influences the other. Or one “self-” idea is a category of another idea. 

So let’s talk about the difference between self-concept and self-awareness. 

Self Concept vs. Self Awareness

Michael Lewis is a psychologist that is known for his work on self-concept and self-awareness. He was a part of studies in the 90s that observed children as they become aware of themselves and others. One of these studies included putting a red dot on an infant’s nose and then putting the child in front of a mirror. Would the child grab their own nose, would they grab the nose of the reflection? 

The answer helped to form Lewis’s theory about how we develop self-awareness. There are five stages to this process:

  • Differentiation
  • Situation
  • Identification
  • Permanence
  • Self-consciousness (also known as “meta” self-awareness) 

This process happens in the first few months of the child’s life. It is known as the existential self aspect of self-concept. The child is learning that they are an object separate from the family, toys, and pets that exist around them. They are a separate self. 

This is the foundation of self-concept. 

Another foundation of self-concept is the categorical self. Once a person has realized that they are a separate object entirely, they start to figure out where they “fit in.” By identifying traits that pertain to themselves, they can separate or connect themselves with others. They start to identify that they are a boy or a girl, and see that they are similar to other boys or other girls. 

Self-Concept vs. Self-Esteem

What about another “self-” term? Let’s talk about how self-concept relates to self-esteem. 

Carl Rogers was an American psychologist who was a key figure in the development of self-concept theory. He believed that self-concept was comprised of three things: self-image, self-esteem, and ideal self. 

Self-image

Self-image is the image that we have of ourselves. It’s the list of traits and roles in society that make up who we are. When you tell yourself that you are a nice person, a dedicated student of your university, or a generally happy guy, you’re commenting on your self-image. 

Self-esteem

Self-esteem is the value we place on ourselves. Do you think you are someone that people enjoy being around? Do you think that your accomplishments are making the world a better place? These are the questions that make up a person’s self-esteem. This is where the influence of other people really forms our self-concept. If you interpret that people think you are a positive person, you will value yourself more. If you compare yourself to others and interpret that they are valued more, your self-esteem may plummet. 

It’s important to note here that both self-image and self-esteem are built on experience and the interpretation of that experience. These interpretations don’t always reflect reality. You may reflect on an interaction with someone and interpret that they did not value your time together. The interaction lowers your self-esteem and you feel down in the dumps. But that might not be the reality of the situation. We have all experienced a time when someone seemed off-putting or rude, but they were really just distracted or nervous about something that had nothing to do with anyone else. 

Ideal Self

This brings us to the last part of self-concept: ideal self. Our ideal self is an image of the person that we want to be. Maybe you see your ideal self as someone who is confident and cool. Your ideal self can walk into a room and become friends with any stranger who is present. 

When someone’s self-image and ideal self don’t match, they will usually have low self-esteem. They see their true selves as someone that is less than the person that they want to be (or could be.) 

Rogers believed that when self-image and the ideal self aligned, a person could achieve self-actualization. Through self-actualization, a person can achieve all of the goals they have and truly live the life they want to live.

Theodore Thudium

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.