Monday, June 10, 2013

Self Concept: Self-Image, Ideal Self, and Self-Esteem

The term self-concept is a general term used to refer to how someone thinks about or perceives themselves. To be aware of oneself is to have a concept of oneself. One definition of self-concept is: “the individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is."
Self-concept includes two different experiences of the self:

(1)   The Existential Self
This is the most basic part of the self-scheme or self-concept; the sense of being separate and distinct from others and the awareness of the constancy of the self” (Bee, 1992).
The child realizes that they exist as a separate entity from others and that they continue to exist over time and space. According to Lewis, awareness of the existential self begins as young as two to three months old and arises in part due to the relation the child has with the world. For example, the child smiles and someone smiles back, or the child touches a mobile and sees it move.
(2) The Categorical Self
Having realized that he or she exists as a separate experiencing being, the child next becomes aware that he or she is also an object in the world. Just as other objects including people have properties that can be experienced (big, small, red, smooth and so on) so the child is becoming aware of him or her self as an object which can be experienced and which has properties. The self too can be put into categories such as age, gender, size or skill. Two of the first categories to be applied are age (“I am 3”) and gender (“I am a girl”).
In early childhood. The categories children apply to themselves are very concrete (e.g. hair color, height and favorite things). Later, self-description also begins to include reference to internal psychological traits, comparative evaluations and to how others see them.
Beyond these basic ways of experiencing the self, self-concept encompasses 3 things:

  • The view you have of yourself (Self-image)
  • How much value you place on yourself (Self-esteem or self-worth)
  • What you wish you were really like (Ideal self)
Your self-image is what you see in yourself. It does not necessarily have to reflect reality. Indeed a person with an eating disorder may be thin but have a self-image of being fat. A person's self image is affected by many factors, such as parental influences, friends, the media etc.
Our self-image includes:

1) Physical Description: I’m tall, have brown eyes...etc.
2) Social Roles: We are all social beings whose behavior is shaped to some extent by the roles we play. Such roles as student, housewife, or member of the football team not only help others to recognize us but also help us to know what is expected of us in various situations.
3) Personal Traits: These are a third dimension of our self-descriptions. “I’m impulsive...I’m generous...I tend to worry a lot”...etc.
4) Existential Statements (abstract ones): These can range from "I’m a child of the universe" to "I’m a human being" to "I’m a spiritual being"...etc.
Typically, young people describe themselves more in terms of personal traits, whereas older people feel defined to a greater extent by their social roles.

Ideal Self
Ideal self refers to how you wish you were, and how you think you should be. It is shaped by your life experiences, messages you received from other people about how you should be, cultural values, and things you admired in role models.

Where a person’s ideal self and self-image are consistent or very similar, a state of congruence exists. If there is a mismatch between how you see yourself (your self-image) and what you’d like to be (your ideal self), then this is likely to affect how much you value yourself. Therefore, there is an intimate relationship between self-image, ideal self, and self-esteem. A person’s ideal self may not be consistent with their actual experience, or what is even possible. This is called incongruence.

Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

Self-esteem refers to the extent to which we like, accept, or approve of ourselves; or how much we value ourselves. Self-esteem always involves a degree of evaluation, and we may have either a positive or a negative view of ourselves.

HIGH SELF-ESTEEM: we have a positive view of ourselves. This tends to lead to

  • Confidence in our own abilities
  • Self-acceptance
  • Not worrying excessively about what others think
  • Optimism
LOW SELF-ESTEEM: we have a negative view of ourselves. This tends to lead to

  • Lack of confidence
  • Wanting to be/look like someone else
  • Always worrying what others might think
  • Pessimism
However, self-esteem is changeable, and varies from situation to situation. For example, in one study, participants waiting for a job interview were seated next to someone they were told was another candidate, but was really working with the researcher. Some of them sat next to “Mr. Clean,” who was dressed in nice suit, carrying a briefcase. Others sat next to “Mr. Dirty,” who was dressed in an old T-shirt and jeans, slouched over a trashy novel.

The self-esteem of participants with Mr. Dirty increased while those with Mr. Clean decreased! No mention made of how this affected subjects’ performance in interview. However, other studies have shown that level of self-esteem affects performance at numerous tasks, so we could expect Mr. Dirty subjects to perform better than Mr. Clean.

Even though self-esteem might fluctuate, there are times when we continue to believe things about ourselves even when there is evidence to the contrary. This is known as the perseverance effect. That means if we believe negative things about ourselves, we are likely to maintain those beliefs regardless of what is really true.

Our early experiences, particularly messages we received from our parents, have a significant influence on our self-esteem. Four aspects of our current experience also influence self-esteem:

1)      THE REACTIONS OF OTHERS. If people admire us, flatter us, seek out our company, listen attentively and agree with us we tend to develop a positive self-image. If they avoid us, neglect us, tell us things about ourselves that we don’t want to hear, we develop a negative self-image.

2)      COMPARISON WITH OTHERS. If the people we compare ourselves with (our reference group) appear to be more successful, happier, richer, better looking than (we think) we are we tend to develop negative self-esteem. BUT if they are less successful, etc., than we are, our self-esteem will be positive.

3)      SOCIAL ROLES. Some social roles carry prestige, e.g. doctor, TV personality, professional athlete, and this promotes self-esteem. Other roles carry stigma, e.g. ex-con, maid, day laborer, garbage collector, and may lower self-esteem

4)      IDENTIFICATION. Roles aren’t just “out there.” They also become part of our personality i.e. we identity with the positions we occupy, the roles we play and the groups we belong to.


  1. We as parents should be the one to help our children to gain their self esteem.
    Raising Self Esteem in Children

  2. This has been so helpful whilst re reading my final essay for this year. The part about the flow of an essay was particularly useful as I realized mine didn't until I read through your advice. useful site