What Exactly is a Self-Concept? Here’s What You Need to Know…

Henry Longfellow

We judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.

This article is part of an 8 part series to help you develop more confidence in the pursuit of your goals. Here is a list of all articles within this series:

  1. Improving Self-Esteem
  2. Transform Your Self-Concept
  3. Boosting Self-Confidence
  4. Developing Self-Worth
  5. Building a Healthy Self-Image
  6. Pursuing the Ideal Self
  7. Fake it ‘Til You Make it!
  8. Developing Superhero Courage

What Exactly is a Self-Concept?

A self-concept is an understanding you have of yourself that’s based on your personal experiences, body image, the thoughts you have about yourself, and how you tend to label yourself in different situations.

A self-concept can also be defined as an all-encompassing awareness you had of yourself in the past; the awareness you have of yourself in the present, and the expectations you have of yourself at a future time.

Your self-concept is built upon perception — how you perceive yourself based on the knowledge you have gained over a lifetime of experience. This perception you have of yourself is based on the information you have gathered about your values, life roles, goals, skills, abilities and much more.

Your self-concept is more or less a collection of beliefs you have about your own nature, qualities, and behavior. It’s all about how you think and evaluate yourself at any given moment in time. It is a perception of your image, abilities, and in some ways a perception of your own individual uniqueness.

To truly understand what a self-concept is and its impact on your life, we first need to break down the three components of a self-concept based on the work of Humanist Psychologist Carl Rogers:

  • Self-Image: This is in essence what you see in yourself. It is all about how you see yourself in the present moment. This includes the labels you give yourself about your personality, and it also includes the beliefs you have about how the external world perceives you. It’s however important to note that your self-image is not necessarily based on reality. For instance, a person with anorexia may have a self-image that makes them believe they are obese, however in reality that is far from the truth. Therefore self-image is only your own perception of yourself and has no real basis in reality.
  • Self-Ideal: This is how you wish you could be at a future time. This is your ideal self, or the ideal person you envision of being and becoming. Many times, how people see themselves and how they would like to see themselves don’t quite match up. And this is what can cause problems and lead to self-sabotage behavior and emotional struggles.
  • Self-Esteem: This encompasses your current emotional experiences. It also refers to the extent to which you like or approve of yourself, or the extent to which you value yourself. You might therefore for instance have a positive or negative view of yourself. When you have a negative view of yourself you are seen as having low self-esteem. This often manifests in a lack of confidence and pessimism. On the other hand, when you have a positive view of yourself you are seen as having high self-esteem. This often manifests in a confident disposition, self-acceptance and optimism.

A healthy and strong self-concept will help you to get ahead in life. It will allow you to maximize your potential and get the most out of your strengths, talents and abilities. On the other hand, a weak self-concept will hinder your progress. In fact, a weak self-concept will most likely lead to self-sabotage behavior. As a result you will struggle to follow through with your actions and thereby fail to achieve the goals and objectives you have set for yourself.

A Definition of a Self-Concept

The Importance of a Healthy Self-Concept

The importance of having a healthy self-concept becomes more evident when you come to understand that it influences your ability to manage your emotions; it determines how far you will step outside your comfort zone to solve a problem or achieve a goal; it influences how you utilize your physiology; it impacts the questions you ask on a daily basis; and it affects how you interact with people, how you think about yourself, others and circumstances. Putting all this together, your self-concept effectively determines what you will attempt or avoid doing at any moment in time. It therefore influences your inherent potential to do, be, have and achieve your desired objectives.

The Forces Influencing Your Self-Concept

There are a number of forces that influence your self-concept and therefore impact how healthy or unhealthy it becomes over time. Some of these forces come from internal sources, while other forces come from external sources. Let’s look at both of them briefly:

  • Internal Sources: What you think about yourself and/or others, what you pay attention to, how you interpret the events and circumstances of your life, and how you reframe both failure and success impacts your self-concept.
  • External Sources: The environment you spend most of your time in, your interactions with others, and how other people tend to label you has a significant impact on your self-concept.

The most important thing to note here is the impact that other people have on your self-concept. Through rejection, judgment, ridicule, and criticism, other people often influence how you feel about yourself, the labels you give yourself, and essentially what you believe about yourself, your own abilities, and the world around you. In fact, your self-worth is tied to the people in your life. Therefore if you are struggling with an unhealthy self-concept, then it could very well be a result of the interactions you have with other people on a daily basis.

The bad news is that all of these internal and external sources have a profound impact on your self-concept. The good news is that starting today you can begin taking positive and proactive action to make the necessary changes to help improve your self-concept and thereby transform your life for the better.

My Self-Concept

Signs that You Have a Poor Self-Concept

An unhealthy or poor self-concept is never helpful. It will often limit your opportunities, deny you access to essential resources, and undermine your potential.

A low self-concept signifies that you have a low value of yourself. And when you value yourself in this way, you naturally lack the confidence to take the bold steps you need to take in order to improve your life and circumstances. This makes you incredibly unresourceful and vulnerable to change, problems and uncertainty. Life very quickly becomes overwhelming and difficult to bear. You struggle with your emotions, and with your decisions. Nothing is easy. But it shouldn’t be this way. Your poor self-concept is getting in the way. It is filtering out the reality of how life is and creating an alternate reality that you have unfortunately wholeheartedly accepted as the truth.

Now, on the surface we can become so caught up with our own lives, that it’s difficult to pinpoint whether or not we are suffering from a low self-concept. However, there are certain signs that you can look out for that provide a clear indication of an unhealthy self-concept. For instance:

  • Failure to give affection.
  • Constantly comparing yourself to other people.
  • Displays of jealousy.
  • Consistently rejecting compliments.
  • Perpetual criticism of yourself and maybe even of others.
  • Indulging in negative self-talk manifesting in pessimism.
  • Feeling persistently guilty about what you did or didn’t do, or should have done.
  • Undermining your own personal needs in favor of others.
  • Overall poor emotional and physical health.

Taken individually these symptoms don’t indicate that you have a poor self-concept. However, if you’ve ticked 3 or 4 of these points off your list, then that’s probably a clear indication that your self-concept is lacking in some respects. And that should present you with a “wake-up call” to begin taking positive action that will help you improve your thoughts, beliefs, decisions and actions moving forward.

It’s important to note that all of these signs are nothing more than defensive mechanisms that protect you from emotional harm. Your body and mind is doing its best to cope with life, events and circumstances, however oftentimes these coping strategies don’t quite work to your advantage. What’s worse is that you might begin indulging in other kinds of behaviors in an attempt to make yourself feel better about yourself and your life. For instance you might:

  • Shift into “denial mode” and deny that anything is wrong despite evidence to the contrary.
  • Make assumptions and/or justifications that aren’t based on fact but rather only on your biased “rose-colored” view of reality.
  • Launch into a verbal barrage where you attack others or even attack yourself based on your false perceptions of how things are and how they should be.
  • Choose to bask in negativity. Life sucks as it is, so why not just wallow in self-pity and experience the full brunt of your negative feelings?
  • Try and avoid people and circumstances by distracting yourself with addictions and other unhealthy habits.

All of these semi-coping strategies might provide you with some semblance of control. They might even provide you with some relief and temporary satisfaction. However, in the long-run they will only hurt you because you are simply unable to face the reality of your circumstances. You are unable to face the truth, and without the truth, you will not be able to make the changes that are necessary to help you transform your self-concept and take charge of your life.

Low Self-Concept Symptoms

10 Ideas for Improving Your Self-Concept

Transforming your self-concept will not be an easy task. In fact, it will take patience, time and a great deal of effort. Throughout this journey you might be forced let go of old habits, of unhelpful beliefs, and of limiting thoughts. You might even need to change your behavior, and begin to question the value of how you’ve been living your life. Moreover, your choices and decisions might need to shift, and you might even need to stretch yourself outside your comfort zone in order to attain new insights and perspectives that will provide you with a fresh view of your life and circumstances.

Even though this journey and the inevitable transformation will not be easy, it will however be worth your while. No longer will you be at the mercy of your rose-colored view of reality. Instead, you will have taken control. And with control comes confidence, and with confidence comes power — power to transform your life with purpose.

Before moving on, it’s important to note that the quality of your life is dependent on your emotional state of mind. What this means is that when your emotions are healthy and serving your greater good, then the quality of your life with likewise improve. It will improve because life always comes down to the emotional experiences you allow into your personal world. When our emotional experiences are of a healthy and positive nature, this improves the quality of our thoughts, and as our thoughts improve so do our choices, decisions and actions. And when you make better choices and decisions throughout your day you will get better results, and with better results you will feel better about yourself, and when you feel better about yourself, your self-concept grows stronger. And that is in essence the key that will help you transform a poor self-concept into something that can help empower you moving forward for the rest of your life.

Make a Personal Contract

Before you begin working through the suggestions that will help you transform your self-concept, it’s important that the very first thing you do is make a personal agreement/contract with yourself that provides you with the green light to make the necessary changes that will help move you in the right direction. Acknowledge to yourself that:

Things must change…

I am responsible for this change…

I am committed to this change…

If you are unable to tick-off all three of these boxes, then you are not yet ready to make the necessary changes to transform your life for the better.

The first step is to always acknowledge that changes need to be made. If you can’t acknowledge that there is something wrong, then there’s no point continuing down this process.

Secondly, you need to take responsibility to make these changes. Nobody is responsible for your life but yourself. Without “you” this can’t be done. You must therefore take the responsibility on your shoulders that you, and you alone, are responsible for making these changes.

Thirdly, you must be committed to making the necessary changes to improve your life. Without commitment there is no motivation, and without motivation there are not enough reasons for you to make the necessary changes, and that’s essentially where things fall apart.

You therefore need to acknowledge that things must change, you need to take responsibility for this change, and you need to commit yourself to follow through with this change until its completion. Once you’ve ticked all three of these boxes, you will be ready to take the first step along your journey to a healthier self-concept.

Discover Who You Are to Bridge the Gap

Your very first step to transforming your self-concept is to discover who you are. Now this might seem silly. You might be thinking that you know who you are. Yes! Of course you might think you know who you are, however who are you really? Have you ever taken the time to think about that question?

What you are going to try and do here is to identify the gap between “who you are” and “who you are seeking to become”. In order to strengthen your self-concept, you must figure out how to bridge this gap successfully. You must essentially merge the YOU in the NOW together with the YOU in the FUTURE.

This of course isn’t going to be an easy process. In fact, there will always be some kind of discrepancy, and this is important because without a discrepancy there will be no motivation to grow and develop yourself over time. However, if this discrepancy is too significant between the YOU of today and the YOU you desire to become in the future, then your self-concept will suffer as a result. There must be congruence there, or otherwise self-actualization cannot occur.

Take some time now to have a think about the following set of questions:

Who am I?

Who am I really?

Who am I physically?

Who am I socially?

Who am I emotionally?

Who am I spiritually?

Who am I in terms of my accomplishments?

Who am I in terms of my failures and mistakes?

Who am I in terms of my goals?

Who am I in terms of my social roles?

Who am I really? Why?

Who am I not? Why not?

The purpose here is to identify how you see yourself in the present moment, and then compare that against the final set of questions laid out below that ask what kind of person you are seeking to become.

Each of these questions will provide you with some very different perspectives. And that is perfectly okay. Embrace these differences, because this is in essence how you see yourself on a day-to-day basis. It’s also important to note that there is nothing wrong with your answers to these questions. Things are the way they are. What’s most relevant here is whether or not these answers are congruent with the answers you give to the following set of questions:

Who am I ideally seeking to become?

How do I see myself in the future?

What kind of person is this person? What’s this person like?

What kinds of qualities does this person have?

How does this person think?

How does this person talk to themselves?

What kind of questions does this person ask themselves?

What kind of emotions does this person experience?

What kind of habits does this person indulge in?

What experiences does this person have on a day-to-day basis?

What kinds of goals is this person working towards?

What kind of person is this person really?

Your ideal self must be congruent with your perceived self in the present moment. If there is a significant difference between the two, then you have a lot of work in front of you to bridge this gap — thereby strengthening your self-concept.

Let’s now take a closer look at the gap. Ask yourself:

What’s the gap between my perceived self and my ideal self?

Where is the gap most significant?

Where is the gap not so significant?

Is the distance between the gap realistic?

How could I begin bridging this gap starting today?

Your objective for the remainder of this journey is to begin bridging that gap between your ideal self and the self you are experiencing at this very moment. The more congruent both of these self’s are, the stronger and healthier your self-concept will become. As such, be sure to keep this in mind as you work through each of the guidelines listed below.

Before moving on, a word of caution. Your self-ideal must be realistic and achievable, otherwise you will struggle to meet these high standards, and as a result your self-concept will continue to suffer. The key then is to ensure that your self-ideal is not completely out of this world — at least not at the beginning. Lower your standards and expectations to make them achievable. Then once they are reached you can then raise the bar a little higher. Then once that’s achieved and feels comfortable you can then raise the bar higher again. It’s all about taking slow progressive steps.

As a side note, this article is not about working through self-image disorders such as Anorexia. Remember that your self-image is often not based on reality. It’s rather based on your interpretations of reality. Therefore if your self-image is based on false assumptions or distorted perspectives, then you will first need to work through these issues before moving through the process outlined within this article. This article in particular is more about using this process to help build your confidence so that you can take the necessary action steps to achieve your desired goals and objectives.

Making the Necessary Changes

There are numerous suggestions and guidelines presented here that will help you transform your self-concept. Some of these suggestions are easy and quick to implement, while others might take a little time. What’s most important is “what you focus on” while making the necessary changes to your life. This essentially comes down to three fundamental things:

  • Changing your habits of thought.
  • Changing your self-talk.
  • Changing your belief patterns.

No matter how you proceed moving forward, every positive change you desire to make to your self-concept comes down to just these three things. Therefore, no matter what ideas you decide to implement be sure to always keep in mind how these changes can be made in terms of your thoughts, self-talk and belief patterns.

All this will hopefully start making more sense as you work your way through the following ideas.

Transform Your Inner World

Look inside yourself and become aware of your thoughts, your self-talk, your beliefs, the questions you ask, and the rules that govern your day-to-day decisions. Ask yourself:

Are my thoughts aligned with my self-image?

What kind of thoughts do I allow myself to dwell upon?

What are these thoughts doing to me?

How do these thoughts make me feel?

What about my self-talk?

How do I tend to talk to myself?

What questions do I tend to ask myself?

What are the consequences of my self-talk and the questions I ask myself?

What do I tend to believe about myself?

What do I tend to believe about my abilities?

Is this congruent with my self-ideal?

How does all this make me feel?

What about the rules that govern my day-to-day decisions?

How do these rules influence my daily undertakings?

Are all these things congruent with my self-ideal?

How can I make the necessary adjustments to match my self-image with my self-ideal?

Your objective is to reach congruence in these areas. Your self-image will never directly align with your self-ideal, however you can certainly make the necessary adjustments to your mindset to move yourself in the right direction.

To assist you with this transition process, it’s important to give yourself time for meditation and visualization. Meditation can provide you with clear insights moving forward. It will help you to clear the clutter from your mind so that you can make better decisions in the future. Visualization on the other hand can provide you with the vision you need to gain a better understanding of how you see yourself in the future. This will likewise help you lay down a much clearer path to help you get to that desired outcome.

How you think about things has a lot to do with your perceptions and interpretations. For instance, interpreting things one way will give you access to certain resources and opportunities. However, interpreting things another way will provide you with access to other resources and opportunities, or it might even deny you access completely. It’s therefore important to keep in mind that how you frame and/or reframe your experiences will determine what you gain or lose from your experience. Hence, when problems arise, it’s not what happens to you but how you interpret what happens that makes all the difference in the end.

Transform Your Physiology

When it comes to our physiology, it’s important to remind ourselves that the body and mind are not separate entities. What this means is that how you think and how you emotionalize your experiences influences how you use your physiology. Likewise, how you use your physiology influences how you think and emotionalize your experiences. They are both interconnected, and therefore what you do to one directly has an influence on the other.

Given all this, have a think about your body and how you tend to use it throughout the day. Do you move your body with confidence, or do you tend to move it in a sluggish way? What about how you breathe? What about your posture? These are all very important questions to ask because by making some small adjustments to your physiology you will indirectly influence your inner world. And as your inner world changes you will begin bridging the gap between where you are today and your ideal self of tomorrow.

Improve Your Lifestyle Choices

When it comes to your lifestyle, you need to start making some better choices that will help move you towards your ideal self. Ask yourself:

What kind of life does my ideal self live?

How often does my ideal self exercise?

What kind of food does my ideal self eat?

In what kind of environment does my ideal self spend the majority of time?

What does my ideal self spend time on?

How does my ideal self tend to work? Where? On what?

What kinds of lifestyle choices does my ideal self make?

How can I begin bridging the lifestyle gap between where I am today and my ideal self of tomorrow?

Go through these questions and get a strong sense of the changes that you might need to make to bridge the gap between where you are today and your ideal self. And again, keep reminding yourself that it’s all about reaching a state of congruence as much as possible so that your current self (self-image) matches your self-ideal on as many levels as possible.

Transforming Self-Concept

Strengthen Your Confidence

When you have an unhealthy self-concept, you will struggle with your confidence. And when you struggle with your confidence you’re often very susceptible to rejection, to criticism, to judgment, and to the influence of others. All this weighs heavily on you and as a result you might even have a tendency to turn the good things upside-down. For instance, accepting compliments might be very difficult for you. It’s difficult because you don’t feel you’re worthy or you don’t feel you deserve having good things said about you. And this eventually becomes a very big problem because your happiness is now reliant on other people. No longer are you in control of your own feelings and emotional experiences.

Strengthening your confidence can be achieved in many different ways. However, let’s not concern ourselves with all those confidence boosting techniques. The most important thing you need to do before you do anything else is to explore self-love. Before you can feel confident in the external world, you must first find confidence within yourself, and that comes through self-love.

Self-love means fully accepting yourself despite your flaws, despite your weaknesses, and despite your inadequacies. It means feeling comfortable in your own skin no matter what you look like or how you feel.

To take the first step into self-love, begin by spending more time with yourself. However, don’t just spend time watching television, actually spend time pampering yourself by getting a massage, by enjoying a hot sauna, by going for a walk in a park, etc. Reconnect with yourself first. And only once you’ve found that connection will you be able to project this new found sense-of-confidence into the outside world.

Gain Relevant Knowledge and Skills

Your ideal self has certain skills, knowledge and abilities. Identify what these things are and then go to work to acquire the relevant knowledge and skills you need that will help you bridge the gap between your self-image and your self-ideal. You might find this knowledge and skills in books, by taking courses, by volunteering your time to a cause, or by connecting with other people who already have the skills and knowledge you are searching for. Given this, it might actually be helpful to get a mentor or life coach — someone who might be able to guide you along this journey.

Build Your Support Network

As you work on developing your knowledge and skills you will most certainly need support along your journey. You will need people who can be there for you to help you through the tough times and through all your struggles. You will need people who can provide you with the emotional support you need when faced with difficulties. And you will need people who will accept you unconditionally without the usual strings attached. These people must of course be positive, inspiring, creative, passionate and caring. They must be giving and generous, and they must also be joyful and happy.

These are the kinds of people that should make up your support network. They might be friends, colleagues, family members, life coaches and/or mentors. They will be there to prop you up when things are not going well, and they will also be there to help keep you motivated and inspired as you make progress towards your ideal self.

Use this support network to help and guide you, however don’t give up control of your own life by putting your destiny in the hands of others. This will never work out well in the long-run. You must be in charge of your own decisions and actions.

Being in charge of your own life means not concerning yourself with what others think. It means not worrying about criticism or rejection. And it means not comparing yourself with others. You are on your own unique path. These people are there to support you, but ultimately you make the final decisions and you have the final word that determines the direction you will take.

Set Inspiring Goals

Having inspiring goals means that your life has purpose and meaning. This keeps you motivated and active. However, you don’t just want to set random goals. You actually want to set goals that match your self-ideal. So ask yourself:

What goals is my ideal self working towards?

What purpose is my ideal self striving for?

What inspires and motivates my ideal self?

Once you have your answers to these questions, set some inspiring goals and lay down a plan of action that will help you bridge the gap between where you are today and where you ideally would like to be in the future.

And that’s it. Just go out there and begin your journey. Take all of these suggestions on board and begin designing your life with passion and purpose.

Time to Assimilate these Concepts

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Here are three recommended IQ Matrix mind map bundles that explore how to get unstuck, how to elimiate self-sabotage patterns, and how to improve your self-confidence.

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Adam is a life coach, mind mapper, doodler and visual thinker. He founded IQ Matrix in 2009 and has created over 350 self-growth mind maps. He also has a Free 40 Day How to Doodle Course where he teaches how to doodle using simple daily lessons. Read more about Adam's story, and how he created the concept for IQ Matrix. Feel free to also get in touch and send Adam a message here.