“Psychology works with ideas and concepts that, often, can cause confusion.”
Self-concept, for example, is one of the most commonly used theoretical constructs, but that does not mean that everyone understands what we are talking about when we use this term. Its meaning is not as intuitive as that of the word self-esteem and, in turn, it is not always easy to understand what it is about if we ignore some assumptions from which current psychology works.
Self-concept: a quick definition
Self-concept is the image we have created about ourselves. Not just a visual image, of course; it is rather the set of ideas that we believe that define us, at a conscious and unconscious level. This includes a practically infinite number of concepts that could be included in this “image” about ourselves, since each idea can contain many others inside it, creating systems of categories that are one within each other.
Thus, it could be a component of our self-concept our idea of what shyness is, but also a rough idea about our intelligence. There are many elements that can be a constitutive part of this image of oneself, and self-concept serves to encompass them under a label.
In short, the self-concept is the set of characteristics (aesthetic, physical, affective, etc.) that serve to define the image of the “I”.
Some keys to understanding what is the self-concept
These are some explanations to clarify the meaning of the term self-concept; some of its main characteristics.
1. It is relatively stable
It makes sense to speak of the existence of self-concept precisely because it is possible to find guidelines and defining characteristics of each person that tend to always be there. If the self-concept changed completely every second, it would not exist.
That is why many psychologists devote part of their efforts to discovering what defines the self-concept of people. This can be used to treat problems in clinical psychology, but also, for example, to establish population or consumer profiles.
2. Self-concept can change
Although it tends to remain relatively the same over time, self-concept is far from static. It is constantly changing, just as our experiences and the course of our thoughts constantly vary. However, the fact that self-concept does not always remain the same does not mean that it contains any idea about ourselves.
It is clear that something that we considered totally alien to our way of being or behaving can, after a while, become part of the set of things that we consider that define us. However, this does not change the fact that, at first, this idea or quality was not part of our self-concept, and that only with the passing of days has it been able to be included in it.
We found numerous examples of this variability of self-concept in adolescents. Adolescence is a stage in which the ways of understanding reality, feeling and relating to others change abruptly. And these “shakes” occur, of course, also in the way in which these young people see themselves. It is very normal to see how adolescents totally reject an aesthetic and a value system that, shortly after, will be integrated into their self-concept.
3. Self-concept has diffuse limits
Self-concept is a theoretical construct with which psychologists work, not something that can be isolated in a laboratory. This means that, where self-concept is embodied, there are also other elements: an emotional and evaluative tinge of oneself, the influences of ideas associated with each other, the influence of culture in the way of conceiving oneself, etc.
4. The distance between ideas is relative
This is something that is derived from the previous point. Normally, people do not understand that all those ideas that are included within our self-concept define us equally, in the same way that there are certain elements that are at the limit between what defines us and what does not. That’s why everything we talk about when we talk about self-concept is relative. We always value to what extent we are defined by something comparing it with another element.
For example, we may not be big fans of a brand of sportswear, but when we think of another type of clothing that we perceive totally alien to us (for example, a folk costume from some remote islands), we consider that this brand is Pretty close to the set of ideas that populate our self-concept.
5. There is a difference between self-concept and self-esteem
Although both ideas are similar, self-concept is not the same as self-esteem. The first serves only to describe ourselves, while self-esteem is the concept that refers to our way of valuing ourselves. That is to say, that self-concept serves to refer to the cognitive aspect of our way of seeing ourselves, while self-esteem has its reason for being in the emotional and evaluative component from which we judge ourselves. Both theoretical constructs, however, refer to something subjective and private.
Many times, in addition, the term “self-concept” is used, taking for granted that both self-concept and self-esteem are included in it. However, to get rid of doubts, it is advisable to use these terms separately.
6. It is related to self-awareness
There is a self-concept because we are aware that we exist as an entity differentiated from the rest. That is why, at the moment in which we begin to perceive the presence of things that are alien to us, a form of self-concept is already being born, no matter how rudimentary it may be.
7. It is sensitive to the environment
The term self-concept can lead us to the error that this is a mental phenomenon that appears without more in people, and whose only relationship with the environment is from the inside out: it affects how we behave and act by modifying the environment, but can not see affected from outside. This is a mistake.
Self-concept is a dynamic process, caused by a mixture of interactions between genes and the environment. Therefore, it is not isolated within people, but our experiences and our habits make it evolve. This is the reason why self-concept is very linked to our social life.