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Wilderness Therapy: The Self Concept Model

Any life is left empty without good memories. Our past successes stay with us as well as our happiest times. Sadness clings to our minds, trapping us with emotional unpredictability and uncertainty. However, the good news is that life goes on, and we can always reshape our existence and state of mind by shifting the balance of our memories from negative to positive.

Our memories in many ways are our strength, and while we have little control of our experiences while we are young, our adolescent lives present many unique and interesting opportunities. Therefore, the question becomes: what do I like to do, and how does it make me feel? This seems simple, but being thrilled about an experience is about as unpredictable as our own minds. The two go hand in hand. Our state of mind to an extent dictates how much we will enjoy something.

The purpose of a wilderness therapy program is to separate youth from negative influences and place them in environments that are safe and support growth. Students are not merely thrown into the wilderness and made to suffer hardships. They are encouraged, challenged, and given every opportunity to succeed in activities that are necessary, natural, and reasonable. Adolescents form bonds with each other, field staff, and therapists while they endure adversity in the process of overcoming natural challenges.

I have developed a model that is particularly useful in the development and implementation of wilderness therapy programs. It is called the self concept model. The premise for the model is that activities can be used to improve a person’s view of themselves. This in turn leads to the person building self confidence and becoming happier with themselves and their lives. The self concept model rests on three variables: personality, character, and self confidence. All three variables are aspects of a person’s identity.

Your sources of self worth are as individual to you as the personality you are born with. The self worth you receive from participating in an activity is a byproduct of your identity. I feel that self worth is a difficult concept to grasp and may best be explained through an example.

First, you have an individual who is unhappy with themselves and their life at present. This individual is introverted (personality), believes in doing the right thing (character), and has a low self confidence level. Because this individual is introverted, he may pursue activities that do not involve interacting with many people or working as part of a team. He may obtain great satisfaction from knowing that he can achieve goals that build his ability to contribute to the well being of others.  As a result from participation, his state of mind and self confidence level will improve.

Wilderness programs emphasize skill development and present unique and interesting activities that foster personal growth.  Common wilderness therapy activities include:

  • Primitive living
  • Outdoor education
  • Team building
  • Challenge courses
  • Expeditions
  • Leadership training

Based on the self concept model, this individual will receive a sense of self worth from gaining leadership skills by leading a guided hike. The activity allows him to think independently (personality). It is an opportunity to create a meaningful experience for others (character). The sense of self worth he receives from leading the guided hike will improve his self confidence level.

Remember that it is important to structure a program around an individual’s strengths and allow he/she to build on those strengths through activities that challenge them personally. While leading a guided hike, weather and terrain provide natural consequences. Teamwork and leadership provide choices. Social interaction and reinforcement are necessary to the group’s effectiveness. All of these elements will allow him to build on his strengths and grow and develop as a person.

It is important to set an individual’s expectations based on past experiences and strengths and weaknesses. We are far more likely to enjoy something we are good at, and we can base what we will enjoy in the future around what we did and did not enjoy in the past. The value of accumulating positive experiences is enormous, as it can very easily build our tolerance for misfortune, as our minds can always turn to positive experiences to balance poor experiences. The sadness that follows misfortune will be countered with happiness and confidence.

Weathering the metaphorical storm requires that we learn to tolerate negative consequences and negative outcomes. There is a certain emotional sting when we learn that something we wanted to happen will not happen or that the consequences of our decisions reveal that we made a poor decision. However, through reflection, which allows us to heal, we can build immunizations to future negative outcomes and consequences. It is certainly possible to use recreation to change one’s mindset from negative to positive simply by shifting the balance of an individual’s memories.

The self concept model is a tool in a field staff member’s toolkit. I am merely offering an approach to structuring a wilderness program that contributes to an improved self concept. This in turn leads to the development of inner strength. Inner strength is the greatest tool and adolescent can have when preparing for the challenges the lie ahead beyond the wilderness program. When we are at full inner strength, we have the greatest chance at being happy and mentally healthy. The ability to tolerate the obstacles and hardships that life presents provide us with an opportunity to truly be happy with ourselves and our lives. Although the scars remain, they merely become stories to tell, not barriers to living a happy and healthy life. 

Wilderness Therapy: The Self Concept Model


David Stant

David Stant is a lead presenter on mental health topics to high school and college students and school staff. He is a once PMT and MDT certified Mental Health Specialist. David has been working on practical applications for his theory, "The Self Concept Approach to Happiness" ( Psychology Tomorrow, 2014), which is the basis for his development of the Wilderness Therapy model.


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APA Reference
Stant, D. (2020). Wilderness Therapy: The Self Concept Model. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/wilderness-therapy-the-self-concept-model/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 5 Jun 2020 (Originally: 7 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 5 Jun 2020
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