How people perceive you defines you in their eyes, but how you perceive yourself — something known as self-concept — may define your persona and how you develop.

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What makes you “you” has a lot to do with how you see yourself. If you consider yourself to be a kind person, for example, that can become a key component of your personal identity.

“I’m kind” is something you believe about yourself. It’s a part of your self-concept.

Self-concept is what you believe defines you as a person. It answers the question: “Who am I?”

In psychology, many theories on self-concept exist, but most of them parallel the notion that self-concept is a critical component of identity development.

Self-concept involves everything about you, from your moral stance and everyday behaviors to your recreational talents and political beliefs.

According to research published in 2020 that discusses the self-concept theory proposed by William D. Brooks and Philip Emmert in 1976, your self-concept may be primarily positive or negative and predisposes you to certain thoughts or behaviors.

Positive self-concept examples

  • believe you can make a difference
  • feel on par with others
  • receive compliments without shame
  • understand everyone has certain feelings or behaviors that may not be fully socially acceptable
  • have a willingness and readiness to work on yourself and resolve unhelpful behaviors

Negative self-concept examples

  • be sensitive to criticism
  • be over-responsive to praise
  • feel disliked by others
  • assume everyone views themselves in the negative
  • tend to be hypocritical
  • offer extreme negative criticism toward others
  • encounter social interaction challenges and barriers
  • be reluctant to interact with others

The world of psychology is vast, and identity development has been a point of interest for decades.

As such, many theories on self-concept exist, some independently of others and some building off earlier works.

One of the most widely accepted frameworks of self-concept was developed by psychologist Carl Rogers, who believed self-concept could be broken down into three primary components.

What are the 3 parts of self-concept?

According to Rogers, the three core parts of self-concept are:

  1. Ideal self: your vision and ambitions of who you want to be
  2. Real self (self-image): how you currently see and perceive yourself
  3. Self-esteem: how much worth and value you believe you have

Rogers believed how your ideal self and real self aligned was important to the development of your self-esteem.

If your ideal self did not match the reality of your real self, he suggested your self-concept was “incongruent,” and your self-esteem was likely to be negatively affected.

Real selves matching ideal selves was labeled as “congruent” and associated with positive self-esteem.

What are the four concepts of the self?

Within the framework for self-concept are coexisting theories, such as that of self-presentation, which suggests your self-concept influences how behavior can be a way to show others who you are.

In self-presentation theory, four concepts of the self exist:

  1. Public self: your view of yourself as defined by other people’s public knowledge of you
  2. Self-concept: who you believe you are
  3. Actual or behavioral self: the self created by your actions and habits
  4. Ideal self: the self you aspire to be

Self-categorization theory

In the 1980s and 1990s, John Turner, a social psychologist, proposed another self-concept principle known as self-categorization.

In his works, Turner felt two different levels of self-categorization existed:

  1. Personal: your sense of self as an individual
  2. Social: your sense of self as defined by the group you feel you belong to

Turner suggested self-concept was a combination of personal and social identities, and that people could define themselves on multiple levels based on their intrapersonal comparisons.

For example, as an individual, you may identify yourself as a strong athlete. However, as a member of a team, you may feel less confident as a performer if the team doesn’t do well.

Social identity concept vs. self-categorization concept

Social identity concept, pioneered by Henri Tajfel, a social psychologist, also investigates personal and social self-concept.

Unlike self-categorization, which involves self-placement in a group to which you feel you belong, social identity theory suggests you find meaning and consider it important to be a part of a specific group.

Self-categorization example: I’m Irish because I was born and live in Ireland.

Social identity example: I’m a member of my political party because I believe in what they stand for.

The looking glass self-concept

In 1902, Charles Cooley, a sociologist, introduced what was known as the looking glass theory, an extension of self-concept that suggested your sense of self was directly influenced by the perception of those around you.

For example, if you notice everyone laughs when you make a comment, you may start to define yourself as “funny.”

Sense of self can be an important part of maintaining your mental well-being.

In fact, older research from 2008 details how an unstable sense of self-identity is a symptom of bipolar disorder and can be for other mental health conditions, too.

Even if you feel as though you have a robust self-concept, there are resources available that can help you explore what self-concept really means to you.

The following resources may help guide you in self-concept development: