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Life has its ups and downs, and it takes quite some practice to be able to handle it well. A really good foundational theory to help make sense of the world and your reaction to it is the idea of self-concept. It’s a powerful idea that when understood can be utilized in a variety of ways. 

It is important to master the idea of self-concept particularly if you are a counselor, as the key to helping others understand themselves is to first understand yourself—kind of like putting the oxygen mask on yourself first before you help others. In the end, it’s a matter of achieving a certain state of self-awareness, so you know why you’re reacting to a particular experience that way. 

What Is Self-concept?

Self-concept is basically how we view ourselves: character traits that we perceive and develop throughout the years, either from our own or another person’s observations. It’s a picture of ourselves that we create, and we take into heart as the truth of who we are. Starting when we are young, we develop our self-concept by first observing tangible concepts. For example:

  • Hair color
  • Complexion
  • Height
  • Favorite food
  • Favorite music

As we grow, we shift our focus and begin adapting more intrinsic values to be part of our self-concept:

  • Outgoing
  • Introverted
  • Creative
  • Analytical

In our teens and well into adulthood, we begin to add characteristics that we feel we have an affinity with. For example, a person might think that I am a:

  • Feminist
  • Liberal
  • Conservative
  • Catholic

That said, our self-concept is not just developed by our own experiences and realizations. There are values that we form from others and the experiences that we go through. These are called introjected values. These are values and character traits that we take from our culture or nationality, or even the way our friends and families see us.

All of these add up to our self-concept that we form throughout the years. It’s how we make sense of who we are: an organized sum total of characteristics that we identify as uniquely ours. 

Self-concept and How We Perceive the World 

All these perceived truths that make up our self-concept define how we see our reality. It is best summed up with the quote: “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” Our subjectivity and the self-concept that we have formed affects the way we perceive the world and our place in it. For example, if optimism is part of our self-concept, then we might be able to see the silver lining of every experience we go through—no matter how objectively bad it is. 

As counselors, it is important to understand that our own truths are shaped by our self-concept and may well be flawed. This means that we have to be flexible and adjust our self-concept in order to deal with things and possibly help others make sense of their situation.

The Incongruence Between Reality and Our Self-concept 

Knowing this, you can see how great of an impact self-concept has in the way we live our lives. If our self-concept is aligned with the experience we go through, then there is a balance with the self and the world. However, this is not always the case. A lot of tension and confusion in life comes from a disconnect, or an incongruence between our self-concept and the realities that we experience. 

Going back to our optimist example above: if you consider yourself an optimist, and then you come across a situation that is so bleak that it is impossible to see the silver lining, this may result in you questioning yourself. “I always see the good in things; why can’t I see any hope in this? Maybe I really am in a hopeless situation.”

With enough incongruence, psychological distress builds up, and you hold truths as part of your self-concept that eventually damage you and cause pain. 

Conditions of Worth and the Locus of Evaluation

What’s worse is that some introjected values are such a huge part of our self-concept, that it sometimes leads to creating conditions of worth that are completely external. 

For example, consider this case:

  • Achiever: gets praised by teachers and parents whenever they get high grades
  • Self-concept equates self-worth with achievement
  • Fails to perform = failure at life

This results in the achiever feeling that they are no longer worthy of praise and love, because for the first time in their life, they did not perform well no matter how hard they tried. 

This reality leads to what is called an External Locus of Evaluation. One’s value and self-worth are dependent on other people’s judgment, which leads to a person always seeking approval from other people. 

Moving from the External to the Internal

It really begins with practicing the mindset of introspection and self-awareness. Understanding all of these concepts mean that you can try to form habits to help you catch those moments of incongruence. A lot of counselors agree that it is healthy to move from an external to an Internal Locus of Evaluation. One’s value and self-worth are not dependent on other people’s judgment, which leads to a person creating their own worth.

A person who achieves a certain level of self-awareness can see that their negative reaction to a situation might just be a result of incongruence. Their self-concept is flexible, so they adjust to situations easier than those who are not self-aware, and who are more rigid in their self-concept. 

What Can You Do About It?

There are a lot of tools that can lead to introspection and self-awareness. Maybe start with something like Habit Trackers, to get into the rhythm of monitoring yourself and your habits. It might also be good to assess your short-term goals to help alleviate or address incongruence in life. 

The goal is to employ tools and strategies to get yourself used to monitor yourself and your reaction to things. Hopefully, these would help you adjust your self-concept to find worth not in external factors and opinions of other people, but in yourself and the beliefs and values you hold dear. 

***

This understanding of self-concept and how it affects our daily lives helps promote self-awareness and can lead you to live a better, more content life. However, these are just general tips, and should not be used to self-diagnose deep psychological problems. 

If you really feel that you are troubled, and introspection and self-awareness no longer help, it is always best to seek professional help. 

*Arthur is a productivity coach and writer who helps top young execs and entrepreneurs achieve game-changing results in their work without giving up the rest of their lives. His favorite tool is his daily planner. “Look after the days, and the years will look after themselves.”

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