The concept of “self” is a difficult construct to define and even more so to measure. Many people define their “self” with commonly used labels, such as “mother”, “wife”, or “friend”. They also use personality traits to describe the “self”, such as “anxious”, “extrovert”, or “clean freak”. Many people question whether the “self” remains consistent throughout a person’s life, or if life’s experiences alter the self, as a person evolves and learns more about the world in which they live. According to many sources, the “self” consists of much more than these labels or traits and the concept of “self”, demonstrated in the following paragraphs, is defined and understood on many different levels.
Although the concept of self is difficult but important to define, it is more important to understand what it means. Several theories and definitions exist, but one of the more popular theories was developed by a humanistic psychologist named Carl Rogers. According to Rogers, the most important component of the personality is the “self”. He described the self as being the part of experience that a person comes to identify early in life as “I” or “me” (Huffman, 2004). According to followers of Rogers, the term “self-concept” refers to all the information and beliefs a person has, as an individual, regarding their own nature, unique qualities, and typical behaviors (Huffman, 2004).
While Rogers’ theories are more focused on personality and traits, the area of social psychology is more focused on four different levels of the self to help define the term. According to Fiske (2004), these levels are the body self, the inner self, the interpersonal self, and the societal self. These levels are examined from the most direct experience to the more indirect experience.
The first level level, the “body self” (also known as the material self), is described as being a person’s possessions. This can include material possessions such as a car or one’s own clothes. But, more personally, it also includes a person’s physical being such as their face, voice, or body. The material possessions change throughout a person’s life, but the possessions themselves reflect a person’s identity. The person’s physical being can be modified to some degree, such as staying in shape, but any extreme modifications, such as plastic surgery, can have a tremendous impact on how the self is viewed.
The next level is the inner self, or spiritual self. “People’s attitudes, abilities, interests, and emotions all constitute the inner self” (Fiske, 2004, p.171). While these are the characteristics to describe this level, it is important to know that is directly associated with the individual’s private thoughts and feelings, and their intra-personal and self-reflective identity.
The interpersonal self, also called the social self is described as a person’s personal relationships with people (Fiske, p. 171). When people describe themselves as a “wife”, a “student”, or “doctor”, they are describing their interpersonal identity. One thing the descriptions have in common is that they are all socially defined roles, which consists of behaviors expected of a person who has a specific, socially-defined position.
The final level, called the societal self, is broader in terms of a person’s identity and includes one’s culture, ethnicity, gender, age, and religion. It relates to a person’s self identity as a member of society. In general, the societal self is about identifying with a meaningful group membership.
What these four levels demonstrate is that the self is not a one-dimensional concept. When a person attempts to understand and identify their own “self,” they sometimes only manage to see one or two levels, instead of the whole picture. The levels are defined individually, but they overlap and intertwine with one another to create an individual that is as unique as the next.
Although not easy to define, the concept of self does exist and as a result, the question of how it develops arises. The self-concept is not innate, but rather developed by the individual through their interactions with society and through reflections on that interaction (Franken, 1994). This aspect of self-concept is important because it indicates that it can be modified or changed. People develop and maintain their self-concept through their experiences and then they reflect on this experience or action. In addition to their own reflections, they also take into account what others tell them about the experience and this feedback is used to form a thought or opinion that contributes to the self-concept. People reflect on what they have experienced/learned and think about what they will possibly experience/learn in the future. This reflection includes a comparison to their personal expectations and what they perceive as the expectations of others in society.
One of the most basic premises of psychology is that thoughts and feelings lead to action, or behavior. This is no different when exploring the concept of self. In terms of measuring such a difficult construct, research psychologists have divided the self into three sections to ease the difficulty of an operational definition and to focus on specific attributes that make up the “self”. The threesome (or sometimes referred to as the tripod) are the self-concept (cognition level), the self-esteem (emotional level), and the self presentation (behavioral level).
Self-esteem is the emotional aspect of the “self” and generally refers to how we feel about or how we value ourselves (Fiske, 2004). Franken (1994) also suggests that self-concept is related to self-esteem because "people who have good self-esteem have a clearly differentiated self-concept. When people know themselves they can maximize outcomes because they know what they can and cannot do" (p. 439). In other words, the better people know themselves, the better they can manage situations and its outcome. Because of this, added with an increase in self-confidence, this management has a direct impact on self-esteem.
Finally, the concept of self-presentation is described by Fiske (2004) as being the behaviors that people exhibit to try to convey certain identities or images to other people. People’s behaviors do not always reflect their true self and this is because they may be trying to demonstrate more desirable characteristics (or what society perceives as such) to the outside world than what comes naturally to them. For example, a person may try to convey to people at a party that they are outgoing, when in fact, they are introverted. This would be considered abnormal behavior for this individual, to this individual (not to a stranger). The motivation for the change in behavior may be that the introverted person perceives (either mistakenly or not) that extroverted behavior is a more a desirable characteristic and may attract more people.
When encountered with the term “self”, people usually think of the conscious reflection of their own identity, and often as an entity that is separate from their own environment. As evidenced by the information above, the self is very much part of the environment in which it lives. Much of people’s concept of their own self is derived from their environment, the people they encounter, and those whom which they share their lives. It would be difficult to have a full picture of one’s self without feedback and experiences acquired from both intra and interpersonal interactions.
Fiske, S. (2004). Social beings. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Franken, R. (1994). Human motivation (3rd ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
Huffman, K. (2004). Psychology in Action (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons.