As the name suggests, self-concept is literally the concept we have of ourselves. That is, in what terms we define ourselves, what characteristics we consider to define us, what idea we have of what we are or who we are. The self-concept has to do, therefore, with identity, that is, who I believe I am, what “things” I believe I am, although it is not exactly the same, since identity would be something broader.
Self-concept and self-esteem
Both are part of our identity and are very linked to each other. In very colloquial terms we could say that self-esteem is the positive or negative evaluation we make of the characteristics included in the self-concept. In this sense, self-esteem is the result of the judgment we make about what we like and what we don’t like about ourselves.
In reality, however, self-esteem is something deeper than that, it is more complex – psychologically speaking – than what is normally reduced to “loving or not loving oneself” in the language of the street. In fact, in a strict sense, self-esteem is the perception that a person has of deserving to be loved or not. Where it says “loved” it is not only to be understood in a “romantic” sense, but with a more extensive meaning: the perception that a person has of deserving being valued, validated, recognized, cared for, integrated, accepted, etc. Another way of explaining this would be that this perception of merit has to do with the expectation we have that others will love us: if I believe that I am valuable, that is, if my self-esteem is reasonably high, I will believe that others will consider me the same way and that allows me to go through life with security, confidence and positivity.
In the reality of our internal world, self-esteem and self-concept exist at the same time, although here we are separating them in order to analyze them more clearly. In doing so, we can observe areas of each of these two self-references that are very differentiated. For example, if I say “I am 1’70” I am clearly talking about a characteristic of my self-concept, without entering to value it: being 1’70” tall is an objective fact, which defines me, independently of whether I like it more or less, in which case we would already enter into self-esteem. But if I say “I’m a great person” I’m really talking about both self-concept and self-esteem at the same time, since being a great person is something that I consider to define me (self-concept) but includes a valuation, a judgment, in this case a positive one (self-esteem).Self-concept is born from a constant interaction between external and internal materials
On the other hand, there can also be paradoxes. I can say “I’m ugly, my face is a mess… and it’s okay, that doesn’t make me feel bad, I love my face, it’s different and special and it gives me personality”. In other words, not necessarily does a negative evaluation of a characteristic always imply a bad self-esteem with respect to that subject.
Rich self-concept, poor self-concept
We often talk about people with a large “inner world”, who are multifaceted or complex. In other cases we would speak of people with a poor self-concept, either because they have little capacity for introspection and reflection on themselves, because of rigidity, because of a low cultural level, because they have a weaker or more immature personality, because they are what in the language of the street is called “simple”, etc.
Let’s imagine that I make a list of those characteristics that define me, that indicate something of what I am or who I am. If the list has 4 elements instead of 40, it seems that this self-concept is not very broad, not very rich. On the other hand, if the list has 40 characteristics but they only talk about one or two facets (for example, physical appearance, or profession) it doesn’t seem to be a very rich self-concept either. In both cases it would perhaps be interesting to sharpen our look at ourselves a little more, to be more observant, to be able to detect more characteristics, to recognize the complex person that we are and not reduce them to four things or the four things about ourselves that we have been taught that we are, that we have learned that we are and that we keep repeating over and over again as if they were the only truth about us.
It is good to do this, moreover, because if I have a poor but well-valued self-concept nothing may happen, but if there are few things that define me and I give them little value, or others begin to give them little value, then I will surely sink, because I put all the eggs of my self-esteem in the same basket and the basket has broken.
For example: if I only define myself in professional terms that can work for me as long as I work and as long as I have a good regard for myself as a worker, or others do. However, the day I retire I will “disappear”, I will cease to be someone of value and that can be devastating. The same thing happens if I only consider myself in physical terms: what if that is not valued well? what if for some reason I start to lose my success as a physically attractive and desirable person? That “all of me” will be wrong, I will disappear, but because of a distorted and simplistic view of the person I am.
The constructive view of the other
Do we shape our self-concept through what others think of us? Of course we do. Our identity – which includes both self-concept and self-esteem – is part of what those around us tell us we are, from babies onwards. You are a man, you are Spanish, you are handsome, you are bad, you are a good friend, you are not good at sports, you are my son, you are the eldest, you will be important, you will go to university, etc. Later this “building” is already enriched with the rest of life experiences and with how each one of us elaborates all these influences: we all feed on what comes from outside but we elaborate it with our particular tools, we have a very important voice in our self-concept, of course. That is, our self-concept is the fruit of constant interaction of external and internal material.
Ultimately, to reach a conclusion about who we are, being influenced a lot by what our families, friends, teachers, partners, co-workers tell us about ourselves. Sometimes there can be a great consensus about this over time or among different people in our environment. Other times different people in our lives have different ideas of who we are or how we are and pass them on to us. It is normal and desirable that such controversies exist – it would be terrible if everyone told us that we are horrible and had no alternative outside opinion. We are never exactly “the same person” with everyone, we have different roles in our lives and we also change our behaviour and hence our self-concept.
It is important to keep in mind that there is part of the self-concept – or identity if you prefer – that changes over time while another remains stable throughout life. For example, I will always consider myself to be of a specific gender identity, I will always call myself by my name (unless I change it and decide that from that day on I will be the person who is now called by that name), I will always be from a specific place (the sense of belonging to a place may vary, obviously, but in general it is relatively stable), but just as I was once a teacher, now I am no longer a teacher, I am a pensioner, or before I was not a father and now I am. Some facets change while others remain totally or relatively stable over time.