The psychological term self may refer to one’s conceptualization of his or her own personal identity. Depending on the theoretical framework, self can be defined in different ways. Self theory might include constructs like self-concept, personality, identity, and/or the makeup of one’s inner world.
What Is Self?
According to an article from the National Institute of Health (2011), the modern concepts of self and consciousness were first established by philosopher John Locke in 1689. In Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding he compares personality to a blank slate, or tabula rasa, which is shaped by our experiences and our perceptions of them.
The abstract concept of self can be hard to pin down, but the field of psychology has generated many terms to clarify its meaning:
- Self-concept: One’s perceptions, feelings, and ideas about who he or she is as a person.
- Personality: A set of stable behavior patterns; the consistency between who people are, who they have been, and who they will be in the future.
- Self-esteem: One’s negative or positive evaluation of oneself.
- Self-image: Perception of one’s body and mind; similar to self-concept.
- Self-efficacy: Belief in one’s ability to be successful.
- Social identity: The part of our identity that comes from our groups, our culture, and our environment.
- Self-compassion: The act of mindfully cultivating compassion for one’s own self even in the face of adversity or personal failures.
Several theoretical models of psychology have identified their own definitions of self. For example:
- Psychodynamic (Sigmund Freud): Self is comprised of the unified personality of the id (base instincts), the ego (reason), and the superego (values and ideals).
- Rogerian (Carl Rogers): Self is one’s ever-evolving perception of personal identity and is made up of self-image, the ideal self, and the true self.
- Social Learning Theory (Julian B. Rotter): Thoughts, expectations, beliefs, learning, and external factors are key ingredients in the development of self and personality.
- Social Self Theory (George Herbert Mead): Self is formed via social roles, comparison to others, successes and failures, and the judgments of others. Additionally, one may develop an independent self or an interdependent self, depending on whether one’s culture is individualist or collectivist.
- Internal Family Systems (Richard Schwartz): This newer theory of “Self” states that the mind is comprised of parts, or subpersonalities, wherein the parts take on specific roles. The Self is the construct that is meant to lead these parts as they work together systemically.
How Is the Concept of Self Used in Therapy?
In most forms of therapy, self is a major focus and self-improvement is often a treatment goal. Examples of therapies that focus on self include:
- Psychoanalysis (Freud): In this treatment, the unconscious is explored in order to gain insight into the personality. Techniques like free association and projective tests are used to investigate one’s unconscious needs, wants, and conflicts.
- Person-centered Therapy (Rogers): In this treatment, the gap between one’s self-image, ideal self, and true self is the focus. This discrepancy between how one sees oneself versus one’s ideal self is called incongruence. Person-centered therapy supports people in bringing their self-image and ideal self closer together.
- Cognitive Therapy (Aaron Beck): This form of therapy challenges the negative or irrational beliefs one holds about oneself through the use of collaborative techniques like cognitive restructuring, bibliotherapy, and journaling.
- Internal Family Systems Therapy (Schwartz): This treatment assumes that every person has a healthy and capable Self built to manage the mind’s many parts, but negative life experiences can cause the system of parts to restructure in less helpful and more extreme ways. This type of therapy is designed to help people make space so that the parts of their mind can interact and renegotiate their roles. This process allows the Self to manage the system in a healthier way.
Self and Mental Health
Mental health issues can largely impact one’s perception of his or her identity. Depression, for example, can negatively affect self-concept and cause a person to feel inadequate or worthless. Anxiety can alter one’s ability to conduct an accurate self-evaluation, thus increasing the chances for low self-esteem.
Research suggests that positive self-esteem can be a key factor in the promotion of good mental and physical health. In some studies positive self-esteem has been identified as a protective factor against the progression of mental health issues. As such, people are often encouraged to improve their self-esteem regardless of the presence of mental health concerns.
With the guidance of a trained mental health professional in therapy, people who are experiencing mental health challenges will often discuss their concept of self and explore strategies for creating a healthier relationship to self. In some cases, working on one’s self-concept can help reduce negative symptoms and recover from mental health challenges.
- Comer, R. J. (2001). Abnormal Psychology (4th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
- Coon, D. (2005). Psychology A Journey (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
- Nimbalkar, N. (2011, January). John Locke on Personal Identity. Mens Sana Monographs, 9(1), 268-275. doi:10.4103/0973-1229.7744
- Kassin, S. (1998). Psychology (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Mann, M., Hosman, C. M., Schaalma, H. P., & de Vries, N. K. (2004, June 15). Self-esteem in a broad-spectrum approach for mental health promotion [Electronic version]. Health Education Research, 19(4), 357-372. doi:10.1093/her/cyg04
- Myers, D. G. (1999). Social Psychology (6th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw Hill Companies.
- Schwartz, R. (2013). Evolution of The Internal Family Systems Model. In Internal Family Systems. Retrieved January 22, 2015, from http://www.selfleadership.org/about-internal-family-systems.html
Last Updated: 01-19-2018
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BrunoMay 21st, 2017 at 1:08 PM
Aw, this was an exceptionally good post. Taking the time and actual effort to make a very good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and never seem to get anything done.
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