What Is Self-Concept? Understanding the Foundation of Personal Identity

Parents, friends, family, and society all help shape your self-concept and, in the process, influence your cognitive functioning, ability to process emotions and behaviors. The susceptibility to mental health disorders depends on whether you have a positive or negative self-concept.  This article will explore self-concept and how it influences your world perception, behavior, and emotions. […]

isbell oliva garcia grow therapy By Isbell Oliva-Garcia, LMHC

Updated on Jan 12, 2024

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Parents, friends, family, and society all help shape your self-concept and, in the process, influence your cognitive functioning, ability to process emotions and behaviors. The susceptibility to mental health disorders depends on whether you have a positive or negative self-concept. 

This article will explore self-concept and how it influences your world perception, behavior, and emotions. It’ll also show how to use this interconnectedness to improve and safeguard your mental health and wellness.  

What Is Self-Concept?

Self-concept is the collection of perceptions, beliefs, and evaluations an individual holds about themselves. It’s a mental image you create based on your thoughts and feelings that form the foundation of your personal identity. Your self-concept shapes how you view yourself and interact with the world. 

Self-concept is a multifaceted psychological construct that evolves throughout your life, shaped and influenced by various factors, including personal experience, social interactions, and cultural factors. As you mature, your self-concept evolves, grows in complexity, and becomes more abstract. 

A positive self-concept may empower you to embrace your uniqueness, build self-confidence, and give you the resilience to overcome adversity.

Typically, your self-concept comprises self-identity, self-image, self-esteem, and the ideal self, which influence your emotions, behavior, and relationships. Self-concept is never clear-cut — you may have positive and negative self-perceptions in various aspects of your life. For instance, a student may view themselves as an exceptional athlete who’s not academically gifted, or a mother might feel she’s a great mom but not a great cook. 

Kesler Jefferson, a licensed mental health counselor with Grow Therapy, explains the connection between therapy and self-concept. “In therapy, clients can explore how their self-concept impacts their relationships and life choices. As they uncover patterns of behavior tied to their self-perception, they can make conscious changes that align with their true selves.”

Understanding self-concept is important because it impacts your mental health and overall well-being and influences your ability to navigate life’s challenges. A positive self-concept may empower you to embrace your uniqueness, build self-confidence, and give you the resilience to overcome adversity. 

Development of Self-Concept 

The development of self-concept is a lifelong process commencing in early childhood and continues throughout your life. It involves forming and organizing beliefs, perceptions, and evaluations about oneself based on experiences, interactions, and cultural influences. 

Infancy: A basic sense of self begins to emerge by the time you’re two years old. You start differentiating yourself from others, responding to your name, and recognizing your reflection in the mirror.  

Early Childhood: The self-concept develops as you become more aware of your capabilities, interests, and preferences. You start learning to use language to describe yourself and identify personal characteristics such as gender, age, and physical traits. 

Middle Childhood: Middle childhood is a significant phase because you start forming a social identity based on group memberships such as school and family and comparing yourself to others. At this stage, you begin to internalize feedback from influential figures, which can influence your self-esteem and self-perceptions

Adolescence: Adolescence marks an intense period of self-exploration and identity formation. You’ll likely wrestle with the “who am I?” question and seek to establish a more coherent and independent self-concept. Social interactions, societal expectations, and peer relationships significantly shape your self-concept during your teenage years. 

Adulthood: Self-concept continues evolving into your adulthood, influenced by life experiences, personal achievements, and social roles. As an adult, your self-concept may fluctuate based on life events and transitions, such as starting a new career, romantic relationships, or parenthood. 

Components of Self-Concept 

Carl Rogers, a pioneer of humanistic psychology, suggested that self-concept comprises three parts: 

Self-Identity: This refers to the personal and subjective view of who you are and forms the foundation of your self-perception. Your self-identity evolves with age, influenced by personal characteristics, social roles, interests, values, life experiences, and future aspirations. Your self-identity shapes how you navigate life, form relationships, and approach personal growth. 

Self-Esteem: Self-esteem is a judgment of your self-worth, and your level of self-esteem ties closely to your self-evaluation. Typically, your evaluations entail comparing yourself to others and how they respond to you. Your self-esteem grows if you excel at something or people react positively to your actions. Conversely, your self-esteem may decrease if you’re unsuccessful in a given area or if people respond negatively.  

Self-Image: Self-image describes how you perceive yourself, and it impacts how you think, feel, and behave. It’s usually a combination of your physical characteristics, social roles, and personality traits. Parents, friends, media, and age may heavily influence your self-image. Older people often define themselves by their social roles (husband, wife, mother, father), while younger people lean toward personal traits. 

Humanistic psychology assumes that people have an inherent need to self-actualize and can reach their maximum potential if they have the proper environment. 

Congruence vs. Incongruence

Self-concept provides the framework upon which your personality develops and assumes everyone has the inherent need to self-actualize and achieve their dreams. Rogers suggested that you can only achieve self-actualization by balancing the three elements of self-concept: self-image, self-identity, and self-esteem. 

Typically, you achieve balance or congruence when there’s an overlap between the three aspects, allowing your self-concept to reflect your reality. When there’s a mismatch between your self-image and self-identity, your self-concept becomes incongruent, negatively impacting your self-esteem. A lowered self-esteem will distort the balance and trigger adverse reactions that may lower your quality of life. 

Although each aspect of your self-concept plays a distinct role, there’s a massive area of overlap — the degree of overlap determines your ability to self-actualize. The higher the overlap, the higher your capacity to self-actualize. 

Self-Concept and Your Mental Health

There’s a profound interconnection between your self-concept and mental health since your self-perception directly impacts your emotional well-being and psychological state. A healthy self-concept gives you a positive, balanced, and realistic view of oneself, fostering self-acceptance and the resilience to best manage life’s challenges. Conversely, a distorted self-concept may fill you with insecurities, leaving you vulnerable to various mental health concerns,. 

A positive self-concept serves as a protective barrier against mental health struggles. You’re more likely to approach life with confidence and optimism when you have a strong sense of identity. 

Conversely, a negative self-concept may increase your susceptibility to mental health disorders. It may saddle you with negative beliefs that may lead you to engage in self-critical thoughts, lower your self-worth, and dim your optimism and confidence levels. That hampers your ability to cope with stressful situations and setbacks, leaving you feeling hopeless and inadequate. Negative beliefs fuel anxiety and depression and may lead to other severe mental health issues. 

How Does Your Self-Concept Impact Your Mental Health? 

Your self-concept profoundly impacts your mental health by determining your emotional well-being and psychological resilience. How you perceive yourself influences your thoughts, feelings, and behavior, affecting your mental health. 

Typically, you have a positive self-concept if you:

Some signs that you may have a negative self-concept include: 

Your self-concept determines how you treat yourself and influences the type of internal environment you establish. A balanced locus of control leaves you brimming with confidence, resourcefulness, and allows you to maintain emotional stability during difficult times. It enables you to build healthy, fulfilling interpersonal relationships grounded in mutual respect and emotional support. 

Can You Change a Negative Self-Concept? 

Since the core elements of your self-perception result from conditioning, you can change a negative self-concept and develop a healthier, positive one. A negative self-concept or incongruency results when you lack sufficient overlap between the three elements. Therefore, changing a negative self-concept comes down to replacing an incongruent view with a congruent one. It mirrors the core principles of psychotherapy — identifying false beliefs and restructuring or replacing them with constructive ones — to produce healthier beliefs and behaviors. 

That allows therapists to tap into the philosophies embodied in mental therapy modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to effect this change. A psychotherapist can help adjust your self-image, self-worth, and self-esteem and bring you close to your ideal self. By helping you increase the overlap, your counselor can help you strike the balance that breeds congruency, increasing your capacity to self-actualize. 

How Therapy Can Help Improve Self-Concept 

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, can be invaluable in helping vulnerable individuals improve their self-concept. It provides a supportive and constructive environment to explore and understand your self-perception. Once you understand how your thoughts and feelings influence your behavior, your therapist can help you develop the skills to change them and improve your mental health.

Psychotherapy treats various mental health disorders and is just as effective for people without a mental health diagnosis. Your counselor may use one or more therapy modalities to help you improve your self-concept and move toward congruency. 

Seeking therapy can help you recalibrate your self-perception and bridge the gap between your self-perception and reality by bolstering your psychological resilience.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) explores the connection between your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. If there’s incongruence between your self-perception and reality, your therapist may use CBT to drive the change and improve your outlook. They may do so using various techniques, including:  

Self-Exploration and Self-Awareness: Through guided introspection and self-reflection, your therapist can help you gain deep insights into the factors that influence your self-concept. That allows you to identify the negative thought patterns and perceptions weighing you down.  

Challenging Negative Beliefs: Questioning the validity of your beliefs and examining the evidence to the contrary can help you challenge and reframe negative beliefs about yourself. It can help you replace self-criticism with a more balanced and realistic self-evaluation. 

Building Self-Compassion: Treating yourself with kindness, compassion, and understanding, especially during challenging times, helps build a more nurturing and supportive self-concept.  

Identifying and Celebrating Strengths: A therapist can help you recognize your unique strengths, talents, and accomplishments. Focusing on your positive attributes helps build a balanced and realistic self-perception that includes a sense of pride and self-worth. 

Addressing Past Trauma and Experiences: Sometimes, your negative self-concept may be rooted in past trauma or life events. Therapy allows you to heal and move past the trauma, which boosts your sense of self-worth and improves your self-image. 

Providing Coping Skills: Once a therapist uncovers the root cause of your problems, they can provide you with coping skills and strengthen your ability to navigate the challenges and setbacks. Strengthening your mental resilience can help you build a positive self-image since you don’t crumble at the first sign of trouble.  

Practicing Assertiveness: Developing assertiveness allows you to set healthy boundaries in all your relationships. It lets you control your life, contributing to a stronger sense of self and increased self-respect. 

Mental health therapists use various techniques to help you better understand yourself and stop struggling with your thoughts and feelings. They can offer guidance to help you to bridge the gap between self-perception and reality.

Build Your Self-Concept and Safeguard Your Mental Health 

Although our life experiences play a huge role in shaping our lives, we’re not beholden to our past. Seeking therapy can help you recalibrate your self-perception and bridge the gap between your self-perception and reality by bolstering your psychological resilience. A therapist can help you build a positive self-concept to improve your stability and lowers your mental health risk. 

If you’re struggling with a negative self-concept, Grow Therapy can help. Use our platform to find a qualified mental health therapist with a few clicks of a button. Use our search tool to find a provider who takes your insurance and fits your needs. 


  • Self-concept reflects how individuals perceive themselves through different psychological lenses, including thoughts, feelings, self-valuation, and beliefs. Self-image is a subset of self-concept and describes how individuals view themselves physically and mentally.

  • Self-concept may influence your physical health because it impacts your mental health. A positive self-concept gives you the mental space to embrace beneficial behaviors, such as regular exercise and healthy eating habits. On the other hand, a negative self-concept may contribute to stress-related health issues associated with various health ailments, including hypertension and cardiovascular diseases.

  • Individuals with a positive self-concept lead a better life because they're motivated, set higher goals, and persevere through challenges, leading to great personal, relational, and professional achievements.

About the author
isbell oliva garcia grow therapy Isbell Oliva-Garcia, LMHC

Isbell Oliva-Garcia is a licensed mental health counselor, bilingual in English and Spanish. Isbell specializes in women's issues during difficult times of transition and also works with front-line individuals struggling with PTSD or stressors created by the job.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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