What the heck is a “Self-Concept?”

This post took me forever.  I’d go off on tangents and then do another draft to remove the tangent.  I’d also get dangerously close to “what is a self” which gets controversial and speculative very quickly.   Here’s a draft that contains a small dose of tangents and a small dose of self-theory.

Although a “self-concept” is a very abstract idea, it’s really simple to describe what it is and how to access it.

If you take any element of your life – whether it’s an event, your hair color, your job, your family, your sleep patterns, your car, your age, your dreams, your pets, your sexual practices, your posture – truly ANY aspect of your life – and you stamp the question, “what does that say about me?” on top of it, then you’ve moved into the self-concept territory.

It’s as simple as that.

When you ask yourself “what does that say about me?” it immediately brings answers of “I am [such and such]” which is the self’s concept of self; i.e., self-concept.

But things start to get really tricky really fast.  Already, we’re talking about the “self’s concept of self.”  Wait, what? An entity possessing a concept of its… own self.  What??  The self-concept is a crucial layer to examine but it can also get pretty tangled.  Let’s dissect why.

If our vehicle for getting into the territory is the stamp [what does it say about me?] and we examine the vehicle, we notice how the word “say” (send) implies there must be a contrasting energy of “listen” (receive).

So the self is saying something to the self who’s also listening.  Hmm.  We can see why this gets tricky.  It’s like trying to see your own eyeballs.  You can’t… unless you recruit a mirror.  And, even then, it’s subject to how good your vision is and how clean the mirror is.  There can be a lot of error.

So let’s examine some polar frustrations that can happen from self-concept.  On the one pole, we could use the label: “self-conscious.” Here we find the frustrations of using a lot of energy to examine, filter, worry, and choose.  On the other pole, we could use the label: “lacking insight.” Here we find the frustrations of having to solve the same problems over and over again (because they’re repeatedly created and remain constant).

Now we need to introduce parts-of-self.  Let’s say you have a disturbing dream where you’re doing some really funky things. So far, we have the dreamer who dreamed the dream, yes?  Then if we add the, “what does this say about me,” stamp, we introduce another role. If a part-of-self is saying, “wow, you’re a weirdo for having that dream,” then the dreamer has become a *receiver* of this message and there’s a new part-of-self of judger/sender. This is why self-concept is such a critical layer to examine.  It shows splits and parts, the stuff of inner-conflict.  There’s a view-er and a view-ee; a do-er and a do-ee.

In “self-consciousness” the volume is turned way up for viewer (who also happens to be very judgmental).  There’s the self who’s the doer.  And then there’s the self who’s viewing and judging the doer. Self-consciousness is very frustrating because, ultimately, we all want to dance like no one’s watching.   If you’re on the dance floor and there’s an individual standing a few feet away from you scowling at you and mocking your movements, it would be tough to enjoy dancing.  It’s also probably worth noting that “self-consciousness” has a lot of projection.  Instead of fully realizing, “hey I’m sitting here and judging myself,” it’s projected and experienced as an external fear: “if I do such and such, what are YOU going to think about me?”

To the flip side:  repetition after repetition due to a lack of insight.  If a person *never* asks themselves “what does this say about me?” then they’re discrediting their creative efforts.  If we look at a problem in our lives (especially if it seems repetitive/familiar) and then we wonder “what does it say about me,” then the next automatic step would be diving into how and why the problem is created by our own movements.  If we don’t turn our *sight* *in* (insight) then we’ll be “seeing” (out there) a really frustrating problem happen over and over again but the odds of it changing are very slim because we won’t adjust our own steps.

Here’s a quick peak at theory. In theory, growth entails the self-concept becoming integrated to where, at any given moment, the messages are the same: what the person is *doing* is identical to the concept of *what it says about the person*.  There’s a congruence of intent and message, something like “what it says about me” = “what I’m saying.”  Instead of a gap between [an expressive, creative behavior] and [a concept of self], there’s a confluence and sameness between them, like: “what I’m saying is what it says about me is what I’m saying.” In growing, the two come closer and closer.

On the contrary, growth also entails self-concept becoming more and more irrelevant.  Health simply means having a vast range of abilities to respond fittingly to different contexts in different moments.  Attributes of “character” aren’t as relevant because different situations call for different responses.  A concept of “I am warm” might actually be a detriment if there’s a situation that would be best suited with a “cold” response.  Self-concept, seen this way, becomes more and more  flexible and dynamic with growth to where it’s basically rendered irrelevant.  The self actually loses any sort of a fixed structure.  Perls loved this and talked about how he felt more and more like “nothing” as he grew.  Bruce Lee talked about this in terms of “be water.”

When I began this post, my intent wasn’t to examine two polar frustrations that relate to self-concept, nor to talk about self/growth theory. I just wanted to paint a quick picture of what self-concept is – and how to access that layer – so that I can talk about how you can get a two-for-one for your efforts; a psychological snowball effect; a buy-one-get-one for the same energy cost.  So here’s what the post was originally going to include before I went off on tangents:

There’s a huge difference in the value of completing tasks depending on whether the task touches your self-concept or not.  If you vacuum your house, you get the reward of the satisfaction of vacuuming your house.  And you get a vacuumed house.  If it didn’t touch your self-concept, then that’s all the reward you get.  No more.  HOWEVER, if your self-concept is “I am a dirty person” -> “I vacuumed my house” -> “what does that say about me” -> “maybe I’m not a dirty person!”  Now you have an unspeakably larger reward for your output.  When you complete a task and it also touches your self-concept, the reward is so much larger to the point where it can snowball bigger and bigger into, “what else am I capable of?!”

When we realize how much dead energy sits around in our personalities because of self-concept – “I am [such and such]” – and then we start hunting for how to get buy-one-get-one snowball effects, we can really get some things moving.

Try playing with it.  Try to differentiate tasks based on whether they touch your self-concept or not.  If you’re not sure, just take a quick moment and think, “what does this say about me,” and it must mean “I am [fill in the blank].”  This layer of life called the “self-concept” can really open up avenues for getting a lot more reward for your output and unlocking a lot of patterns and stale energy.

Try it with this post.  What does it say about you that you read this?  Fill in the blank: “I am [blank].”

“I am a bad-ass who is going to keep challenging myself and improving so that I can keep getting more and more engaged with the world and make the most out of my life.”

“I am a hopeless case who reads mental health articles because I can’t quite get it together.”

“I am inquisitive about the inner-workings of my psyche.”

Big differences, yes?  Even though the fact was the same (fact = I read this article), doing a quick peak at the self-concept layer can make a world of difference. Try to choose the tasks that go straight at the parts of your self-concept that need the love.

Be the snowball.  (The devil whispers to the warrior, “you’re not strong enough to withstand this storm.”  The warrior replies, “I am the storm.”)

 

 

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About Kip Watkins, MSEd, NCC, LPC

Kip is a Nationally Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor in Midtown, Harrisburg. He earned his Bachelor's Degree from Saint Vincent College and his Master's Degree from Duquesne University. Passionate about existential and systemic modes of therapy, he completed the post-graduate program at the Gestalt Institute of Pittsburgh. He deeply enjoys his work with his clients and he also loves helping other clinicians have more meaning and joy in their work.