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Self-concept encompasses all that you know about your self.

We’ll focus on the two broad categories of self-concept – ideal, or imagined, self and actual self – and the negotiation between the two. Then we’ll cover five basic tenets of self-concept.

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What Is Self-Concept?

Imagine yourself looking into a mirror.

What do you see? Do you see your ideal self or your actual self? Your ideal, or imagined, self is the self that you aspire to be. It is the one that you hope will possess characteristics similar to that of a mentor or some other worldly figure. Your actual self, however, is the one that you actually see. It is the self that has characteristics that you were nurtured or, in some cases, born to have.

Self-concept is the construct that negotiates these two selves. In other words, it connotes first the identification of the ideal self as separate from others, and second, it encompasses all the behaviors vetted in the actual self that you engage in to reach the ideal self. Behavioral scientists often assert that the self-concept is the sole perspective from which one can understand an individual’s behavior because it includes all the dimensions of the self, including how one looks (self-image) and what one knows (self-knowledge), and the ways in which these exist for others (fulfilling the ego).

What Is the Actual Self?

The actual self is built on self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is derived from social interactions that provide insight into how others react to you. For example, you are about to meet someone for the first time on a date. You are well dressed and you introduce yourself with a smile on your face.

However, your date meets you with a frown and declares, ‘I don’t want to see you!’ At first, you think about the frown and wonder whether his or her reaction has anything to do with you. But, the mention of ‘you’ in the comment tells you that this does have something to do with you. So, you reflect on your past behaviors and encounters, trying to figure out if you’ve met this person before and if you did, what exactly sparked his or her reaction. At this point, you are reflecting on your actual self derived from your self-concept, and you attempt to re-align this self with this surprising meeting on the first date. Conversely, if your date greeted you with a smile and said, ‘It is so good to see you,’ then you would not experience this discrepancy.

Instead, you would feel self-assured with your actual self intact.

What Is the Ideal or Imagined Self?

The ideal self is the self that you imagined to be on that first date. You thought about the context to your self-knowledge and imagined how the date would see you. It did not go as expected, which gave rise to the conflict between your actual and imagined self. If it did go as expected, your actual self would have matched your ideal self in this moment in time of your life.

How Do We Negotiate Between the Ideal and Actual Self?

The negotiation is complex because there are numerous exchanges between the ideal and actual self. These exchanges are exemplified in social roles that are adjusted and re-adjusted, and are derived from outcomes of social interactions from infant to adult development.

George Mead stated that, ”By incorporating estimates of how the ‘generalized other’ would respond to certain actions, the individual acquires a source of internal regulation that serves to guide and stabilize his behavior in the absence of external pressures… There are as many selves as there are social roles.”Thus, think of your actual self as a Rubik’s cube and your ideal self as the context that surrounds the Rubik’s cube.

Your actual self, like a Rubik’s cube, has six ‘faces,’ or social roles, and each ‘face’ solidly presents one color. In this event, your actual self is in complete accordance with your ideal self and there are no threats. This means that you have self-actualized your potential and your basic developmental and psychological needs have been essentially fulfilled. In other words, your colors are seen by others in similar ways in which you see your actual self, and your ideal self matches your actual self. Hence, your possible selves are closely aligned with each other, solidly tied to firm beliefs about the actual self and demonstrating unification.

However, this event is not common. When someone hands you a Rubik’s cube, the colors are often mixed up. This means that the face that you present of your actual self is in discord with your ideal self.

This conflict arises through fears or doubts of your self and others, or lack of self-knowledge of the context. Often, your actual self may never be the same in all instances because context influences your choice of your ‘presented face.’

Five Basic Tenets of Self-Concept

Self-concept includes five basic tenets, each with its own set of characteristics.1. ChangeYour self-concept seeks out dynamic change with new social interactions. This is one way for it to gather new information and integrate within its current system. The self-concept can cover many dimensions (more than six faces on a Rubik’s cube!) in terms of possible selves that are utilized, depending on the context.

2. StabilityThe more experience you obtain interacting with others, the more opportunities you have to organize your self-concept effectively into a coherent system. You become more aware of your abilities, feelings, and personality dimensions. You strive to maintain this organization because it exemplifies who you are. As a result, you seek interactions that mimic predictable sequences of action and reaction. Similarly, it seems that you have more relationships with like-minded people.

The most change can occur when your interactions are with people that you value the most. You become more aware of what you will do in most, if not all, cases. These aspects eventually become fossilized into beliefs about self that become harder to change or break.3.

ProtectionIf your self-concept is not balanced and you are frequently experiencing conflict between your actual and ideal self, you may succumb to anxiety, franticness, or even violence. This is due to a threat to your self-concept that affects your self-esteem, which is the belief or condition that defines your worth. Consequently, your self-concept goes a step further to fulfill your needs and protects you from interactions that may induce disapproval and anxiety.4. Problem-SolvingThe self-concept takes the information collected from previous social interactions to inform future interactions. That’s why researchers claim that the more interactions you have with all types of persons, the more educated you become of your self.

This information is instrumental in shaping the possible selves that take different forms in particular instances. In new instances with persons you have not met before, it will take prior information to idealize the interaction. Thus, your self-concept goes into problem-solving mode. If the interaction goes badly, the self-concept will transform into protection mode. Additionally, it will begin to seek out familiar interactions that stabilize aspects of itself.5. ImprovementFinally, your self-concept always tries to improve itself for survival.

Similarly, your actual self always attempts to match the ideal self. Thus, your self-concept promotes or idealizes the self with respect to particular developmental and psychological needs: better education, better quality of life, and more fulfilling relationships.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review.The self-concept is a construct that negotiates exchanges between your ideal and actual selves. In so doing, it attempts to solve problems, achieve stability, ensure protection, seek change, and improve constantly.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Explain the relationship between self-concept and your ideal and actual selves
  • Recite the difference between your actual and ideal selves
  • Understand how we negotiate between our actual and ideal selves
  • Discuss the five tenets of self-concept

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