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3.1: Who Are You?

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    Learning Outcomes
    1. Differentiate between self-concept and self-esteem.
    2. Explain what is meant by Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of the looking-glass self.
    3. Examine the impact that self-esteem has on communication.

    In the first part of this chapter, we mentioned Manford Kuhn’s “Who Am I?” exercise for understanding ourselves. A lot of the items generally listed by individuals completing this exercise can fall into the areas of self-concept and self-esteem. In this section, we’re going to examine both of these concepts.


    According to Roy F. Baumeister (1999), self-concept implies “the individual’s belief about himself or herself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is.”4 An attribute is a characteristic, feature, or quality or inherent part of a person, group, or thing. In 1968, social psychologist Norman Anderson came up with a list of 555 personal attributes.5 He had research participants rate the 555 attributes from most desirable to least desirable. The top ten most desirable characteristics were:

    1. Sincere
    2. Honest
    3. Understanding
    4. Loyal
    5. Truthful
    6. Trustworthy
    7. Intelligent
    8. Dependable
    9. Open-Minded
    10. Thoughtful

    Conversely, the top ten least desirable attributes were:

    1. Liar
    2. Phony
    3. Mean
    4. Cruel
    5. Dishonest
    6. Untruthful
    7. Obnoxious
    8. Malicious
    9. Dishonorable
    10. Deceitful

    When looking at this list, do you agree with the ranks from 1968? In a more recent study, conducted by Jesse Chandler using an expanded list of 1,042 attributes,6 the following pattern emerged for the top 10 most positively viewed attributes:

    1. Honest
    2. Likable
    3. Compassionate
    4. Respectful
    5. Kindly
    6. Sincere
    7. Trustworthy
    8. Ethical
    9. Good-Natured
    10. Honorable

    And here is the updated list for the top 10 most negatively viewed attributes:

    1. Pedophilic
    2. Homicidal
    3. Evil-Doer
    4. Abusive
    5. Evil-Minded
    6. Nazi
    7. Mugger
    8. Asswipe
    9. Untrustworthy
    10. Hitlerish

    Some of the changes in both lists represent changing times and the addition of the new terms by Chandler. For example, the terms sincere, honest, and trustworthy were just essential attributes for both the 1968 and 2018 studies. Conversely, none of the negative attributes remained the same from 1968 to 2018. The negative attributes, for the most part, represent more modern sensibilities about personal attributes.

    The Three Selves

    Carl Rogers, a distinguished psychologist in the humanistic approach to psychology, believed that an individual’s self-concept is made of three distinct things: self-image, self-worth, and ideal-self.7


    An individual’s self-image is a view that they have of themselves. If we go back and look at the attributes that we’ve listed in this section, think about these as laundry lists of possibilities that impact your view of yourself. For example, you may view yourself as ethical, trustworthy, honest, and loyal, but you may also realize that there are times when you are also obnoxious and mean. For a positive self-image, we will have more positive attributes than negative ones. However, it’s also possible that one negative attribute may overshadow the positive attributes, which is why we also need to be aware of our perceptions of our self-worth.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Carl Rogers’ Self-Concept


    Self-worth is the value that you place on yourself. In essence, self-worth is the degree to which you see yourself as a good person who deserves to be valued and respected. Unfortunately, many people judge their self-worth based on arbitrary measuring sticks like physical appearance, net worth, social circle/ clique, career, grades, achievements, age, relationship status, likes on Facebook, social media followers, etc.… Interested in seeing how you view your self-worth? Then take a minute and complete the Contingencies of Self-Worth Scale.8 According to Courtney Ackerman, there are four things you can do to help improve your self-worth:9

    1. You no longer need to please other people.
    2. No matter what people do or say, and regardless of what happens outside of you, you alone control how you feel about yourself.
    3. You have the power to respond to events and circumstances based on your internal sources, resources, and resourcefulness, which are the reflection of your true value.
    4. Your value comes from inside, from an internal measure that you’ve set for yourself.


    The final characteristic of Rogers’ three parts to self-concept is the ideal-self.10 The ideal-self is the version of yourself that you would like to be, which is created through our life experiences, cultural demands, and expectations of others. The real-self, on the other hand, is the person you are. The ideal-self is perfect, flawless, and, ultimately, completely unrealistic. When an individual’s real-self and ideal-self are not remotely similar, someone needs to think through if that idealized version of one’s self is attainable. It’s also important to know that our ideal-self is continuously evolving. How many of us wanted to be firefighters, police officers, or astronauts as kids? Some of you may still want to be one of these, but most of us had our ideal-self evolve.

    Three Self’s Working Together

    Now that we’ve looked at the three parts of Carl Rogers’ theory of self-concept, let’s discuss how they all work together to create one’s self-concept. Rogers’ theory of self-concept also looks at a concept we discussed in Chapter 2 when we discussed Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Specifically, the idea of self-actualization. In Rogers’ view, self-actualization cannot happen when an individual’s self-image, self-worth, and ideal-self have no overlap.

    As you can see in Figure 3.1.1, on the left side, you have the three parts of self-concept as very distinct in this individual, which is why it’s called incongruent, or the three are not compatible with each other. In this case, someone’s self-image and ideal-self may have nothing in common, and this person views themself as having no self-worth. When someone has this type of incongruence, they are likely to exhibit other psychological problems. On the other hand, when someone’s self-image, ideal-self, and self-worth overlap, that person is considered congruent because the three parts of self-concept overlap and are compatible with each other. The more this overlap grows, the greater the likelihood someone will be able to self-actualize. Rogers believed that self-actualization was an important part of self-concept because until a person self-actualizes, then he/she/they will be out of balance with how he/she/they relate to the world and with others.

    In 1902, Charles Horton Cooley wrote Human Nature and the Social Order. In this book, Cooley introduced a concept called the looking-glass self: “Each to each a looking-glass / Reflects the other that doth pass”11 Although the term “looking-glass” isn’t used very often in today’s modern tongue, it means a mirror. Cooley argues, when we are looking to a mirror, we also think about how others view us and the judgments they make about us. Cooley ultimately posed three postulates:

    1. Actors learn about themselves in every situation by exercising their imagination to reflect on their social performance.
    2. Actors next imagine what those others must think of them. In other words, actors imagine the others’ evaluations of the actor’s performance.
    3. The actor experiences an affective reaction to the imagined evaluation of the other.12

    In Figure 3.1.2, we see an illustration of this basic idea. You have a figure standing before four glass panes. In the left-most mirror, the figure has devil horns; in the second, a pasted on a fake smile; in the third, a tie; and in the last one, a halo. Maybe the figure’s ex sees the devil, his friends and family think the figure is always happy, the figure’s coworkers see a professional, and the figure’s parents/guardians see their little angel. Along with each of these ideas, there are inherent judgments. And, not all of these judgments are necessarily accurate, but we still come to understand and know ourselves based on our perceptions of these judgments.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Looking-Glass Self

    Ultimately, our self-image is shaped through our interactions with others, but only through the mediation of our minds. At the same time, because we perceive that others are judging us, we also tend to shape our façade to go along with that perception. For example, if you work in the customer service industry, you may sense that you are always expected to smile. Since you want to be viewed positively, you plaster on a fake smile all the time no matter what is going on in your personal life. At the same time, others may start to view you as a happy-go-lucky person because you’re always in a good mood.

    Thankfully, we’re not doing this all the time, or we would be driving ourselves crazy. Instead, there are certain people in our lives about whose judgments we worry more than others. Imagine you are working in a new job. You respect your new boss, and you want to gain her/his/their respect in return. Currently, you believe that your boss doesn’t think you’re a good fit for the organization because you are not serious enough about your job. If you perceive that your boss will like you more if you are a more serious worker, then you will alter your behavior to be more in line with what your boss sees as “serious.” In this situation, your boss didn’t come out and say that you were not a serious worker, but we perceived the boss’ perception of us and her/his/their judgment of that perception of us and altered our behavior to be seen in a better light.


    One of the most commonly discussed intrapersonal communication ideas is an individual’s self-esteem. There are a ton of books in both academic and non-academic circles that address this idea.

    Defining Self-Esteem

    Self-esteem is an individual’s subjective evaluation of her/his/their abilities and limitations. Let’s break down this definition into sizeable chunks.

    Subjective Evaluation

    The definition states that someone’s self-esteem is an “individual’s subjective evaluation.” The word “subjective” emphasizes that self-esteem is based on an individual’s emotions and opinions and is not based on facts. For example, many people suffer from what is called the impostor syndrome, or they doubt their accomplishments, knowledge, and skills, so they live in fear of being found out a fraud. These individuals have a constant fear that people will figure out that they are “not who they say they are.” Research in this area generally shows that these fears of “being found out” are not based on any kind of fact or evidence. Instead, these individuals’ emotions and opinions of themselves are fueled by incongruent self-concepts. Types of people who suffer from imposter syndrome include physicians, CEOs, academics, celebrities, artists, and pretty much any other category. Again, it’s important to remember that these perceptions are subjective and not based on any objective sense of reality. Imagine a physician who has gone through four years of college, three years of medical school, three years of residency, and another four years of specialization training only to worry that someone will find out that he/she/they aren’t that smart after all. There’s no objective basis for this perception; it’s completely subjective and flies in the face of facts.

    In addition to the word “subjective,” we also use the word “evaluation” in the definition of self-esteem. By evaluation, we mean a determination or judgment about the quality, importance, or value of something. We evaluate a ton of different things daily:

    1. We evaluate how we interact with others.
    2. We evaluate the work we complete.
    3. We also evaluate ourselves and our specific abilities and limitations.

    Our lives are filled with constant evaluations.


    When we discuss our abilities, we are referring to the acquired or natural capacity for specific talents, skills, or proficiencies that facilitate achievement or accomplishment. First, someone’s abilities can be inherent (natural) or they can be learned (acquired). For example, if someone is 6’6”, has excellent reflexes, and has a good sense of space, he/she/they may find that they have a natural ability to play basketball that someone who is 4’6”, has poor reflex speed, and has no sense of space simply does not have. That’s not to say that both people cannot play basketball, but they will both have different ability levels. They can both play basketball because they can learn skills necessary to play basketball: shooting the ball, dribbling, rules of the game, etc. In a case like basketball, professional-level players need to have a combination of both natural and acquired abilities.

    We generally break abilities into two different categories: talent or skills to help distinguish what we are discussing. First, talent is usually more of an inherent or natural capacity. For example, someone may look like the ideal basketball player physically, but the person may simply have zero talent for the game. Sometimes we call talent the “it factor” because it’s often hard to pinpoint why someone people have it and others don’t. Second, skills refer to an individual’s use of knowledge or physical being to accomplish a specific task. We often think of skills in terms of the things we learn to do. For example, most people can learn to swim or ride a bike. Doing this may take some time to learn, but we can develop the skills necessary to stay afloat and move in the water or the skills necessary to achieve balance and pedal the bike.

    The final part of the definition of abilities is the importance of achievement and accomplishment. Just because someone has learned the skills to do something does not mean that they can accomplish the task. Think back to when you first learned to ride a bicycle (or another task). Most of us had to try and try again before we found ourselves pedaling on our own without falling over. The first time you got on the bicycle and fell over, you didn’t have the ability to ride a bike. You may have had a general understanding of how it worked, but there’s often a massive chasm between knowing how something is done and then actually achieving or accomplishing it. As such, when we talk about abilities, we really emphasize the importance of successful completion.


    In addition to one’s abilities, it’s always important to recognize that we all have limitations. In the words of my podiatrist, I will never be a runner because of the shape of my arch. Whether I like it or not, my foot’s physical structure will not allow me to be an effective runner. Thankfully, this was never something I wanted to be. I didn’t sit up all night as a child dreaming of running a marathon one day. In this case, I have a natural limitation, but it doesn’t negatively affect me because I didn’t evaluate running positively for myself. On the flip side, growing up, I took years of piano lessons, but honestly, I was just never that good at it. I have short, stubby fingers, so reaching notes on a piano that are far away is just hard for me. To this day, I wish I was a good piano player. I am disappointed that I couldn’t be a better piano player. Now, does this limitation cripple me? No.

    We all have limitations on what we can and cannot do. When it comes to your self-esteem, it’s about how you evaluate those limitations. Do you realize your limitations and they don’t bother you? Or do your limitations prevent you from being happy with yourself? When it comes to understanding limitations, it’s important to recognize the limitations that we can change and the limitations we cannot change. One problem that many people have when it comes to limitations is that they cannot differentiate between the types of limitations. If I had wanted to be a runner growing up and then suddenly found out that my dream wasn’t possible because of my feet, then I could go through the rest of my life disappointed and depressed that I’m not a runner. Even worse, I could try to force myself to into being a runner and cause long-term damage to my body.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Levels of Communication

    Self-Esteem and Communication

    You may be wondering by this point about the importance of self-esteem in interpersonal communication. Self-esteem and communication have a reciprocal relationship (as depicted in Figure 3.1.3). Our communication with others impacts our self-esteem, and our self-esteem impacts our communication with others. As such, our self-esteem and communication are constantly being transformed by each other.

    As such, interpersonal communication and self-esteem cannot be separated. Now, our interpersonal communication is not the only factor that impacts self-esteem, but interpersonal interactions are one of the most important tools we have in developing our selves.

    Mindfulness Activity

    Mindfulness Activity.PNGOne of the beautiful things about mindfulness is that it positively impacts someone’s self-esteem.13 It’s possible that people who are higher in mindfulness report higher self-esteem because of the central tenant of non-judgment. People with lower self-esteems often report highly negative views of themselves and their past experiences in life. These negative judgments can start to wear someone down.

    Christopher Pepping, Analise O’Donovan, and Penelope J. Davis believe that mindfulness practice can help improve one’s self-esteem for four reasons:14

    • Labeling internal experiences with words, which might prevent people from getting consumed by self-critical thoughts and emotions;
    • Bringing a non-judgmental attitude toward thoughts and emotions, which could help individuals have a neutral, accepting attitude toward the self;
    • Sustaining attention on the present moment, which could help people avoid becoming caught up in self-critical thoughts that relate to events from the past or future;
    • Letting thoughts and emotions enter and leave awareness without reacting to them.15

    For this exercise, think about a recent situation where you engaged in self-critical thoughts.

    1. What types of phrases ran through your head? Would you have said these to a friend? If not, why do you say them to yourself? 1. What does the negative voice in your head sound like? Is this voice someone you want to listen to? Why?
    2. Did you try temporarily distracting yourself to see if the critical thoughts would go away (e.g., mindfulness meditation, coloring, exercise)? If yes, how did that help? If not, why?
    3. Did you examine the evidence? What proof did you have that the self-critical thought was true?
    4. Was this a case of a desire to improve yourself or a case of non-compassion towards yourself?


    Some researchers have argued that self–esteem as the primary measure of someone’s psychological health may not be wise because it stems from comparisons with others and judgments. As such, Kristy Neff has argued for the use of the term self-compassion.16

    Self-Compassion stems out of the larger discussion of compassion. Compassion “involves being touched by the suffering of others, opening one’s awareness to others’ pain and not avoiding or disconnecting from it, so that feelings of kindness toward others and the desire to alleviate their suffering emerge.”17 Compassion then is about the sympathetic consciousness for someone who is suffering or unfortunate. Self-compassion “involves being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self-compassion also involves offering nonjudgmental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience.”18 Neff argues that self-compassion can be broken down into three distinct categories: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness (Figure 3.1.4).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Three Factors of Self-Compassion


    Humans have a really bad habit of beating ourselves up. As the saying goes, we are often our own worst enemies. Self-kindness is simply extending the same level of care and understanding to ourselves as we would to others. Instead of being harsh and judgmental, we are encouraging and supportive. Instead of being critical, we are empathic towards ourselves. Now, this doesn’t mean that we just ignore our faults and become narcissistic (excessive interest in oneself), but rather we realistically evaluate ourselves as we discussed in the Mindfulness Exercise earlier.

    Common Humanity

    The second factor of self-compassion is common humanity, or “seeing one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating.” 19 As Kristen Naff and Christopher Germer realize, we’re all flawed works in progress.20 No one is perfect. No one is ever going to be perfect. We all make mistakes (some big, some small). We’re also all going to experience pain and suffering in our lives. Being self-compassionate is approaching this pain and suffering and seeing it for what it is, a natural part of being human. “The pain I feel in difficult times is the same pain you feel in difficult times. The circumstances are different, the degree of pain is different, but the basic experience of human suffering is the same.” 21


    The final factor of self-compassion is mindfulness. Although Naff defines mindfulness in the same terms we’ve been discussing in this text, she specifically addresses mindfulness as a factor of pain, so she defines mindfulness, with regards to self-compassion, as “holding one’s painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.” 22 Essentially, Naff argues that mindfulness is an essential part of self-compassion, because we need to be able to recognize and acknowledge when we’re suffering so we can respond with compassion to ourselves.

    Don’t Feed the Vulture

    One area that we know can hurt someone’s self-esteem is what Sidney Simon calls “vulture statements.” According to Simon,

    Vulture (‘vul-cher) noun. 1: any of various large birds of prey that are related to the hawks, eagles, and falcons, but with the head usually naked of feathers and that subsist chiefly or entirely on dead flesh.23

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Don't Feed the Vulture

    Unfortunately, all of us have vultures circling our heads or just sitting on our shoulders. In Figure 3.1.5, we see a young woman feeding an apple to her vulture. This apple represents all of the negative things we say about ourselves during a day. Many of us spend our entire days just feeding our vultures and feeding our vultures these self-deprecating, negative thoughts and statements. Admittedly, these negative thoughts “come from only one place. They grow out of other people’s criticisms, from the negative responses to what we do and say, and the way we act.”24 We have the choice to either let these thoughts consume us or fight them. According to Virginia Richmond, Jason Wrench, and Joan Gorham, the following are characteristic statements that vultures wait to hear so they can feed (see also Figure 3.1.6):

    • Oh boy, do I look awful today; I look like I’ve been up all night.
    • Oh, this is going to be an awful day.
    • I’ve already messed up. I left my students’ graded exams at home.
    • Boy, I should never have gotten out of bed this morning.
    • Gee whiz. I did an awful job of teaching that unit.
    • Why can’t I do certain things as well as Mr. Smith next door?
    • Why am I always so dumb?
    • I can’t believe I’m a teacher; why, I have the mentality of a worm.
    • I don’t know why I ever thought I could teach.
    • I can’t get anything right.
    • Good grief, what am I doing here? Why didn’t I select any easy job?
    • I am going nowhere, doing nothing; I am a failure at teaching.
    • In fact, I am a failure in most things I attempt.25
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Don't Feed the Vulture

    Do any of these vulture statements sound familiar to you? If you’re like us, I’m sure they do. Part of self-compassion is learning to recognize these vulture statements when they appear in our minds and evaluate them critically. Ben Martin proposes four ways to challenging vulture statements (negative self-talk):

    1. Reality testing
      • What is my evidence for and against my thinking?
      • Are my thoughts factual, or are they just my interpretations?
      • Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
      • How can I find out if my thoughts are actually true?
    2. Look for alternative explanations
      • Are there any other ways that I could look at this situation?
      • What else could this mean?
      • If I were being positive, how would I perceive this situation?
    3. Putting it in perspective
      • Is this situation as bad as I am making out to be?
      • What is the worst thing that could happen? How likely is it?
      • What is the best thing that could happen?
      • What is most likely to happen?
      • Is there anything good about this situation?
      • Will this matter in five years?
    4. Using goal-directed thinking
      • Is thinking this way helping me to feel good or to achieve my goals?
      • What can I do that will help me solve the problem?
      • Is there something I can learn from this situation, to help me do it better next time?26

    So, next time those vultures start circling you, check that negative self-talk. When we can stop these patterns of negativity towards ourselves and practice self-compassion, we can start plucking the feathers of those vultures. The more we treat ourselves with self-compassion and work against those vulture statements, the smaller and smaller those vultures get. Our vultures may never die, but we can make them much, much smaller.

    Research Spotlight

    clipboard_e60e1c7c784810c314fbba9ce99214d25.pngIn 2018, Laura Umphrey and John Sherblom examined the relationship between social communication competence, self-compassion, and hope. The goal of the study was to see if someone’s social communication competence could predict their ability to engage in self-compassion. Ultimately, the researchers found individuals who engaged in socially competent communication behaviors were more likely to engage in self-compassion, which “suggests that a person who can learn to speak with others competently, initiate conversations, engage others in social interaction, and be more outgoing, while managing verbal behavior and social roles, may also experience greater personal self-compassion” (p. 29).

    Umphrey, L. R., & Sherblom, J. C. (2018). The constitutive relationship of social communication competence to self-compassion and hope. Communication Research Reports, 35(1), 22–32.

    Key Takeaways
    • Self-concept is an individual’s belief about themself, including the person’s attributes and who and what the self is. Conversely, self-esteem is an individual’s subjective evaluation of their abilities and limitations.
    • Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “looking-glass self” to refer to the idea that an individual’s self-concept is a reflection of how an individual imagines how he or she appears to other people. In other words, humans are constantly comparing themselves to how they believe others view them.
    • There is an interrelationship between an individual’s self-esteem and her/his/ their communication. In essence, an individual’s self-esteem impacts how they communicate with others, and this communication with others impacts their selfesteem.
    • Pull out a piece of paper and conduct the “Who Am I?” exercise created by Manford Kuhn. Once you have completed the exercise, categorize your list using Kuhn’s five distinct categories about an individual: social group an individual belongs to, ideological beliefs, personal interests, personal ambitions, and self-evaluations. After categorizing your list, ask yourself what your list says about your self-concept, self-image, self-esteem, and self-respect.
    • Complete the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale ( psych/psychsci/media/rosenberg.htm). After getting your results, do you agree with your results? Why or why not? Why do you think you scored the way you did on the measure?

    This page titled 3.1: Who Are You? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.