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2.2: Self and Identity

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    2.2: Self and Identity

    Interpersonal communication is the study of how two people communicate in personal relationships (NCA, n.d.). Interpersonal communication starts with each of us. The development of our self-concept helps us to not only understand our ideas about self but also how we relate to the world around us. This module focuses on self-concept as well as theories and ideas related to our development of self-concept.

    Defining self-concept

    2-2 national identity card .png

    "National Identity Card" by ZapTheDingbat is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

    The term self-concept (sometimes called identity) refers to your own ideas about who you are. Your self-concept develops and expands over time as you learn more about yourself and your motivations. While your self-concept is cultivated from early childhood, it continues to grow throughout your lifetime. At the same time, there are many dimensions to our self-concept.

    If you were meeting someone for the first time, how would you introduce yourself? Maybe you would use one or more of the following phrases:

    “My name is …(your name).” “I’m a …(your occupation).” “I’m from…(location).”

    There are many ways you might describe yourself. Maybe you would focus on your background or experience. In another situation, you may focus on your hobbies and interests. Or maybe you would talk about something else entirely. It can be difficult to pin down who we are to a single answer. Is one answer more correct than another? Not necessarily, there are many aspects to each of us and all of these ideas may be true at the same time.

    A term sometimes used to describe the various ideas we hold about ourselves is self-schema. A schema is a cognitive framework (idea or concept) that helps us to organize and interpret information about ourselves and the world around us. Our self-concept is made up of numerous self-schemas.

    Let’s think about how this term works through social roles: You can be a son/daughter, a brother/sister, a father/mother, etc. all at the same time (each of these roles could be one aspect of your self-schema). All of these ideas can be true. Taken together, your self-schemas make up your self-concept.

    Three components of self-concept

    Another way to think about self-concept is through related terms. A humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers (1959) defined self-concept using three distinct but related components: self-image, self-esteem and ideal self (Figure 1).

    circle with three components of self-concept

    Figure 3.1.1: Rogers’ Three Components of Self-Concept

    Note. Observe how the three components of self mutually constitute each other.

    Self-image is the way we see ourselves. This may include our physical attributes, social roles and personality traits. Unfortunately, our self-image can be inaccurate. When you were a child, did you ever think you were really good at something only to find out later that it wasn’t true? This type of situation (which can happen at any time in life) is an example of how our self-image may not match reality.

    Self-esteem is the way we evaluate ourselves and the importance we place on that evaluation. When we compare ourselves to others, is the result more positive or negative? For some people, the answer may be as simple as: a positive comparison equals improved self-esteem and a negative comparison equals decreased self-esteem. But for others, the answer may be more complicated. For example, a negative comparison may lead a person to work harder to improve and could actually improve self-esteem.

    2-2 group working together .png

    "working hard on the 'break'" by thomas pix is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

    If you had no limitations (money, time, resources, etc.), who would you be and what would you do?

    Your answer is your ideal self (at least at this moment). Our ideal self is who we want to be. We typically describe our ideal self in terms of our goals and ambitions in life. However, this concept is not static, meaning it can change over time as we change and grow.

    The ideas we have about who we are (our self-concept) is a mixture of many things. The way we see ourselves (self-image), the way we evaluate ourselves in terms of others (self-esteem), and who we want to be (ideal self), all contribute to our understanding of self.

    Self-concept theories

    A variety of scholars in psychology, sociology, and communication have researched self-concept. Their task is a difficult one because our self-concept is personal, dynamic and changes as we learn more about ourselves and the world around us. In this section, we will look at a few prominent theories and ideas from this area of research.

    Johari window

    What do we know about ourselves? What aspects of ourselves do we share with others? What aspects of ourselves are yet to be determined? In 1955 psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham created a model known as the Johari window to visually represent the aspects of self that are known to us versus those that are unknown to us. Their model has four quadrants (Figure 2).

    In the first quadrant (upper, left-hand corner) are those ideas that are known to self and others. This quadrant is considered the open area and likely includes ideas like your name, hobbies and other topics about yourself that you freely share with others. If you have a social media account, the messages you post publicly would fall into this quadrant.

    In the second quadrant (upper, right-hand corner) are those ideas that are unknown to self but known to others. This quadrant is considered the blind area. This area might be easier to think about in terms of others. Do you have a friend, co-worker or sibling who comes off abrasive but doesn’t know it? Or maybe you know someone who’s a pushover but doesn’t see it. Do you think that their lack of recognition affects their understanding of self? Now, let’s think about it in terms of ourselves. What are our blind spots? These aspects of our personality (that others readily known) but escape our notice fall into this area of the Johari window.

    In the third quadrant (lower, left-hand corner) are those ideas that are known to self but unknown to others. This quadrant is considered the (it is titled ‘facade’ in Figure 2) hidden area and includes things you known about yourself that you do not share with others (i.e., traumas you’ve experience, emotional insecurities, embarrassing situations, etc.).

    In the fourth quadrant (lower, right-hand corner) are those ideas that are unknown to self and others. This quadrant is considered the unknown area. This area includes things you and others don’t know (yet). How will you cope with the loss of a parent (if both your parents are living)? What type of parent will you be (if you don’t have children)? How successful will your career be (if you’re in school and having started your career yet)? Because these things haven’t happened yet, the outcome is unknown.

    Johari Window of self

    Figure 3.1.2: Johari Window

    From "Johari Window," by Spaynton, 2019, WikiMedia Commons ( Licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0

    Reflected Appraisal

    How do others view you? What influence do those ideas have on your self-concept? Reflected appraisal is a term used to describe the process by which our self-concept is affected by what other people think of us.

    In 1902, sociologist Charles H. Cooley described how reflected appraisal works in a concept he called the “looking glass self.” Cooley suggested that our understanding of how others perceive us influences the development of our self-concept (Cooley, 1902). As such, social interactions (especially with those who are most important to us) play an integral role in the cultivation of our sense of self. Let’s look at an example to see how this might work.

    When you were a child, how did your parents or guardians describe you? If words like “smart,” “athletic” or “kind” were used. You may have believed those words and worked harder to exemplify them by studying more frequently, practicing your sports more often or trying to be nice to everyone. If someone asked you to describe yourself, you may have even used those words (because they were now part of your own self-concept).

    On the other hand, if your parents or guardians described you as “lazy” or “noncommunicative,” you may have believed those words, too. Those words would affect your self-concept in a negative way.

    2-2 sad child .png

    "Sad Child" by Direct Media is marked with CC0 1.0.

    Social comparison theory

    When you think about your friends, how do you measure up? In your opinion, are you better (or worse) looking? Are you more (or less) successful? In what ways do you think you are better than your friends? In what ways are you worse off than your friends? In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger suggested that we evaluate ourselves in comparison to others, and those judgments influence our self-concept. This concept is known as social comparison theory.

    As with reflected appraisal, some people (those closest to us) influence our self-concept more than others. Upward social comparison occurs when we compare ourselves with those we see as better than us. These comparisons tend to focus on the desire to improve ourselves. Downward social comparison occurs when we compare ourselves with those we see as worse off than us. These comparisons often focus on making us feel better about ourselves and our abilities.

    Self-fulfilling prophecy

    2-2 women talking .png

    "Argue" by enggul is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

    A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when your expectation causes something to happen. Suppose your friends stop by your apartment to tell you that a new person moved into the apartment down the hallway. When you ask them, what they thought of your new neighbor, they describe the person as aloof and rude.

    Later in the day, you run into your new neighbor by the mailboxes. Based on the description you heard from your friends, you say “excuse me” in an aggressive manner and push your way into the space. In turn, your new neighbor gives you a harsh look and leaves quickly. The next time you see your friends, you tell them that you met your new neighbor and definitely agree with their assessment.

    Was your new neighbor actually aloof and rude? Or did you treat your new neighbor in a way that your preconceived notion would be fulfilled? If so, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Sometimes our expectations (or the expectations of others) can influence our communication behaviors. In the example above, the information you received from your friends influenced how you interacted with your new neighbor. How might things have been different if you didn’t know anything about your new neighbor before you met at the mailboxes? Would you have communicated in a friendlier manner? If you had, would your new neighbor have reacted differently? It’s difficult to say what would have happened. But it’s important to remember that the feedback we receive about others may not be accurate. If we communicate with others based on inaccurate information, we may create a self-fulfilling prophecy.


    Trying to pinpoint who we are can be difficult. There are many aspects to our self-concept. In some cases, the aspects of self we present will depend on a variety of factors. In this module, we learned about different ways to think about self-concept and various people and situations that may influence the development of our ideas about self. We also learned about several theories and ideas related to our development of self-concept.


    The above content was remix from:

    3.1: Self-Concept is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Daniel Usera & contributing authors.

    2.2: Self and Identity is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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