Whose Self Concept is it Anyway?


Self concept: the wording would imply that it’s a concept about you, by you.

But that’s not entirely true. Other people define you all the time. That might be fine if they kept it to themselves, but they don’t. People you know unconsciously project their opinions about you, onto you. And just as unconsciously you absorb their feelings, subtly reinforcing or altering your self concept.

What if everyone you work with held a negative opinion about you? Would you not feel that? Over time, wouldn’t their feelings cause you to believe that they may be correct, even if they weren’t?

Why do we create concepts about ourselves, or anyone else for that matter?

Well, knowing yourself helps you to progress, but to know yourself is to have self awareness, not a self concept. Awareness is simply being able to perceive. Concept though, implies a judgment of what you perceive. Self concept then is quite a different matter.

If you are self aware, it means that you see yourself and your circumstances clearly. It doesn’t judge or label, so there is no positive or negative. Its message is simply: “Here is where I am; this is how I created this, and here is how I can move forward.”

But self concepts involve judgments. You label yourself and circumstance with inflexible, possibly negative, definitions: “I am in a bad spot; I am here because I am inept, and I won’t step this far again.”

Self awareness enables you to advance, whereas self concepts can easily box you into an overly rigid and negative identity.

Why do we form self concepts?

It happens silently. We unconsciously judge and then label our experiences. Those labels become our self concepts.

You might flub an important task at work. Your awareness may tell you that it was because you didn’t prepare enough, or delegate to the right people, or maybe you didn’t manage your time well. Your self judgment though, sees only that you screwed up, and you label yourself as such — a screw-up.

When you buy into that judgment, you start to avoid thinking outside the box you’ve put yourself into.

You begin to form habits that keep you conveniently away from such situations. The habits soon become comfort zones, and seemingly, without any conscious decisions on your part, you are stuck. You become a prisoner of the familiar, the safe, and the boring.

The concepts that other people have of you reinforce all of this.

Why do people judge you?

People judge you because they can. You allow it to happen by continually judging yourself, and then living in a limited and predictable fashion as a result. How can they miss?

Most people don’t want to limit you with their opinions. It just happens.

Everywhere you turn, you get that subtle sense that you are in a house of mirrors. All the labels that you have applied to yourself are reflected back in the eyes, the words, and the actions of family, friends, and coworkers.

Free yourself of limitations

As insidious as this whole process of self-perpetuating limitation is, you can stop it any time you want to. All you need to do is, interrupt the cycle of judgment and labeling.

You do this by breaking your habitual patterns. This leads you gently and gradually out of your comfort zones.

Here are a few ways to stop the judgments:

  • Do something unexpected every day, and do it with confidence. You could change your hairstyle, or dress differently. Simple things like this throw people off guard. They begin to question.
  • Assert yourself at least once daily in situations where you would normally let others lead. Be the first to suggest an itinerary for the evening, or what program to watch on television. Keep it simple.
  • Change the way you hold conversations. If you normally jump right in, try holding back and listening. If you are usually shy, try engaging people by asking questions. Asking a question is an easy way for a shy person to join a conversation.
  • Carry yourself differently than normal. Be aware of your posture. If you slouch, straighten up. You’ll feel better and you’ll look the part.
  • A simple smile has amazing power to change how you feel and how others feel about you. It might hurt at first — but do it anyway.
  • Alter your walking style. If you walk fast, slow down; if you amble, speed it up. Don’t give people the heads-up, “oh, here comes Angela. I can tell by the way she walks.” You’re at a disadvantage before you even get there. Mix it up a bit.
  • Don’t take your family for granted. They don’t necessarily know that you love them, or that you are proud of the good that they do. If this describes you, start vocalizing your feelings.
  • Acknowledge the accomplishments of coworkers, especially those that are doing better than you are. Rather than seeing your fears and regret mirrored in their success, your verbal acknowledgment brings you into their sphere — and out of your not so comfy comfort zone.

These are simple changes. You can do this without breaking a sweat. You might even be thinking they are too simple to be effective.

It is difficult though to confront your negative self concepts head-on. The subliminal messages you get from others make that process even harder.

Small easy changes like these slide you into a more flexible mindset. They are enough to break the holding pattern you have been in, and when that happens, people around you loose their fix on you — along with the subtle influence that carries.

Your new practice of publicly changing things up in your life, will empower you to begin making larger changes, one at a time.

Please share your thoughts in the comments. Have you felt limited self concepts mirrored back to you by others? What effect did that have on you, and did you do anything to change that?

Over to you now.

5 thoughts on “Whose Self Concept is it Anyway?

  1. Todd Rocheleau

    Hi John,

    I really like what you have going here. I think that it’s a fantastic way for you to express and share your many years of experience, research and wisdom. Anyone who reads these articles will benefit from them. Even if someone is familiar with the contents, reading them will help to keep them on the right path.

    I definately agree with you about mixing things up a bit. I’ve noticed that people really respond. I just find it all to easy to fall back into the same self limiting ways. I’ve been up for the better part of the night due to some kind of virus and it’s amazing the thouhgts that go thru my head at this hour. I started thinking about this very subject of self-concepts and habits and looking back thru time to try to find out where they may have originated from. Do you think that it’s necessary or helpful to be aware of this?

  2. John R. Post author

    Hi Todd,

    When we need to change things in our life, we get unexpected, and often unpleasant, nudges. Your virus and lack of sleep may have been your body’s way of “mixing things up” for you. You get a different perspective at times like that.

    It’s easy to fall back into old self-limiting habits. I’m an expert doing that. It helps to make a game out of changing things up in your life. We get so serious. Try having some fun playing with small changes and noticing how it unsettles the “fix” people have on you. Old habits become history only after we replace them with new ways of being. It’s easier to continue changing if it’s fun.

    You asked If I thought it was necessary to be aware of the root of our old habits and concepts. Well, that’s one way to deal with them, but its a tricky route. You could dive back into the swamp to figure out why it smells the way it does, or you could walk on to a sunnier place.

    The mind has an amazing ability to fool and trap us. The thing about swamps is: if you stop for a moment, you sink deeper. If in a swamp — keep moving — preferably out of it.

    Give that virus a kick in the butt and get well real soon.

  3. John Rocheleau Post author

    Nathalie: Yes, judgment IS a big issue. And it greatly helps us to know when to use judgment and when to suspend it.

    Awareness and judgment are very different from each other. Awareness is open-ended; it allows for unlimited progression. Judgment on the other hand, fixes our conceptions.

    Do we want unlimited possibilities, or would we rather be frozen in time and place — and identity?

    Choices 🙂

  4. banji

    I’ve read somewhere that if we want to ask for opinion on how people see us, always ask a stranger and never your family members or friends.

    Why? because family and friends has some idea of what we are before. Even if we change completely, they will always see that features. If it’s not there, they will assume it is there

    Nice work John.. Keep it up

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