ERIC Identifier: ED304630
Publication Date: 1988-00-00
Author: Purkey, William W.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Counseling and Personnel Services Ann Arbor MI.
An Overview of Self-Concept Theory for Counselors. Highlights:
An ERIC/CAPS Digest.
After more than a decade of relative neglect, self-concept is enjoying
renewed popularity and attention by both researchers and practitioners. There is
growing awareness that of all the perceptions we experience in the course of
living, none has more profound significance than the perceptions we hold
regarding our own personal existence--our concept of who we are and how we fit
into the world.
Self-concept may be defined as the totality of a complex, organized, and
dynamic system of learned beliefs, attitudes and opinions that each person holds
to be true about his or her personal existence. Self-concept is different from
self-esteem (feelings of personal worth and level of satisfaction regarding
one's self) or self-report (what a person is willing and able to disclose).
Fromm (1956) was as beautifully clear as anyone when he described self-concept
as "life being aware of itself."
BRIEF HISTORY OF SELF-CONCEPT THEORY
A milestone in human
reflection about the non-physical inner self came in 1644, when Rene Descartes
wrote Principles of Philosophy. Descartes proposed that doubt was a principal
tool of disciplined inquiry, yet he could not doubt that he doubted. He reasoned
that if he doubted, he was thinking, and therefore he must exist. Thus existence
depended upon perception.
A second milestone in the development of self-concept theory was the writing
of Sigmund Freud (1900) who gave us new understanding of the importance of
internal mental processes. While Freud and many of his followers hesitated to
make self-concept a primary psychological unit in their theories, Freud's
daughter Anna (1946) gave central importance to ego development and
Self-concept theory has always had a strong influence on the emerging
profession of counseling. Prescott Lecky (1945) contributed the notion that
self-consistency is a primary motivating force in human behavior. Raimy (1948)
introduced measures of self-concept in counseling interviews and argued that
psychotherapy is basically a process of altering the ways that individuals see
By far the most influential and eloquent voice in self-concept theory was
that of Carl Rogers (1947) who introduced an entire system of helping built
around the importance of the self. In Rogers' view, the self is the central
ingredient in human personality and personal adjustment. Rogers described the
self as a social product, developing out of interpersonal relationships and
striving for consistency. He maintained that there is a basic human need for
positive regard both from others and from oneself. He also believed that in
every person there is a tendency towards self-actualization and development so
long as this is permitted and encouraged by an inviting environment (Purkey
& Schmidt, 1987).
While most self-concept theorists continued to write and conduct research
during the 1970's and 1980's, general interest in self-concept declined. In a
recent article explaining the likely causes for the decline of "humanistic"
education, Patterson (1987) presents reasons for the decline of interest in
self-concept as well. He offers four likely causes:
1. A cornucopia of contrived games, gimmicks, and techniques that were
introduced and controlled by unprepared professionals.
2. A national mood of "back to basics" in education prevailed where concern
for the emotional needs of students was viewed as inimical to academic
3. Poor judgment by counselors and teachers in selecting suitable materials
for values clarification programs resulted in public opposition to any attempt
to introduce values in school.
4. Strong opposition by those who objected to any consideration of personal
development of students because they believed it to be secular humanism and,
therefore, an effort to undermine religion.
Fortunately, there is a new awareness on the part of both the public and
professionals that self-concept cannot be ignored if we are to successfully
address such nagging problems as drug and alcohol abuse, drop-out rates,
dysfunctional families, and other concerns. In addition to this growing
awareness, new ways are being developed to strengthen self-concepts. For
example, research by cognitive theorists (McAdam, 1986; Ryan, Short & Weed,
1986) are demonstrating that negative self-talk leads to irrational thinking
regarding oneself and the world.
SOME BASIC ASSUMPTIONS REGARDING SELF-CONCEPT
Many of the
successes and failures that people experience in many areas of life are closely
related to the ways that they have learned to view themselves and their
relationships with others. It is also becoming clear that self-concept has at
least three major qualities of interest to counselors: (1) it is learned, (2) it
is organized, and (3) it is dynamic. Each of these qualities, with corollaries,
Self-concept is learned. As far as we know, no one is born with a
self-concept. It gradually emerges in the early months of life and is shaped and
reshaped through repeated perceived experiences, particularly with significant
others. The fact that self-concept is learned has some important implications:
-- Because self-concept does not appear to be instinctive, but is a social
product developed through experience, it possesses relatively boundless
potential for development and actualization.
-- Because of previous experiences and present perceptions, individuals may
perceive themselves in ways different from the ways others see them.
-- Individuals perceive different aspects of themselves at different times
with varying degrees of clarity. Therefore, inner focusing is a valuable tool
-- Any experience which is inconsistent with one's self-concept may be
perceived as a threat, and the more of these experiences there are, the more
rigidly self-concept is organized to maintain and protect itself. When a person
is unable to get rid of perceived inconsistencies, emotional problems arise.
-- Faulty thinking patterns, such as dichotomous reasoning (dividing
everything in terms of opposites or extremes) or overgeneralizing (making
sweeping conclusions based on little information) create negative
interpretations of oneself.
Self-Concept is organized. Most researchers agree that self-concept has a
generally stable quality that is characterized by orderliness and harmony. Each
person maintains countless perceptions regarding one's personal existence, and
each perception is orchestrated with all the others. It is this generally stable
and organized quality of self-concept that gives consistency to the personality.
This organized quality of self-concept has corollaries.
-- Self-concept requires consistency, stability, and tends to resist change.
If self-concept changed readily, the individual would lack a consistent and
-- The more central a particular belief is to one's self-concept, the more
resistant one is to changing that belief.
-- At the heart of self-concept is the self-as-doer, the "I," which is
distinct from the self-as-object, the various "me's." This allows the person to
reflect on past events, analyze present perceptions, and shape future
-- Basic perceptions of oneself are quite stable, so change takes time. Rome
was not built in a day, and neither is self-concept.
-- Perceived success and failure impact on self-concept. Failure in a highly
regarded area lowers evaluations in all other areas as well. Success in a prized
area raises evaluations in other seemingly unrelated areas.
Self-Concept is dynamic. To understand the active nature of self-concept, it
helps to imagine it as a gyrocompass: a continuously active system that
dependably points to the "true north" of a person's perceived existence. This
guidance system not only shapes the ways a person views oneself, others, and the
world, but it also serves to direct action and enables each person to take a
consistent "stance" in life. Rather than viewing self-concept as the cause of
behavior, it is better understood as the gyrocompass of human personality,
providing consistency in personality and direction for behavior. The dynamic
quality of self-concept also carries corollaries.
-- The world and the things in it are not just perceived; they are perceived
in relation to one's self-concept.
-- Self-concept development is a continuous process. In the healthy
personality there is constant assimilation of new ideas and expulsion of old
ideas throughout life.
-- Individuals strive to behave in ways that are in keeping with their
self-concepts, no matter how helpful or hurtful to oneself or others.
-- Self-concept usually takes precedence over the physical body. Individuals
will often sacrifice physical comfort and safety for emotional satisfaction.
-- Self-concept continuously guards itself against loss of self-esteem, for
it is this loss that produces feelings of anxiety.
-- If self-concept must constantly defend itself from assault, growth
opportunities are limited.
This brief overview of self-concept theory has
focused on describing the ways people organize and interpret their inner world
of personal existence. The beginnings of self-concept theory and its recent
history have been discussed. Three major qualities of self-concept--that it is:
(1) learned, (2) organized, and (3) dynamic--have been presented. Individuals
have within themselves relatively boundless potential for developing a positive
and realistic self-concept. This potential can be realized by people, places,
policies, programs, and processes that are intentionally designed to invite the
realization of this potential.
Freud, S. (1900). The interpretation of
dreams. In the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: The
Hogarth Press, 1962.
Fromm, E. (1956). The art of loving. New York: Harper & Row.
Hamachek, D. E. (1978). Encounters with the self (2nd ed.). New York: Holt
Rinehart and Winston.
Jourard, S. (1971). Self-disclosure: An experimental analysis of the
transparent self. New York: Wiley-Interscience.
Lecky, P. (1945). Self-consistency: A theory of personality. New York: Island
McAdam, E. K. (1986). Cognitive behavior therapy and its application with
adolescents. Journal of Adolescence, 9, 1-15.
Patterson, C. H. (1961). The self in recent Rogerian theory. Journal of
Individual Psychology, 17, 5-11.
Purkey, W. W., & Schmidt, J. (1987). The inviting relationship: An
expanded perspective for professional counseling. Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Raimy, V. C. (1948). Self-reference in counseling interviews. Journal of
Consulting Psychology, 12, 153-163.
Rogers, C. R. (1947). Some observations on the organization of personality.
American Psychologist, 2, 358-368.
Ryan, E. B., Short, E. J., & Weed, K. A. (1986). The role of cognitive
strategy training in improving the academic performance of learning disabled
children. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 19, 521-529.