The self-concept is the relatively stable set of perceptions you hold of yourself.* It can change over time but for the most part it does not. It occurs due to a combination of many factors, but to keep this topic reasonably simple for a blog post, let’s just say it is a combination of biology and socialization.
Each of us is born with a genetic makeup. Studies show that biology accounts for as much as half of communication-related traits such as extraversion, shyness, assertiveness, verbal aggression and willingness to communicate. This is a short list of empirical study results but the bottom line is, how we are made has a big impact on how we see ourselves.
Socialization plays a major role in the shaping of our self-concept. We don’t grow up on a deserted island. We are surrounded by others and life is a constant process of interaction from the beginning to the end. Social psychologists place a major emphasis on “significant others.” These are people whose opinions we value. Life is a constant “social comparison” or a process of evaluating how we stack up against significant others. Am I more stupid or more intelligent, am I more attractive or uglier, am I a success or a failure? It is not good that we compare ourselves to people but we do it anyhow; it is a part of life in a socialized environment. As we mature, we tend to associate with people who are like us. These reference group people support our self-concept and may make it seem more stable over time.
The fact is that we may tend to believe our self-concept is accurate but in fact it may be distorted. There are many reasons for this. A few examples are the failures we cling to even though they are outdated. Critical comments from parents, teachers and employers may be horribly outdated but if they have occurred and have made a memorable impression, we may be in a life-long struggle to be free from their negative influence. Too often we fall prey to unbelievable role models in life. Models who are gorgeous, billionaires who have great success and athletes who accomplish great feats; we think we have to have what they have but we don’t. The problem is that their lives are what we strive for and if we can’t achieve their level of accomplishment, it is a big distortion on the value of our lives.
The list goes on and on but you get the point. Pastor Labberton uses a reference from Corinthians that we see ourselves through a glass darkly, but he goes further and says most human beings suffer from a “narcissistic wound” that is inflicted on us as we develop in our world, as our self-concept begins to be constructed. This wound is a deep-seated sense that few of us really get all of the love that we really need to thrive. It would be ideal to have a life of constant acceptance and love but along our life-span, normal people have bad experiences. We can over-emphasize comments from critical parents, cruel friends, uncaring teachers, demanding employers, or even memorable strangers.
Add to this the complications that can come to us from life. Some of us struggle with poverty. Some of us have disease. Others may have hunger. Still others may feel oppressed and of course some have experiences with people who are violent. Too often we think that life is always full of potential. Joel Osteen encourages us to climb higher up the mountain of success or paint a positive picture on the canvas of our lives but for many, that positive advice is just too hard to engineer.
There are just too many forces working against us.
It would be best if we had accurate pictures of ourselves but we don’t. If we had those accurate pictures, that old expression “what you see is what you get” may apply. But in the light of the subjective nature of our self-concept, Pastor Labberton writes “We look at our reflection all of our lives. What we don’t see is that the mirrors we use are distorted. Misperception starts with our self-reflection.”
If we see ourselves through a glass darkly, how could it be otherwise?
*This post contains information from Ron Adler and Russell Proctor’s book Looking Out Looking In