can one change their self concept?

model posing

(courtesy of Wix)

What is the self-concept? I constantly think about what things make me, well- me. Some of it is nurture and some of it is nature. It’s a combination of your upbringing and your surroundings. But I think what we overlook is a sort of self-perceiving & self-fulfilling prophecy.

We all deny labels, be it labels on our relationships, labels on our race or ethnicity, or generations. I feel at our core, though, humans have a strong urge to be categorized and to categorize others. It’s the way we process information and sort it out. When we change the structure of those systems we use to categorize, our brains go, “wait but I thought it was this way??”. I think the easiest example would be the older generations’ perceptions of sexuality or gender spectrum. Religious or other cultural practices aside- if you tell a kid that two people of the same gender can love and marry each other, they don’t think twice! However, it’s harder to restructure the way we process what we were taught about gender, sexuality, etc when we’re more hard-set in our ways.

When we look at the labels we prescribe to ourselves, whether they are conscious or subconscious, it culminates in the self we think we show to the world (i.e. the self-concept). In the smallest way I can think of, I think of how I like to indulge my self-concept in terms of the astrological natal chart, as well as the Myers Briggs personality test. I accept the descriptions that were prescribed to me because I believe I display those characteristics, but this also includes the negative traits that are given to me. In both categorizations, I’ve gotten the shy and quiet traits. I process those traits as “yes, I am more of an introvert”, but I think there is a force behind how I self-fulfill that information. Now, because I have in mind that I’m an INFJ (Myers Briggs), I might restrain myself in future social situations because I believe that I am an introvert and there’s not much I can do to change it.

(courtesy of Wix)

So my question is- how do I start changing my self-concept? Is there much to restructure how you view yourself, and enact on traits that you identified to before?

Well, according to scientist Carl Rogers, the self-concept has 3 different facets:

  • Self image (the view you have of yourself)

  • Self worth/self esteem (how much value you place on yourself)

  • Ideal self (what you wish you were really like)

These three aspects all culminate to create how you view yourself and consequently, how you enact this personality. And social scientists have conducted many tests to see if this is something we can see in behavior! In many studies, specifically in one conducted by the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, scientists have suggested that the cortical midline structures (CMS) of the brain are closely related to “self-specific processing” (Qin, Duncan, Northoff “Why and how is the self related to the brain midline regions?”). Another study points out the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC) and its ‘activation’ when people think about their life, “such as their traits, experiences, preferences, abilities, and goals” (D’Argembeau “On the role of the ventromedia prefrontal cortex in self-processing: the valuation hypothesis). That’s a lot of science talk, but what we get from this is that the way in which we think about ourselves is not something that is abstract, but rather a very real way in which we process our experiences and guide our choices. Our brains aren’t fully developed until age 25, so don’t fret- we can still change our seemingly-solidified opinions of ourselves, right?

The way in which we think about ourselves has a clear impact on our worldview, subsequent work performance, and interpersonal relationships. In a neuroimaging study, a handful of participants were primed with either the characteristic of ‘clever’ or ‘stupid’ (Bengtsson, Penny 2013). When the ‘clever’ participants made a mistake, they were more likely to blame the process rather than themselves; the ‘stupid’ participants believed they had a worse memory, and thus blamed their mistake on their own fault. The following lack of confidence, in turn, brings about the confirmation bias (the tendency to search for information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs). I always see this when I’m nervous about a situation- let’s say, an interview. I think I’m going to do terribly because I’m underqualified, shy, not knowledgeable, the list goes on… and then, I end up doing terribly.

(courtesy of Wix)

So the first step I’ve taken is active self-awareness.

Ask your friends to tell you traits they admire about you, negative traits, and the best quality they think makes you unique. What do you agree with or disagree with? If you disagree, why do you think they view you in that way?

Write down what you admire most about people you look up to– what are some small, tangible steps you could take in everyday situations to strengthen those qualities? This activity touches on your ideal self.

As you go throughout your day, take note of the times you feel like yourself the most: this could be while telling a story to your friend, writing, exercising, or painting. What do you think this says about you?

The next step I’m taking is practicing words of self-validation and self-worth.

Every time you catch yourself thinking negatively- “ugh I must not be good enough for that” or “no wonder I’m single” stop!!! Turn that into a positive phrase. I know it seems corny, but I had no idea how much I talked down to myself in one single day until I actually paid attention to it. Simply ‘rerouting’ the direction of your thoughts can slowly change your perception of yourself.

By looking inwards, we can analyze patterns of thought and how we react to specific situations. In these ways, we can start integrating the manifestations of our ideal self, self-image, and self-worth and better look at ourselves in a way we’re proud of.

Happy reflecting!

(courtesy of Karen Hong, @karenyoojin)

Want to get to know yourself better?

This Self-Knowledge Questionnaire– touches on overarching themes in ourselves & suggests articles to read

Referenced studies are found in “Frontiers Research Topics: Why and How is the Self Related to the Brain Midline Regions?” edited by Qin, Duncan, and Northoff.