Why What You Think of You Matters More Than What They Think of You

by Leah B. Mazzola

Self-concept is what I think of me, who I believe I am. Numerous factors contribute to our self-concept development including, self-perception of our own behavior, introspection, appraisals offered by others, and social comparison.  Self-concept directly effects self-esteem, self-understanding, and self-worth (Fiske, 2012).  If you are unsure of your self-concept, take a few moments to write out “I am __________” 20 times.  Fill in the blank with the various descriptive terms that come to mind.  Review your list.  How many of these entries would you consider strengths?  How many would you consider areas for growth?  Hold that thought.

This self-concept, self-esteem, self-worth interplay can be very healthy or not so healthy.  What you think of you matters more than what someone else thinks of you because you are with you always.  You can walk away from or choose not to associate with another person who believes bad things about you.  You cannot however, simply escape yourself.  Social psychologists, Crisp and Turner (2010), review six theories that explain the maintenance and management of self-concept once developed.  Understanding self-concept in this way offers insight into healthy ways to manage this sense of self.  Of the six theories those for discussion here include, self-discrepancy theory, social comparison theory, and social identity theory.

Self-Concept Maintenance Theories Overview

All self-concept maintenance theories share in the basic view that self-concept and subsequent behavior depends on largely on how self is compared to a specific comparison target (Crisp & Turner, 2010).  These further split into three types of comparative theories with each focusing on a different comparison target: self-comparison, individual comparison, and group comparison (Crisp & Turner, 2010).  Self-comparison theory compares self to self-perceptions of ideal self, individual comparison compares self to others, and group comparison compares self to other groups.  The following reviews one maintenance theory from each target category. Take time to consider an example of each in your own life as you read along.

Self-Discrepancy, Social Comparison, and Social Identity Theories

Self-Discrepancy Theory

Fiske (2012) summarized self-discrepancy theory as linking the self-concept with “rich, specific emotions, such as sadness, fear, anger, or happiness,” and to what people approach and avoid (pg. 208).  Within self-discrepancy theory are self-guides or standards regulating behavior including the “actual self,” the “ought self,” and the “ideal self” (Bizman & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012).  The actual self refers to the person, as they are now (Fiske, 2012).  The ought self refers to the person as they believe they should be, based on social comparisons, or who others in their lives tell them they should be or feel they should be (Bizman & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012; Higgins, Klein, & Strauman, 1985).  The ideal self refers to the person the individual wants to be or to the person someone else wants them to be (Bizmon & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012).  The ought self relates to responsibilities and moral obligations while the ideal self relates to desires, wishes, and aspirations (Fiske, 2012).

The ought self elicits prevention or avoidance behavior of bad consequences while the ideal self elicits promoting or approaching behavior for positive consequences.  Each discrepancy, actual-ought or actual-ideal, is specifically linked to a type of emotional distress (Bizman & Yinon, 2004).  An actual-ought discrepancy, a failure to perform or meet obligations, facilitates agitation-related emotions (e.g., worry, nervousness, or anxiety) (Bizmon & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012; Higgins, et al., 1985).  An actual-ideal discrepancy, not achieving ideals or obtaining related gain, facilitates dejection-related emotions (e.g., disappointment, sadness, depression, or low self-esteem) (Bizmon & Yinon, 2004; Fiske, 2012; Higgins, et al., 1985).

Can you think of an actual-ought discrepancy in your own life?  Is there a you that you should be according to others?  Is there a you that you believe you should be? Write this down. What feelings come up when you compare the ought self to the actual self?  Are these feelings helpful or unhelpful?  How?  Why?

What about an actual-ideal discrepancy?  Is there a you that you want to be, strive to be, or others want you to be?  Write this down.  Do you believe you are on track to be this ideal you?  What feelings come up when you think of yourself as on track or not on track to be this ideal you? Are these feelings helpful or unhelpful?  How? Why?

Social Comparison Theory

Kenrick, et al., (2010) define social comparison as “the process through which people come to know themselves by comparing their abilities, attitudes, and beliefs to those of others” (pg. 50).  Crisp and Turner (2010) described the most distinct aspect of social comparison theory is the argument that “beliefs, feelings, and behaviors are subjective” and “simply the product of our own ruminations” (pg. 15). These social comparisons may be upward (e.g., comparing to someone believed better than self) or downward (e.g., comparing to someone believed to be worse than self). Downward comparison tends to help us feel better about self while upward comparison tends to make us feel worse.  (Bogart, Benotsch, & Pavlovic., 2004).

Can you think of a time when you have, or know anyone who has, brought up someone else’s wrongdoing when facing negative feedback?  For instance, a child who is being corrected for inappropriate behavior responding with, “What about John?  He does it all the time.”  This is an attempt to defend self-concept by downward comparison.  If someone else does this too or more often than me it must not be that bad or I must not be that bad a person.  This downward comparison is a protective mechanism in the face of the negative feelings that ensue about self when confronted with negative feedback.

Social Identity Theory

Social identity theory emphasizes the importance of social groups and the individual’s identity as a member of a group (Fiske, Gilbert, & Lindzey, 2010; Noel, 2012). These groups may share any number of characteristics (e.g., culture, interests, beliefs, appearance, etc.).  Individual knowledge of identification with a group may stem from conditioning from birth (e.g., culture or status), or formed through life pursuits and experience (e.g., academic or professional).  Social identity may lead to ingroup bias where members of the group begin to favor their own members over those of outgroups (Fiske, et al., 2010).  Social identity may serve to protect the individual from bias, prejudice, or stereotyping from outgroups yet may also serve to inflame aggression between groups (Fiske, et al., 2010).


Self-concept is a tool come by honestly through experience and subjective interpretation.  The key to healthy use of self-concept is flexibility.  Whether your list of  “I am” descriptors was heavy on strengths, areas for growth, or split down the middle, it’s over-attachment to the self-concept that becomes an obstacle, not positive or negative appraisals in and of themselves.  A positive self-concept can even get in the way if one is unwilling to consider feedback or constructive criticism that threatens this positive self-concept.  For instance, an individual believes he or she has strong people skills yet, peers see this person as overly critical of others.  The valence lies in how this person responds when advised of the overly critical behavior.  If this person is unwilling to consider an issue with being overly critical of others that is not in line with self-appraised strong people skills, the strong, self-concept is now an obstacle to growth.  On the other hand, over attachment to a negative sense of self contributes to negative or defeating emotions and low motivation to grow.  The related discussion of negative self-concept is enough to warrant a dedicated article so I will refrain from further discussion here for the sake of closing.

To conclude, self-concept, self-esteem, and self-worth have major implications to our well-being, interaction with others, and environment.  Because these processes develop implicitly (without conscious awareness) over a lifetime of interaction and experience it is important that we take the time to assess ours, consider origins, and related motivations.  To live with intention and self-direction we must understand and assess our auto-pilot processes, adjusting, repairing, building upon, or letting go where warranted; honing, growing, and empowering to flourish in all that we do.

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