Self-concept is the image we have of ourselves in our heads. It includes our values, strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and abilities. Self-esteem is how we feel about this information. Good self-esteem is when someone sees themselves as a positive, valued and valuable person. Low self-esteem is when they view themselves as worthless, bad at things, disliked, and negative.
A person's self-concept is built as people grow, learn, and interact with others. Toddlers start with a very simple self-concept: Me vs Not Me. They start to understand that they exist separately from everyone else. By two years of age they recognize themselves in the mirror and refer to themselves in speech. They establish their independence from their parent(s) and assert that independence, usually loudly. The whole “terrible twos” period is a child establishing boundaries and differences between themselves and others. How parents respond will influence the conclusions that children come to about themselves. They may learn that they are loved and respected, and come to the conclusion that they are lovable and worthy of respect. They may learn that they are annoying and tolerated and come to the conclusion that they are annoying and barely tolerated. Parents and caregivers are in a prime position to shape both a child’s self-concept and self-esteem.
As children grow older, their self-concept becomes more sophisticated. In early childhood, children tend to describe themselves in terms of physical characteristics, abilities, interests, and actions. They generally describe themselves in positive, sometimes hopeful terms. “I’m a good kid,” for example, or “I’m helping!” A child is likely to describe themselves in terms of what they would like to be, “I’m going to be an astronaut!” Or, “I’m a superhero!”
As children grow older, they become more aware of others and how they measure up. Initially this will be expressions of pure optimism bounding on egotism. They are more likely to say, “I'm the fastest,” rather than, “I'm fast.” Or, “I’m the best at video games!” This is another pivotal moment for self-esteem, because they need to learn to balance boundless optimism with reality in a way that doesn’t lead to despair. If their self-concept is “I’m the fastest” and their self-esteem has become “I’m the fastest and therefore I am good and valuable,” then when they lose a race they face a crisis of sorts. “If I’m not the fastest… am I good and valuable?”
As parents and therapists, we can help best by helping children incorporate higher-order concepts into their self-concepts and self-esteem. We can help them lean from “I’m the fastest” to “I’m fast and I try my best.” We try to move their self-esteem towards, “I’m fast and I like to win, but as long as I try my best I am good and valuable.” We try to support them switching from “result” thinking to “process” thinking–how they participate is a larger factor in their self-evaluation than whether they win or not.
We can also help reinforce value-based and social-based thinking in their self-concept and self-assessment. We can lead them to value being “nice”, “friendly”, or “kind”, which allows them to value themselves for their qualities over their accomplishments. They can learn to evaluate themselves more on their character than how they relate to others–from internal values rather than external comparisons.
As our self-concepts expand to include our weaknesses and flaws, we can help people soften their self evaluation. “I’m clumsy, so I’m bad and have no value,” can be balanced with “I’m clumsy and that’s okay, I am nice and smart.”
In adolescence, children start to include social connections and social status in their self-concepts. Adolescents are going through a time of internal evaluation, trying to define exactly who they are in relation to their peers and society. Because of this focus on evaluating themselves, they often assume that everyone else is evaluating them as well. They also start to judge things about themselves as they believe their peers or society would judge them.
“I’m a nerd and nobody likes nerds.” “I’m short and nobody thinks short people are attractive.” “I’m gay and everyone hates gay people.” “I’m an immigrant and everyone thinks immigrants are bad.”
As a result, they may start to act more like their peers to avoid being singled out by them for evaluation. They may try to change things about themselves so that they are more like what they perceive others think are good and valuable.
We help here by helping them accept that social/societal values are not as important as what they themselves believe about themselves. We can empower them to make up their own minds when evaluating their self-concept, so that they can say to themselves, “I’m a nerd, and I think that’s awesome.” We do this by providing them with the experience of being respected by us for who they are. If we can look them in the eye and say, “I know you think you’re a nerd, and maybe you’ve seen people who don’t like nerds and that’s maybe made you think that people don’t like you. But I like you. I like that you’re a nerd. And I think that you’ll find other people who also like you. Even if you can’t, and nobody else in the world likes it, you can still like it and feel good about it.”