Basic Assumptions

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, follow.

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 for counseling.

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 over generalizing (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 dependable personality.

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 experiences.

Basic perceptions of oneself are quite stable, so change takes time.

Perceived success and failure affect 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.