The self-concept is a very interesting aspect of human psychology. It shapes how the individual views his relations with the world and reflects his overall quality of being. The self-concept is basically a set of ideas about oneself: who you are as a person, and your place in the world, society, and the lives of people around you. One's self-concept can be a positive force that leads the individual to activities that he is likely to be successful in. But it can also be a restraining force that guides him to repeated failures. Most often self-concept contains a combination of the positive and negative.
The self-concept is a conglomeration that forms and evolves without people's conscious involvement. You cannot willfully add to or modify your self-concept through mental effort. The self-concept consists of self-descriptions that are the result of deeply felt experiences repeated over an extended period of time. Hence, the only way to change self-concept seems to be to experience new life circumstances that produce a qualitatively different set of deeply felt experiences.
In youth and early adulthood qualititative changes in life circumstances occur frequently as one moves out of the home, goes to college, lives with many different people, tries new jobs, etc. However, as soon as people settle down at a long-term job, get married, have children, and take out long-term loans, the rigidity of one's life circumstances skyrockets. As I see it, this is why psychologist Eric Berne considers youth a time of "rehearsing" our scripts - or life scenarios built around a self-concept - and adulthood and maturity the time when we play out our scripts "for real."
Late is always better than never, but obviously the best time to iron out a healthy and positive self-concept is in one's youth, so that the "big decisions" that determine so much of the rest of adult life are made under the influence of that self-concept. Serious changes in one's life circumstances and self-concept can occur at any age; the probability of them just goes down year by year.
To talk about self-concept and how it evolves, we need to introduce a sense of the time scale of the experiences that shape it. Short-range experiences describe the individual's relationships with the world over the past few days or weeks as he satisfies his immediate needs, completes work or study assignments, and participates in one-time activities. Medium-range experiences describe stable relationships with the world over the individual's current stage of life - usually defined by one's work situation, living situation, and intimate relationships. Long-range experiences form over the span of years and describe the ways things "always seem to happen" - in other words, one's attitudes to work, relationships, love, and life in general.
Obviously, it is long-range experiences that shape self-concept. People can have very good or very bad short-range experiences that do not influence their self-concept at all, and even medium-range experiences do not create a lasting effect. Only when the individual senses deep down that his relationships with the world have changed permanently does his self-concept shift.
In the formation of self-concept, extra weight is attached to long-range experiences from one's childhood and one's relationships with one's parents. It takes a great deal of qualitatively different life experience to override that baggage (whether it is positive or negative). Unfortunately, the quality of one's long-range childhood experiences is, in essence, a matter of luck, which means that a good part of one's self-concept is the result of chance. Not all of self-concept, of course, since it is the result of the interaction between the person and his environment, and many of the person's traits are inborn and tend to produce similar interaction with different environments.
In light of this discussion, we should now have an idea of which circumstances are likely to impact self-concept, and which are not:
Will impact self-concept:
- a new long-term close friendship
- a string of positive and "successful" love relationships, or one such long-term, stable relationship
- strained relationships with your bosses at several jobs in a row
- leaving home and learning to provide for yourself
- an average course of psychological counselling
- reading a book on how to change your self-concept
- a project well-done at work or school
- trying to be nicer to your teenage son or daughter