How people define themselves in relation to others greatly influences how they think, feel, and behave, and is ultimately related to the construct of identity. Self-development is a continuous process throughout the lifespan; one’s sense of self may change, at least somewhat, throughout one’s life. Self-representation has important implications for socio-emotional functioning throughout the lifespan.
Philosopher and psychologist William James (1842–1910) was one of the first to postulate a theory of the self in The Principles of Psychology. James described two aspects of the self that he termed the “I Self” and “Me Self.” The I Self reflects what people see or perceive themselves doing in the physical world (e.g., recognizing that one is walking, eating, writing), whereas the Me Self is a more subjective and psychological phenomenon, referring to individuals’ reflections about themselves (e.g. characterizing oneself as athletic, smart, cooperative). Other terms such as self-view, self-image, self-schema, and self-concept are also used to describe the self-referent thoughts characteristic of the Me Self. James further distinguished three components of the Me Self. These include: (1) the material self (e.g., tangible objects or possessions we collect for ourselves); (2) the social self (e.g., how we interact and portray ourselves within different groups, situations, or persons); and (3) the spiritual self (e.g., internal dispositions).
In the late twentieth century, researchers began to argue that the self is a cognitive and social construction. Cognitive perspectives suggest that one’s self-representation affects how one thinks about and gives meaning to experiences. Like James, psychologist Ulric Neisser distinguished between one’s self-representation connected to directly perceived experiences and that resulting from reflection on one’s experiences. The “ecological self,” connections of oneself to experiences in the physical environment, and the “interpersonal self,” connections of oneself to others through verbal or nonverbal communication, comprise direct perception of experience. Neisser proposed that these two types of self-representation develop early in infancy. Regarding reflections on one’s experiences, Neisser identified three types of self-representation that emerge in later infancy and childhood with cognitive and social maturation. The temporally “extended self”is based on memories of one’s past experiences and expectations for the future. The “private self”emerges with the understanding that one’s experiences are not directly perceived by others, but rather must be communicated to be shared. The “conceptual self,” one’s overarching theory or schema about oneself based on one’s reflection on experiences within social and cultural context, parallels terms such as self-concept and self-schema. In a 1977 article, psychologist Hazel Markus showed that one’s self-representation or self-schema guides information processing and influences one’s behavior.
As psychologist Roy Baumeister pointed out in Identity: Cultural Change and the Struggle for Self, because self-representation develops through one’s experience of the world, cultural and social factors are important in who we are and what we think about ourselves. Philosopher George Herbert Mead (in Mind, Self, and Society ) postulated that acquisition of self-representation emerges from socialization practices. Mead argued that individuals are socialized to adopt the values, standards, and norms of society through their ability to perceive what others and society would like them to be. Psychologists Tory Higgins, Ruth Klein, and Timothy Strauman further suggested that self-representation includes ideas about who we are (actual self), who we potentially could be (ideal self), and who we should be (ought self), both from one’s own perspective and from one’s perception of valued others’ perspectives. Discrepancies between the actual self and the ideal self or ought self may result in depression or anxiety, respectively.
Attachment theory likewise demonstrates how the self is socially constructed and, in turn, affects how people evaluate themselves (i.e., their self-esteem). Thus, relationships with others play an important role in people’s self-representation and self-esteem. Psychologist John Bowlby focused on caregiver-child relationships. Securely attached children feel safe in the environment and are able to actively explore their surroundings. Through experiencing secure attachment to a consistent caregiver, children develop a belief that they are good and worthy of love. This forms the basis of self-esteem. In contrast, an insecure attachment, in which the child does not feel confident in the caregiver’s protection, may result in feeling unworthy of love, anxious and distressed, and relatively low self-esteem.
The beginnings of self-representation emerge early in infancy, with the recognition that one is a separate physical being from others. Self-representation development continues throughout adulthood. Because self-representation involves social and cognitive constructions, changes in self-representation occur with individuals’ cognitive and social development. Psychologist Susan Harter has conducted highly influential research on the developmental course of self-representation. Excerpts from Harter’s summary of self-representation development from early childhood through adolescence (Harter, 1988) are presented in the Table 1.
In addition to cognitive and social maturation, changes in one’s social context may be equally important influences on self-representation. For example, Susan Cross (in “Self-construals, Coping, and Stress in Cross-cultural Adaptation”) notes that cultural values influence self-development. As an individual moves from one cultural context (e.g., Eastern culture) to another (e.g., Western culture), changes in self-representation may emerge. Individuals can learn to adopt a self-representation that embraces multiple cultures.
SEE ALSO Attachment Theory; Bowlby, John; Child Development; Developmental Psychology; James, William; Mead, George Herbert; Mental Health;
|Early childhood||Middle childhood||Adolescence|
|Content||specific examples of observable physical characteristics, behaviors, preferences, etc.||trait labels, focusing on abilities, interpersonal characteristics, and emotional attributes||abstractions about the self involving psychological constructs, focusing on different relationships and roles|
|Organization||little coherence, due to inability to logically organize single self-descriptors||logically organized, integrated within domains that are differentiated from one another||ability to construct a formal theory of the self in which all attributes across and within role domains are integrated and should be internally consistent|
|Stability over time||not stable over time||recognition of and interest in continuity of self-attributes over time||Intrapsychic conflict and confusion over contradictions and instability within the self, concern with creation of an integrated identity|
|Basis||fantasies and wishes dominate descriptions of behaviors and abilities||use of social comparison due to ability to simultaneously observe and evaluate the self in relation to others||intense focus on the opinions that significant others hold about the self, especially peers and close friends|
Psychology; Self-Awareness Theory; Self-Consciousness, Private vs. Public; Self-Guides; Self-Perception Theory; Self-Schemata; Social Psychology; Stages of Development
Bowlby, John. 1969. Attachment and Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Cross, Susan. 1995. Self-construals, Coping, and Stress in Cross-cultural Adaptation. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 26 (6): 673–697.
Harter, Susan. 1988. Developmental Processes in the Construction of the Self. In Integrative Processes and Socialization: Early to Middle Childhood, eds. Thomas D. Yawkey and James E. Johnson, 45–78. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Harter, Susan. 1999. The Construction of the Self: A Developmental Perspective. New York: Guilford.
Higgins, Tory, Ruth Klein, and Timothy Strauman. 1985. Self-concept Discrepancy Theory: A Psychological Model for Distinguishing Among Different Aspects of Depression and Anxiety. Social Cognition 3: 51–76.
James, William. 1890. The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt.
Kanagawa, Chie, Susan Cross, and Hazel Rose Markus. 2001. Who Am I?: The Cultural Psychology of the Conceptual Self. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 27 (1): 90–103.
Markus, Hazel. 1977. Self-schemata and Processing Information about the Self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 (2): 63–78.
Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Neisser, Ulric. 1988. Five Kinds of Self Knowledge. Philosophical Psychology 1 (1): 35–59.
Julie C. Dunsmore
Self representation is the image the subject has of him or herself based on his or her own interpretation. It is one of the factors of the ego and its representation as termed "an individual, differentiated, real, and permanent entity" (Racamier) particularized by a distinctive history and modes of feeling, thinking, and doing.
This accounts for Heinz Hartmann's distinction between, on the one hand, the ego as a function and the self as the object of narcissistic investment, and, on the other, "object representations" and "self representations," meaning the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious representations of the corporeal and mental self within the system of the ego, representations that are invested with both libidinal and destructive energy to become love objects and objects of hatred.
Jacques Lacan took a different approach. In "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience" (1949/2004), he described the mirror stage as "a drama whose internal pressure pushes precipitously from insufficiency to anticipation—and, for the subject caught up in the lure of spatial identification, turns out fantasies that extends from a fragmented image of the body to what I call "orthopedic" form of its totality—and to the finally donned armor of an alienating identity that will mark his entire mental development with its rigid structure" (p. 6).
Thus self representation is just of one aspect of the subject's representations, marked by its belonging to the ego—that is, its insertion into reality, the aim of a con-substantial coherence with its narcissistic dimension and the lure it implies. To varying degrees it can be destabilized, called into question, unmasked by desires and conflicts, or seriously disturbed. The latter may take the form of the radical self-depreciation of melancholia, the overvaluation of self in mania, or a collapse into schizophrenia, where a more or less delusional new self representationis reconstituted as savior of the world, self-procreator of all human lineages, of other such variant. Other less dramatic but particularly trying forms occur when the self representation is called into question in borderline states or transformed into transsexualism.
Any existential crisis, particularly in adolescence, can challenge or cause serious disturbances in self representation. These occur in anorexia, bulimia, dysmorphophobia (fear of deformity), or psychotic decompensation, all considered by American authors as defects in self-representation or as pathologies of identity (Erikson). Among the various elaborations proposed by authors who espouse Hartmann's conception, Edith Jacobson's has the merit of showing the correlation between the self and the object world, between identity and the feeling of identity within a framework that combines individuation and identification, and thus grants a determining role to the unconscious.
See also: Object; Object relations theory; Self; Self-image.
Erikson, Erik H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.
Jacobson, Edith. (1964). The self and the object world. New York: International Universities Press.
Lacan, Jacques. (2004). The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience. InÉcrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.), pp. 3-9. New York: Norton. (Original work published 1949)
Racamier, Paul-Claude. (1963). Sur la personnation. In De psychanalyse en psychiatrie. Paris: Payot.