View more in
Jon Hawkins

Your “Self-Concept” Defines Your Limits

Posted by 
Jon Hawkins
Jon Hawkins

The person you perceive is the person you will become.

How do you perceive yourself? Are you ugly or beautiful? Intelligent or dumb? What are your best attributes? What can you do, and what are your limitations?

Is this account of yourself correct? Is it the same as the way others perceive you, or is it all in your head? Our self-concept plays a key role in our daily lives. It defines the choices we make, the way we perceive things, and even how we interpret the world around us.

Naturally, we like to pigeonhole ourselves based on our past experiences. To make our lives easier, we use our previous experiences to infer and make cognitive shortcuts about the future (psychologists call this “heuristics.”) They help us to create a schema about ourselves, our skills, and our place in the world.

In some respects, this is beneficial. This self-concept protects us from dangerous risks and prevents us from wasting our time. For example, the matching-hypothesis tells us that we will date people of similar attractiveness to us. From an evolutionary perspective, knowing how attractive you are prevents you from wasting your time chasing partners that are “out of your league.”

On the flipside, however, a self-concept helps us create our own barriers and limitations:

  • If we try something and have a bad experience, we rarely return to it, telling ourselves it’s not “right for us.”
  • We often refuse to take risks or try new things, because we feel that “we’re not good enough.”
  • We sometimes internalize bad habits and attributes, telling ourselves that they are a “part of who we are.”

In truth, the person you are and the person you will become has no limits. With enough determination, you can achieve almost anything and change anything about yourself.

It’s your self-concept” that is holding you back.

The Psychology of a “Self-Concept”

Psychologically speaking, a “self-concept” refers to how each of us thinks, perceives, and evaluates ourselves. If you’re consciously aware of your own existence or have ever reflected on who you are, then you have one.

According to Psychologist Michael Lewis, the development of this concept has two aspects:

  1. We develop the “Existential Self” as children when we learn that we are distinct from other people, acknowledging we persist and exist over time and space
  2. After learning that we are a separate thing, we then discover our “Categorical Self.” Becoming aware of ourselves, and the objects around us. We recognize that we are an object with categories: like age, gender, hair color. Over time, our self-description includes less concrete things like internal psychological traits, and how others perceive us.

As we grow and have more experiences, we start to build our own self-perception. We start to learn about what we’re “naturally good at,” what we dislike and should shy away from. We also make inferences based on our interactions with other people — how our actions are received/interpreted, and how people treat us help us make judgments about our own public image and place in the social sphere.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily have to reflect reality, and our inferences can be faulty. Consider someone who is anorexic — they are thin, but illogically conclude that they are fat.

The Axioms by Which We Define Ourselves

According to Manfred Kuhn (1960,) there are a variety of different axioms by which we define ourselves, and they vary depending on how old we are. When answering the question “who am I?” Kuhn found that our answers split into four categories:

  1. Physical Description: highlighting our visible features. For example, I am tall, have brown hair and hazel eyes.
  2. Social Roles: Highlight our position and duties within the social dynamic we were born into. A student, doctor, and chef, are just a few examples.
  3. Personal Traits: These are based on our own judgment, and what others tell us about ourselves. Are you impulsive? Do you worry a lot? Are you generous?
  4. Existential Statements: reflecting a deeper wonderment of our place in the universe. Things like: “I am a human being,” “I am a son of God.”

According to Psychologist Dr. Saul Mcleod, young people define themselves by their personal traits, whereas older people define themselves by their social roles.

As it turns out, both self-concepts restrict the person we could become.

Self-Imposed Limitations

We internalize the descriptions we give ourselves. I do it, and you probably do too.

You tell yourself that you are a “chef,” a “housewife,” a “student.” That you’re “impulsive,” “generous,” “happy.” As part of this, you even make broad generalizations about your abilities: “I’m good at this,” and “I’m bad at this.”

In restricting your worth to these social constructs, you guarantee that you’ll never become anything more. There’s not a single part of you, your social structure, or your personal traits that you can’t change (if you wanted to).

Your self-concept is a self-imposed limitation. It prevents you from ever leaving your comfort zone and becoming someone else.

Get Out of Your Own Way

According to Counselor Michael J. Formica, the way we perceive the world often becomes a reality. It’s for that reason that we become a victim of our own devices — we define ourselves in a certain way, and naturally, conform to match that very self-concept.

He believes we are mistaken to trust our senses and self-perception — it could quite easily be mistaken, which causes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the same way that an anorexic believing they have weight issues causes them to do so. Telling ourselves we can’t do something could cause us to fail, and pigeonholing ourselves into a social construct will cause us to live that type of life.

In resolving this, Formica argues we should move away from defining ourselves based on our perception and senses. Rather becoming a victim of your past circumstances and letting it define us, become a co-creator of your own life. Recognize that you define your own limits, no matter who you are, you can do anything you set your mind to.

It is by letting our values, desires and authentic self shape the person we see in the mirror, that we can properly create the life that we want.

And if you’ve made mistakes in the past, that doesn’t matter. They don’t define you. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, you are free to grow and change.

“Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.” — Harvey Fierstein

Break the Cocoon, Become a Butterfly

According to Psychologist Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., our distorted views are one of the many reasons a lot of us stay small. It’s also one of many reasons that few of us celebrate our successes.

We enter a state of confirmation bias — we tell stories about ourselves, and ignore anything that doesn’t match that perception. When we succeed in ways we didn’t expect, we put it down to “luck.” We tell ourselves we’re not naturally good at it, so achieving can’t have been the result of skill.

Alternatively, Gillihan recognizes that our self-perception fuels our fear of the unknown. We refrain from doing things out of our comfort zone because “we could embarrass ourselves,” and “even if we did achieve, we probably wouldn’t be able to sustain it.” Of course, these narratives we tell ourselves are false — these negative thoughts are the cause of our demise.

The solution to this problem? Consciously reflect on the goals and desires you’ve had for some time, but never pursued. Ask yourself, why haven’t I? What’s holding me back? Is it worth the risk?

The more you reflect on it, the more you’ll realize that there is nothing holding you back. Sure, you might not have the best odds at succeeding, but does that matter? It’s through practice and perseverance that you can take back control and shape the person you become.

No matter who you are, or what past experiences you’ve had, nothing is out of reach.

“Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.” — Malcolm Forbes

Final Thoughts

As we grow and develop, the experiences and social interactions we have shape how we perceive ourselves. We define ourselves based on our traits, our skills, our appearance, our social roles, and so much more.

While this heuristic has its social benefits, it mostly prevents us from leaving our comfort zone and reaching our full potential. We refuse to take risks, and internalize bad habits, defining them as “who we are.”

To overcome this, you should:

  1. Take the advice of Michael J. Formica, and recognize that your perceptions and self-definition could be mistaken — in the same way someone with anorexia thinks they are thin. Rather than becoming a victim of our past and irrational thinking, we should co-create our own life. Do so by recognizing that you define your own limits, and no matter who you are you can do anything you set your mind to.
  2. Listen to Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D. Ask yourself “why haven’t I pursued my dreams yet? Are they not worth the risk?” Sure, with your current skillset, you might not succeed straight away. It’s through perseverance that you can become the person you want to be, and really achieve something great.

I write about Self-Improvement, Life Lessons, Philosophy, Psychology & Business — to help you reach your full potential. To stay in touch, and to receive free and exclusive content, sign up to my mailing list.