George Herbert Mead 1 argued that individuals develop a self-concept that evolves throughout their lives as a result of interacting with their social world, which may include parents, teachers, and peers. Similarly, William Purkey stated that “self-concept may be defined as the totality of a complex, organized, and dynamic system of learned beliefs, attitudes and opinions that each person holds to be true about his or her personal existence.” 2 These interactions help individuals form a perception of who they are based on expectations from, and responses to, their social environment. Our perceptions are stimulated by internal and external factors. These factors can create intense emotional responses, which impact our willingness to learn and our choice of action—they guide individual behaviors. The following example demonstrates this idea of self-concept and how it manifests in one’s behaviors.
Like many teenagers in the United States, Karen was required to take a foreign language course at her school. She chose to learn German because relatives on her mother’s side lived in Germany, and her family was planning a visit in the summer. Unfortunately, Karen’s few months of German class were not fun. She had a teacher who was very strict in her lesson plans and grading of the students. Additionally, Karen fell behind in the class work due to an after school sports injury; she was out for two weeks. When she returned to class, her teacher called her out in front of other students when she didn’t know the correct vocabulary terms and proper responses. She didn’t feel motivated to be in class and learn German.
When summer arrived, her family went to Germany as planned to visit their relatives. Karen’s parents had been excited about her foreign language choice, and her relatives knew she was taking a German culture and language course. During the stay with the relatives, Karen tried to practice her German but stopped trying after her relatives told her, “You need to improve your German.” The next year, her family visited Germany again, and her relatives question her about her German language skills. Upon hearing her speak, they told her again, “You’re not there yet. You need a lot of improvements.”
Twenty years later, Karen works for a financial company that has a location in Germany. Karen’s supervisor tells her that she will need to relocate to Germany for two years; she thinks that with Karen’s great interpersonal skills, she would be able to help the success of the project. Upon hearing this, Karen becomes anxious and uncomfortable. She makes excuses for not going, and her supervisor is confused.
Karen has been an outstanding worker and her actions are puzzling and surprising.
Karen’s self-concept has contributed to her self-efficacy. The expectations of her teacher, her family, and her relatives to learn a new language is too much for her to handle. The responses she receives are not what she wants or needs to hear to help her improve her German language skills. As a result, she withdraws from learning the language and culture. She develops a self-concept that may consist of any of the following:
- I will never learn the German language and the culture.
- I do not have the ability or skills to learn a new language.
- It is easier if I just do what is comfortable for me.
- I cannot make mistakes or people will lose their confidence in me.
These beliefs and attitudes surface when her supervisor asks her to relocate to Germany. The negative memories and experiences she had become barriers to her success and self-efficacy. She feels anxious, and her behaviors are seen as strange.