There are three general understandings about how a self-concept is developed. First, a self-concept is learned. As Mead indicates, a self-concept gradually emerges early in one’s life and is constantly shaped throughout life by one’s perceived experiences. This means that a self-concept is learned: it is a social product of one’s experiences. The perception of one’s self-concept may differ from how others perceive that person, and it is different during every life stage. When a person is presented with an experience that differs from the self-concept he or she has developed, the person sees the experience as a threat. The more experiences that challenge the self-concept, the more rigid the self-concept becomes. Generally, an individual will try to overthink, overgeneralize, or rationalize the experience so as to reduce the emotional havoc it creates.
Second, a self-concept is organized. Most scholars agree that individuals develop a self-concept that has stable characteristics in order to maintain harmony. Our self-concept is orderly: it categorizes our experiences and “fits” them in a way that will make sense to our development. It discards experiences that present different beliefs and values because it cannot be placed in a categorical way. It is our self-concept that tries to resist change, because the changes disrupt the stability of one’s personality. Let us say you hold a very specific belief, such as, “English is the primary language of this country and everyone should learn to speak and write it. There is no reason to have billboards and signs in other languages.” The more central this belief is to your self-concept, the more resistant you are to learning new experiences and to adapting your belief.
Third, a self-concept is dynamic. Self-concepts are actively shaped based on one’s experiences, which means that they are dynamic. The self-concept can be seen as a guidance system directing your behaviors to match up with your beliefs. I often hear employees in organizations say, “My company does not do what it says it will do around diversity and inclusion. It says one thing, and its actions are completely the opposite.” At an organizational level, the company may perceive itself differently, defending its self- concept. There is a conflict between this perception of who they are versus what others think they really are. Complaints from employees will be rationalized, or bended, to fit the self-concept of the organization and its leaders. In psychology, this is called cognitive dissonance, that is, one’s justification for one’s beliefs even when the facts clearly demonstrate the opposite.
The following case study illustrates the self-concept in action.
Joe leads a Public Safety department in Garden Grove, a suburb located just outside of a large urban city in the Midwest. He’s lived and worked in this city all his life, and generations of his family have made Garden Grove their home. They settled in the area when it was just farmland and have seen it develop over time into a bustling city of 128,000.
Garden Grove, like other suburban cities in the United States, has seen an increase in the number of non-white residents. A large number of Asian residents move into the city because they are attracted to the educational system and quality of life the city offers. This change has made the city more racially diverse than ever.
Joe sees the visible differences on a personal and professional level. In his neighborhood, 25% of his neighbors are Asian Indian, 10% are Vietnamese, and 10% are Chinese. He’s had problems with his neighbors; what used to be a quiet neighborhood is now a festival every week. His neighbors have lots of visitors who park up and down the side street, their children running around without any parental guidance. Once, he held a party to celebrate his son’s graduation from high school, and his relatives and friends had to park two blocks away because of his neighbor’s party.
At work, he’s pressured from his director to hire more people who “reflect the community” that Garden Grove has become. From volunteers to paid staff, he’s had to work through policy changes and make accommodations for who he hires. He disagrees with his director that he should hire someone just to make a quota, and besides, he can’t find anyone who has the skills or the experience for the department jobs. Although he loves his job, it’s not what it used to be. He’s increasingly unmotivated to go to work. It seems that all he does these days is attend training sessions on diversity. What’s happened to his passion for public service?
As the director, you have noticed the changes in Joe. You know it has to do with the new vision of the organization to increase racial and cultural diversity as part of the city’s strategic vision. To help Joe manage his self-concept, think about the following questions: What do you think is Joe’s self-concept? What are the beliefs that are being challenged? When evaluating this case study, there are several items that are important to note:
- Joe has a long history of family traditions and roots in Garden Grove.
- His experiences and knowledge of Garden Grove span generations.
- Joe and his family are accustomed to interacting with people who are Caucasian.
- He has a belief that his neighborhood was a “quiet” place to live, but it is now disrupted because of the new neighbors, who are not so quiet.
- He has a belief that the parties thrown by his neighbors are so large that he considers them festivals.
- He does not understand the collective nature of the Asian Indians, Vietnamese, and Chinese neighbors in his neighborhood.
- He believes that one should be hired on the basis of merit and skill rather than filling a quota.
All of these items are some examples of Joe’s beliefs that form his self-concept. In the case study, you can also identify what emotions and feelings he has related to his self-concept, such as his discomfort with nonwhites. Identifying emotions is useful for understanding how the self-concept develops to make the person feel comfortable.