What is the Self and How is it Formed? 3 Very Different Theories Try to Explain it


To know oneself (or one’s self) is in fact a life long project. We spend a huge amount of time to get to know people and hereafter we analyze them in order to make sense of what they are doing, and why they are doing so.

Perhaps, that is one of the reasons why we apply the concept of self in our everyday life. We know that people are different so we try to understand people’s actions or reactions.

In this article, I will compare three different views on the self. All theories of personality psychology deal with the idea of a self, a personality or an identity. Some theories stress the importance of the sorroundings in the development of the personality, whereas others stress the importance of innate biological dispositions.

1. The psychodynamic self

The psychodynamic theory of the self, represented by Freud, was one of the first psychological theories that sought to understand the concept. Freud (1923) found that the self was constituted of three different personality structures: the id, the ego, the superego respectively (this video here illustrates it).

The id represents innate (biological) human needs and drives (e.g., sexual and aggressive drives). These drives try to win over the ego (one’s will) so that they achieve fulfillment Therefore, the three different personality structures seem to be in a constant conflict with each other.

In contrast, the superego is determined by environmental factors, and it is constituted of rational thought, conscientiousness and moral, and basically its function is to postpone needs and impulses (self-control).

The ego tries to satisfy (or balance) the superego as well as the id (two contradicting forces), but at times this can be difficult. The main function of the ego is therefore one’s will. After a psychodynamic account of the self, it would be interesting to see how the environment affects us.

2. Self-awareness & self-Image

The american psychologist, George H. Mead, was concerned with social constructivism. In his work, Mead (1934) perceived the individual to be a construct of social or environmental factors.

Mead divided the self into the “I and the “Me. The I is the subjective and active self and it tells us how we feel about ourselves, whereas the Me is how we view ourselves. In other words, the Me is the socialized (more objective) part of the person, and the I is the more subjective part of the person.

Mead’s concept of the self is that it is being developed through an interaction with the environment and social experience. It is constituted of self awareness and a self-image. As I wrote in the beginning, we try to make sense of other people’s behaviours. We seek to understand the intentions of other people, and it is by doing so that we get to understand them.

More specifically, the gift we have as human beings is the concept of theory of mind, which is the fact that we for the most part understand other people’s intentions. When other people act (especially emotionally), we produce mirror neurons merely by observing them (watch a video here).

This means that our brain becomes activated in the brain areas that are associated with the specific behaviour of the other. The theory of mind is therefore a premise for us to feel empathy for another individual, and we get to know other people by feeling empathy, and consequently we become self aware.

3. The looking-glass self

Another interesting article on the self is provided by Cooley (1983) who states that we have a looking-glass-self. This theory suggests that we understand our self based upon how we think others perceive us. Metaphorically speaking, the environment is like a mirror that reflects our self.

Cooley’s view on the self is that it is solely based on environmental factors. It is easy to draw a parallel to Rosenthal’s (1978) theory of a self-fulfilling prophecy, which suggests that people are likely to act in accordance with others’ expectations of them.

Indeed, evidence supports the notion of self-fulfilling prophecies (interpersonal expectancy effects). For example, research has shown that teachers develop expectations for their students, and they treat students differently, depending on their expectations, and therefore students react to this treatment in expectancy-confirming ways (Lee, 1986).

In closing, it is a common held belief that the self is constituted of both biological, psychological and social (environmental) factors, but to what extent is a debate about nature/nurture (read more about the biopsychosocial model here).

Image: Philippe Gillotte