The nature of identity

Self and self-concept

The self is sense of something which is ‘about me’. It is the subject of one’s own experience (perception, emotions, thoughts). In phenomenology, the self is conceived as what is experienced – and there can be no act of experiencing without an ‘experiencer’, this being the self. The self can therefore be understood a construction, intrinsic of the fact that we experience phenomena. The self can also be considered as a reflexive perception of oneself, (including the person who thinks, the subject of thinking and the awareness of doing so), meaning the self is an object of consciousness.

The earliest formulation of the self in modern psychology forms the distinction between the self as I, the subjective knower, and the self as Me, the object that is known. The self, I is a dynamic, responsive process which defines the structure of neural pathways according to the totality of past and present environments. Physiologically, the self can be considered in two ways: a) memory structure, so the Me exists outside of particular contexts; b) cognitive capacity, so what constitutes Me is created inside of, and embedded within, moment-to­-moment situations.

Self-concept is the product this responsive process: concepts or beliefs that an individual has upon  themselves as an emotion, spiritual, and social being. The self-concept is the idea of ‘who I am’ or anything you say about yourself. This can be described as what comes to mind when one thinks of oneself, one’s theory of one’s personality, and what one believes is true of oneself. People also know themselves in other ways: self-images, feelings, images drawn from the other senses, a sense of what they sound like, what they feel like tactically, or a sense of their bodies in motion.


Identities are distinct parts of the self-concept, the internalised meanings and expectations associated with the particular belief, or a way of making sense of some aspect of the self-concept. Identities are the traits and characteristics, social relations, roles, and social group memberships that define who one is. Identities can be focused on the past (what used to be true), the present (what is true of one now), or the future (the person one expects or wishes to become, the person one feels obligated to try to become, or the person one fears one may become).

People can think of themselves in different ways. An individualistic perspective focuses on how one is separate and different from others, looking at the self up close and from inside the mind’s eye. However, people can also consider how they are similar and connected via relationships (sometimes called a collectivistic perspective) such as how they might look from the outside, in the eyes of others. These different perspectives are often propagated through particular cultural expectations.

The term ‘identity’ is often used in two linked senses, social identity and personal identity. Social identity refers to social categories or role definitions: a set of persons marked by a label or distinguished by conception, qualities, beliefs, and expressions. This could include national or cultural identity. Personal identity usually refers to certain properties to which a person feels a special sense of attachment or ownership. Someone’s personal identity in this sense consists of those features she takes to define them as a person or make them the person they are. One’s personal identity is contingent and changeable: different properties could have belonged to to the way one defines oneself as a person, and what properties these are can change over time.

Weinreich gives the definition:

A person’s identity is defined as the totality of one’s self-construal, in which how one construes oneself in the present expresses the continuity between how one construes oneself as one was in the past and how one construes oneself as one aspires to be in the future

A sense of self: how identity is maintained 

The sense of self is the way a person thinks about and views his or her traits, beliefs and purpose within the world. The nature of the sense of self is constantly changing.

Carl Rogers 3 components to a sense of self:

  • Self-esteem: what we think about ourselves. Rogers believed feelings of self-worth developed in early childhood and were formed from the interaction of the child with the mother and father.
  • Self-image: How we see ourselves, which is important to good psychological health. Self-image includes the influence of our body image on inner personality. At a simple level, we might perceive ourselves as a good or bad person, beautiful or ugly. Self-image has an effect on how a person thinks, feels and behaves in the world.
  • Ideal self: The person who we would like to be. It consists of our goals and ambitions in life, and is dynamic – i.e. forever changing. The ideal self in childhood is not the ideal self in our teens or late twenties etc.

Rogers believed that everyone exists in a constantly changing world of experiences that they are at the centre of, constantly reacting to stimuli within this subjective reality. A person reacts to changes in their subjective reality (or phenomenal field), which includes external objects and people as well as internal thoughts and emotions.Over time, a person develops a self-concept based on the feedback from this field of reality.

Looking back to my research of Jeff Malpas’ Philosophical Topography, we are reminded of the link between this subjective reality and our phenomenological experience. From my essay: “J. Malpas defines reality as an interconnection of objective spaces (defined in reference to objects in physical space) and subjective spaces (defined from a ‘local’ perspective dependent upon the subject). Place should be considered as not just a physical location, nor just a subjective concept, but is “that on which the notion of subjectivity is founded” (1999, p35). As subjectivity is at the heart of any concept of a sense of self, place becomes integral to the very possibility and structure of existence”.

Subjective reality 

Rogers believed that all behaviour is motivated by self-actualising tendencies, which drive a person to achieve at their highest level. As a result of their interactions with the environment and others, an individual forms a self-concept (an organised, fluid, conceptual pattern of concepts and values related to the self).

Rogers divided the self into the ideal self and the real self. The ideal self is the person that you would like to be; the real self is the person you actually are. Rogers focused on the idea that we need to achieve consistency between these two selves. We experience congruence when our thoughts about our real self and ideal self are very similar—in other words, when our self-concept is accurate. High congruence leads to a greater sense of self-worth and a healthy, productive life. Conversely, when there is a great discrepancy between our ideal and actual selves, we experience a state Rogers called incongruence, which can lead to maladjustment.


[1] Maxine Borowsky Junge, Identity and Art Therapy: Personal and Professional Perspectives

[2] Boundless. “Rogers’ Humanistic Theory of Personality.” Boundless Psychology. Boundless, 20 Aug. 2015. Retrieved 18 Jan. 2016 from



1 thought on “The nature of identity

  1. stardust000

    Another excellent blogpost, food for thought finding the proximity between my ideal self and real self. I am still waiting to buy your book, your words are always so deep, provocative and questioning, very compelling reading.


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