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Personal Growth: Understanding Self-Concept in Older Adults

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As we grow older and reflect back on life, the fundamental question often arises: Who am I? While on the surface this may seem simple, fully defining oneself is quite complex. Without the societal labels of occupations, relationships and ideologies, how do you perceive your core identity? Discovering authentic self-concept in older adults is key.

For mature adults and seniors specifically, understanding senior self-concept – your self-image, personal strengths, and life values separate from roles society imparts – can reveal new insights about needs and goals for this stage of life.

Whether contemplating major decisions, seeking fulfilling relationships and romance, or desiring personal growth, examining your self-concept helps uncover the wise, confident senior ready to embrace new adventures. Defining this inner self lays the foundation for positive change.

Understanding Self-Concept in Older Adults

Understanding Self-Concept in Older Adults

It was the renowned psychologist and theorist Carl Rogers who formulated the theory of self-concept. In a nutshell, self-concept is how you see yourself or define yourself.

Our physical image (body image), the way we showcase emotions, and how we reciprocate to different situations all come under the idea of self-concept. This is why the term is often used interchangeably with self-image.

What you see when you look in the mirror is one simple way of defining this complex concept. It is also closely related to the mental representation that we have created for ourselves.

Did you know that this mental representation may be far off from how people actually perceive you?

How is Senior Self-Concept Formed?

It begins forming from the moment of birth and continues throughout our life. From that moment on, all our experiences imprint upon our minds and add to the development of our self-concept.

Since it is largely based on certain imprinting and personal experiences, self-concept is not often grounded in reality. It develops at a fast pace during childhood and adolescence and keeps changing for the rest of your life.

Self-concept is built from the information individuals gather about themselves from their external and internal world. It can be built from our relationships with our parents, friends, and even stories that we hear about people we may not necessarily be acquainted with.

Components of Self-concept in Older Adults

One of the founding pillars of psychology, Carl Rogers identified three significant components of self-concept, namely: self-image, self-esteem, and ideal self. Let us look at each of these components in detail.


As the title itself denotes, self-image is how we view ourselves. It may not always be in line with what is real as it is quite natural that individuals may have inflated ideas of themselves (at least of certain characteristics) than reality. It includes how we define ourselves:

Physically: Whether you have blue/brown/black/gray eyes, how tall or short you are, the color of your hair, your body physique, etc.

Through Personality Traits: Are you an outgoing person or an introvert, serious or jolly, mellow, kind, aggressive, etc.

Via Social Roles: This includes familial roles such as father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, or professional roles like a gardener, engineer, teacher, and so on.

It is also common to see individuals view certain characteristics in a positive view while viewing others negatively. The development of self-image is dependent on various factors like familial background, parental influence, popular media, and association with peers and friends.

Another interesting fact is that while young people often choose to define themselves based on their personality traits or physical descriptions, older people tend to lean onto their social roles to describe themselves.


This is not a new term for us, as there are many people out there who grapple with self-esteem issues to one degree or another. Another apt term to describe this is self-worth, in other words, the extent to which you value yourself.

It is very closely related to self-knowledge, physical characteristics, feedback from others, etc. With a close and critical look at ourselves, we can evaluate the level of our self-esteem. But to make things more comprehensible, we can conduct this evaluation with the below pointers-

  • How much confidence do you have in your own abilities? When you take on a task, are you 100% sure of being able to do it?
  • Self-acceptance- Do you accept yourself as you are, with all your flaws and past/present actions?
  • Do you constantly worry about what others think and make your decisions based on the same?
  • Are you optimistic? Can you see the silver lining even in the darkest clouds?
  • Do you compare yourself with someone else and wish to be/act/look like them?
  • Are you pessimistic and see the storm even before the dark clouds begin to gather?

If your answer to most of these questions is yes, then we surely need not tell you whether you have self-esteem issues or not.

A British psychologist named Michael Argyle, in his work titled Social Encounters: Contributions to Social Interaction, wrote about the four major factors that affect self-esteem.

  • The Reaction of Others

How we value ourselves largely depends on how others perceive us. When other individuals in a person’s social circle flatter or actively seek out the company of the person in question, they tend to develop a positive image of themselves.

Alternately, if the person is ignored, belittled, or neglected by others, a negative self-image crops up.

  • Comparison With Others

We have often heard how dangerous comparisons can be. When individuals compare themselves with someone else and that someone turns out to be happier, more successful, more handsome, or richer, their self-image begins depreciating.

Alternately, if the individual fares better than their comparison, they develop a positive self-image.

  • Social Roles

There is a sense of status or prestige associated with certain positions. For instance, a medical practitioner will have better pride and esteem than a refuse collector or a convict.

  • Identification

In the long run, the roles we play in our personal and professional lives transform into our self-image. The positions we hold and the status we enjoy becomes part of who we are and affects self-esteem.

Ideal Self When Self-Concept Development in Seniors

For a balanced idea of the self, your self-image should match the ideal that you have set for yourself. An imbalance in this may result in changes in how you value yourself. Quite obviously, what we wish for hardly ever comes true.

This is the case with the ideal self as well. To understand this better, we need to explain two concepts:


This is when the real-life experiences of an individual are not in line with their ideal self. Incongruence, according to Carl Rogers, takes root in early childhood. How much value we place on ourselves depends on parental influence.

An example of how this develops is to take an instance where parents (in an attempt to discipline children or otherwise) take a stand on how children can earn their share of love. Any slight indiscipline results in a harsh snatching of said love.

This results in children setting very high expectations of themselves which more often than not, they will never be able to attain.


When the ideal self one has set for themselves and the reality is consistent with each other, it is defined as a state of congruence. As utopic as it sounds, it hardly ever exists as no matter how cherished upbringing individuals experience, there may always be a certain level of incongruence in them.

For self-actualization, as stated by Rogers, an individual needs to be in a state of congruence. To further understand the concept of the ideal self, let us consider the factors that influence its development, as outlined by Argyle.

  • How others react to us (those particularly close to us).
  • How we value ourselves in comparison to others.
  • The social roles we embody.
  • The degree to which we identify with others.

The ideal senior self-concept includes the hope that we carry in us (a belief in what can be possible), the image of a future that we desire, dream of, or aspire towards, and a clear self-concept of who we are.

A Last Word on Self-Concept Development in Seniors

As seniors, understanding our self-concept – our self-perception and core identity – helps provide stability amidst life’s complex changes. Defining this inner self is the light guiding us through transitions and towards fulfillment.

With age comes evolution of self-concept. Social connections play a key role, with support and feedback from peers influencing our self-image. By actively engaging with communities of those experiencing similar life stages, seniors can find encouragement to see themselves as wise, confident and willing to grow.

Comprehending theories around self-concept development empowers mature adults to take charge of identity formation in later years. Examining your self-perception allows you to integrate life’s lessons into a renewed, meaningful personal narrative.

The result is a flagbearer guiding each senior towards relationships and adventures that align with who they know themselves to be.

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