Self-image and Identity: (A complete Guide)

This article focuses on what is self-image and identity.

What is Self-Image?

Self-image is an important psychological construct which refers to how an individual views himself/ herself. 

It is defined as “the idea, conception, or mental image one has of oneself.” It is the perception one has about who he/ she is, wants and has and can be both positive and negative.

When one thinks about oneself and the image that forms in his/her head is the self-image.

Self-image refers to how an individual perceives himself in terms of his characteristics and traits, but this perception does not always have to reflect reality.

A person’s self-image can be affected by many factors, such as parental influences, friends, the media etc.

Self-Image vs. Self-Concept

Self-image and self-concept are closely related. Self-concept is an umbrella term which self-image is a part of (Mcleod, 2008)

Self-Image vs. Self-Esteem

Self-image is also related to self-esteem because how we view ourselves is associated with how we evaluate ourselves.

Having a positive self-image means that we evaluate ourselves positively and vice versa.

Self-image differs from self-esteem as it also includes the sense of worth and respect one has for himself/ herself.

History of Self-Image

The emphasis on self and understanding can be traced in scriptures of ancient Greece but the latest work on self-related topic is being credited to Morris Rosenberg who is renowned for his work on self-esteem and self-image.

In his book Society and Adolescence in 1965, he did an in-depth exploration of the concept of self-image which later helped in construction of the famous Rosenberg Self Esteem Scale.

After that the research on self and related constructs such as Self- Awareness, Self-Understanding are hot topics in modern social psychology and is helping a lot in understanding how people perceive themselves and how it affects them and their surroundings

Charles Horton Cooley Looking Glass Self Theory

Charles Horton Cooley (1902) proposed the looking glass self-theory, which postulates that a person’s self-image grows out of his/her social interaction with the environment.

An individual sees others as the mirrors which reflect his/her personal qualities and evaluates him/herself on the basis of the responses given by people.

According to Cooley (1902), it is not how one sees him/her self rather it is the perception of how others sees him/her.

The presence of others determines one’s thoughts, actions and behaviors and how one views oneself in the world.

Sometimes individuals are unable to perceive correctly hence resulting in a wrong self-concept, which in turn results in low self-esteem.

Cooley (1902), suggested that self-image is formed by an individual’s evaluation of how he appears to others, how other judge him on the basis of his appearance, and how he feels about himself based upon the judgements of others.

A noticeable thing in Cooley’s theory is that not everyone has the same impact on individual’s self -perception

The three elements of a person’s self-image are:

·         The way a person perceives or thinks of him/herself.

·         The way a person interprets others’ perceptions (or what he thinks others think) of him/herself.

·         The way a person would like to be (his ideal self).

Dimensions of Self-Image

Carl Rogers (1959) highlighted three important internal components of self and self-image among them. Kuhn (1960) investigated the self-image by using The Twenty Statements Test.

He asked people to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ in 20 different ways. He found that the responses could be divided into two major groups.

These were social roles (external or objective aspects of oneself such as son, teacher, friend) and personality traits (internal or affective aspects of oneself such as impatient, humorous).

The list of answers to the question “Who Am I?” probably include examples of each of the following four types of responses:

  •          Physical Description: I’m fat, I have brown hair
  •          Social Roles: I am a student, I am a mother.
  •          Personal Traits: I am helping, I am generous.
  •          Existential Statements: I am child of the universe, I’m a human being

Positive and negative self-image

Positive self-image includes perceiving yourself in positive light. For example:

  •         Viewing yourself as kind person
  •          Viewing yourself as humble and deserving of love.
  •          Seeing yourself as a desirable being.
  •          Seeing yourself as attractive, intelligent and smart.
  •         Accepting that you are human and can make errors.

Negative self-image includes:

  •          Seeing yourself as unworthy and undesirable.
  •          Having an image of yourself as a useless person
  •          Seeing yourself as dumb and unintelligent.
  •          Thinking that others perceive you as a bad human being.


The Importance of a Positive Self-Image

Practical Ways to Build Your Self Image 

How we change the way we see ourselves, from negative to positive is an important question. It is a slow process as it takes a lot of time to identify and restructure the faulty perceptions about oneself.

This process also requires unlearning the maladaptive behaviors and adapting those which helps in improving self-image.

The following practical steps can help in eliminating the negative self-image and replacing it with positive self-image

Monitor and identify your negative thoughts

The first step of this process is to monitor ones thought which are self-destructing and are cause of negative self-image for example the thought that I am unworthy will create a negative image of yourself in your mind.

Restructure your thought

Thought restructuring is an important phenomenon is cognitive therapy.

This includes identification and then restructuring the thoughts which are causing you distress and affecting your self-image.

Restructuring the thought that “I am unworthy “with “I am important for my loved ones and they love me regardless” is good exercise.

Give yourself room for error

 It is good to understand that you are a human with human limitations. This thinking will stop the damage to self-image.

Change What You Can and Let Go of What You Cannot

This is a very important thing to do. If one feels unsatisfied about body weight or style of hair, he/ she can change it by doing exercise and going to a hairdresser.

But if it is something which cannot be changed or is very expensive, the best thing is to accept it and let go.

Tell yourself that you are happy the way you are and those who love you will keep loving you despite everything.

It is famously said; “that nobody could make you feel inferior without your consent.” and one should not give anyone consent to make him/her feel inferior.

What is Identity?

Bhugra, (2004) defined identity as: “the totality of one’s perception of self, or how we as individuals view ourselves as unique from others”.

Identity is the entirety of individual’s perception about himself as unique and distinct from others.

It develops at social and cultural level and is dynamic and fluid which means it is transmitted from generation to generation and is subjected to modification due to change in social environment (Bhuga & Becker, 2005).

Identity is a social system which is made up of structure and cultural values, rules, beliefs and practices and members of the society are expected to conform to this social system (Jones, 2005).

Together identities make up self-concept, which is described as: “self-concept is, what comes to mind when one thinks about oneself” (Neisser, 1993; Tajfel, 1981).

Types of Identity


Gender identities

Gender identity is very important as it strongly correlates with self-image. Gender identity gives us clarity about our roles, rules for interaction and dress codes etc.

Age identities

Age is also an important aspect of personality as roles are also associated with age group.

In eastern culture age is viewed as positive because elderly are respected in eastern cultures.

Spiritual identity

Spiritual or religious orientation also identifies one from others. It is one of the core aspects of identity.

Religious identity chalks out the rules for spending life.

Class identity

Social and economic class identity influences how one behaves and communicates towards people.

A person’s class identity is not necessarily noticed until he or she encounters another person representing another social class.

Cultural identity

Cultural identity refers to the sense of belonging and identification with a particular group on the basis of culture, nationality, ethnicity, religion, race and gender (Chen, 2014).

It is formed by sharing collective knowledge such as language, norms, values, folklores, tradition, food, art and literature.

Personal identity

Personal identity is quite similar to self-image as it represents how we perceive ourselves. Personal identity is indispensable for communication with other people.

Henri Tajfel and John Turner Social Identity Theory

Social identity is the people’s sense of who they are based on their membership in group(s).

Tajfel and Turner, (1979) proposed that people belong to various groups such as family, social class, peer group, religious groups etc. and their membership in these groups give them social identity and a sense of belonging to the social world.

Roles are also determined on the basis of the status people acquire within a group.

For example, in family a role of a woman may be of a mother, sister or a daughter, and this role and the expectations attached with these roles will give a sense of identity and self-image.

Therefore, in order to enhance one’s own self-image, people begin to compare and distinguish themselves with members of other groups.

For example, being a Pakistani citizen gives a sense of identity with Pakistan and a sense of difference from China.

Identity Crisis

Identity crisis is a very common term these days.

As the world is becoming globalized and various cultures are coming in contact with each other, there is also a common threat to personal identity and cultural identity.

The concept of identity crisis was given by Erik Erikson when he proposed his life span perspective.

According to Erikson, identity and identity formation is one of the most important part of an individual’s life and when there is uncertainty about who one is, it leads to identity crisis, one of the most important conflicts people face in development.

According to Erikson, an identity crisis is a time of comprehensive analysis and exploration of different aspects self-concept and self-image

Erikson described identity as “a subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and continuity of some shared world image. As a quality of unself-conscious living, this can be gloriously obvious in a young person who has found himself as he has found his communality.”


In Erikson’s theory, the identity crisis originally occurred in adolescence but in today’s rapidly changing and interconnected world, these conflicts can occur at any stage.

Following are the causes of the identity crisis.

  •         Joblessness
  •          Beginning a new relationship
  •          Ending a marriage or partnership
  •          Having a child
  •          Losing a loved one
  •          Moving
  •          Experiencing a traumatic event
  •          Learning about a health condition

Identity crises are also common among people with mental illness, including depression, codependence, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder.

Importance of Identity in Psychology:

From the discussion above, it can be noted that identity and clarity about oneself is an important aspect of proper psychological functioning.

Any problems in identity or self-image can lead to some serious psychological problems including depression and anxiety.

FAQs about Self-Image and Identity 

How many types of identity are there?

There are following types of identity:

 – Gender identities
– Age identities
–  Spiritual identity
– Cultural identity
– Personal identity
– Class identity

What is identity?

Identity can be defined as a complete perception of an individual about oneself.

This is a perception of an individual about how he is different from others.

What is self- image?

It is the mental image or concept of a person in his own head. 


Chen, G. (2014). Influential factors of deaf identity development. Electronic Journal for Inclusive Education, 3(2), 5.

Tajfel, H., Turner, J. C., Austin, W. G., & Worchel, S. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. Organizational identity: A reader, 56, 65.

Cooley, C. H. (1902). Looking-glass self. The production of reality: Essays and readings on social interaction, 6.