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It is not known exactly when man’s awareness of self developed. However, it is believed that the notion of self awareness has existed since the creation of man. Philosophers such as René Descartes were among the first to define self concept.
In the 20th century, the concept of the self took a new turn with the emergence of behaviorism and other schools of thought on self concept. Modern thinking of self concept is varied. Humanistic psychology, spiritual concept of self and other theories constitutes modern thinking on self concept.
The History of Self Concept
The concept of self possibly dates as far back as the beginning of man. This is because there is no sufficient evidence on when man became aware of such intangible personal attributes self-esteem. However, studies in the development of self concept got a boost from the works of Rene Descartes in the 17th century. Descartes suggested the existence of the ego (non-physical being).
The concept of the ego remained anonymous throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It is only during the early 20th century that the concept of the non physical started gaining prominence (Rachlin, 1991: Plotnik, 2005). Some of the early philosophies explaining self concept include behaviorism. Behaviorism is a school of thought suggested by such renowned psychologists as B.F. Skinner and J.B. Watson.
Behaviorists concede that self concept can only be understood by carefully interpreting human behavior (Baum, 2005). Within the same period, Sigmund Freud developed psychoanalysis, the psychology of the study of the mind, which deviated slightly from behaviorism (Elliott, 2002). Humanistic psychology developed later in the mid 20th century with concepts such as self actualization gaining prominence.
Famous humanist psychologists such as Carl Rogers proposed the idea of unconditional recognition, a concept in which the perception of oneself is motivated by unconditional self acceptance. Furthermore, Robert Burns suggested that self concept is a composition of personal attitudes and beliefs.
The concept of self has developed further with varied opinions constituting modern thinking. These include the spiritual based concept of self, whereby each of the major religions such Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, suggest unique philosophies on self concept (Greenberg, 2008).
The modern thinking on the self
Grego (2007) argues that most of the modern theories on self concept borrow heavily from the works of Rene Descartes. Descartes’ works focus on dualism; the idea that human beings are dual in nature. Most of the modern self concept theorists build their philosophy on self concept around Descartes’ initial idea on the ego. The modern thinking suggests that human beings have an inherent need for motivation.
This implies that self concept is largely determined by motivation. There are various factors that determine motivation. Abraham Maslow proposes that an individual concept of self progresses in stages. These stages are equated to progressive levels of human needs.
The satisfaction of each level of needs motivates a person to acquire an improved concept about the self. As such a person’s self concept develops in stages. Other modern theories on the self concept include Sociometer and the terror management theories (Kernis, 1997).
While Sociometer theorists suggest that the development of self concept is motivated by one’s social needs and the ability to fit into social groups, terror management theorists propose that security issues (and more so those related to life and death matters), determines the development of a person’s self concept (Solomon and McGregor, 1997).
Moreover, humanistic psychology, which suggests that unconditional acceptance motivates self concept, also constitutes modern thinking.
Modern thinking suggests two types of self concepts: high and low self esteem. People with high self esteem characteristically love themselves unconditionally. They also recognize themselves and live comfortably, without letting the flaws affect them negatively (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger and Vohs, 2003).
On other hand, people with low self esteem fail to recognize and accept themselves. They perceive themselves negatively and desire to change certain attributes about themselves.
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The Spiritual concept of self
The spiritual aspects of the self concept are founded on James Hillman’s definition that psychology studies the human soul (Klemp, 2009). Based on Hillman’s psychology, the concept of the self show a relationship with a higher being, most commonly referred to as the creator of the universe. Modern theosophists such as Helena Blavatsky suggest that the spirit, other than being incorruptible, is above the human soul.
The human spirit deals with the non physical aspects of life such as virtues and vices. The spirit, thus, constitutes the self. The human soul can be attracted to the human spirit. If this happens, a person becomes overtly spiritual. The connection between the soul and the spirit forms a person‘s self concept (Creeger, 1994). Theosophists separate the soul and the spirit and argue that the human spirits transcends mortality.
Thus, people who are deeply spiritual perceive themselves as immortal; they will live beyond death. Such people live in permanent freedom. People who are overly spiritual characteristically detach themselves from physical cravings, since they consider such to be a hindrance to their self actualization.
As such, they concentrate in the spiritual aspects of life such as meditation, prayer and worship, and other aspects that guarantee joy and happiness. Due to their spiritual nature such people perceive themselves as closer to their supreme creator.
Major world religions have specific philosophies that explain the concept of the self. The Hindu concept of self is founded on the caste system. Hindus believe that a person’s progressively move towards self actualization, by meeting spiritual needs. The progress through the caste system signifies a person spiritual growth.
Similarly, Christianity proposes its own philosophy on the self concept that “man is created in Gods own image” (Hensley, n.d). In this regard, the Christian concept of self is based on positive self regard.
The development of self concept can be attributed to the works of René Descartes. However, behavior psychologists made significant contribution to the development of self concept. Behaviorists suggested that a person self concept is derived from studying personal behavior. It is imperative to state that behavior psychologist ignored spiritual aspect of the self.
Unlike behaviorists, theosophists focus on the spiritual aspects. They propose that the human being is made up of two distinct parts; the soul and the spirit. The soul is the physical, while the spirit is the powerful of the two and connects one to a higher power. The spirit, which constitutes the self, leads one to self actualization. As such, the self endures beyond death.
Similarly humanist psychologists suggest that the concept of self improves with the satisfaction of progressive human needs. Self actualization is the highest level of growth one can achieve.
While theosophist suggests that self actualization is only attained through the satisfaction of spiritual needs, humanists propose self actualization is met through satisfaction of human needs. Both theosophical and humanistic approaches are unified by life after death.
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