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The Psychology of How Well You Know Yourself

How well do you know yourself? Take a second to think about who you are. What are your traits? Your characteristics?

Some people have an easier job answering that question than others. It seems that some of us have a very clear picture of who we are whereas others struggle with it. Are you the same person today as you were yesterday? Do you feel like your traits aren’t totally consistent with each other?

For years, psychologists have been studying the types of people who know themselves well and the types who are a bit more clueless. In their lingo, they study a concept called “self-concept clarity.”

When You Clearly Know Yourself

In 1990, psychologist Jennifer Campbell published a paper that introduced the idea of self-concept clarity. Basically, she suggested that having high self-esteem can be associated with having a clear sense of yourself and knowing who you are.

Let’s back up a second, though, to figure out what the “self-concept” is and how it’s different from “self-esteem.” (If you’re interested to know more, I produced a short video course a few months ago all about the psychology of the self—check it out!)

You probably already know about self-esteem; it’s how positively we tend to view ourselves. It’s about the overall good vs. bad that you feel toward yourself.

Your self-concept, though, is a set of beliefs you have about yourself. Forget the “good” and “bad”—the self-concept is just an assessment of your traits, the roles you play, your memories of yourself, etc.

When it comes to clarity, there are three important components to having a clear self-concept:

  1. You are confident in your self-beliefs. For instance, you’re sure that you have a particular set of traits.
  2. You have a consistent set of self-beliefs. In other words, your personality traits don’t contradict each other. As an example, someone with an unclear self-concept might believe both that he’s generous and that he’s stingy.
  3. Your self-beliefs stay stable over time. Who you thought you were last year was the same as who you think you are today.

The Benefits of a Clear Self-Concept

Okay, great. Some people have a clear self-concept and some people don’t. What does it matter?

I’ll tell you what it matters![1]  Sorry I got aggressive there.

A bunch of studies have measured people’s beliefs about themselves to see whether having a clearer self-concept is related to other positive experiences. For starters, people with a clearer sense of themselves tend to have higher self-esteem.

Along the same lines, though, other data have shown that having a clearer sense of self is related to lower levels of depression and rumination, and it’s also related to reduced general and social anxiety. Throw in the links between self-concept clarity and stress and loneliness, and you’re starting to get the picture.

In fact, it also seems that people with a clearer sense of self also have better relationships with others. In romantic relationships, this can mean greater satisfaction with the relationship and commitment to it. Also, people with more self-concept clarity tend to be less aggressive and hostile toward other people.

But Do They Really Know Themselves?

In general, the research on self-concept clarity has tended to look at how clear people think their own self-concepts are. Researchers ask, for example, how much people agree with statements like: “My beliefs about myself seem to change very frequently.”

Know YourselfWhat’s still unclear[2]  I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me up. Be honest—you saw that pun coming, but you deserve better. is whether people are correct about their impressions of clarity. Does a person who thinks her attributes remain stable over time actually have a stable self-concept? Does a person who thinks he knows himself actually have a clear sense of self?

Recently, psychologists have proposed that there can be a difference between the subjective elements of self-concept clarity and the objective elements, each of which have a particular importance.

Nevertheless, there is some evidence that the people who say they know themselves really well actually do. For example, one study showed that people who said they had a pretty clear sense of themselves were better at predicting what they would do in the future.

Another study used a very clever method to see how well people were in touch with their unique set of personality characteristics. They used Barnum statements—the kinds of statements that phony psychics and fortune cookies use to make it look like they really know you. Basically, these are statements that are general enough that they apply to anybody. In the right context, though, people think that they are remarkably accurate personality readings. But does everyone fall for them?

The results of this study showed that people with a high sense of self-concept clarity rated these Barnum statements as less accurate than people with a low sense of clarity. In other words, they were able to see through the deception because of their enhanced self-insight.

Know Thyself

I hope this glimpse into the fuzzy world of the self and the self-concept has been enlightening. These are the kinds of things that social psychologists pay a lot of attention to because they’re so integral to our everyday lives but can also be so hard to get a handle on. If you’re interested, though, I’ve written before about the development of self-esteem and also about how people can overcome self-doubt.

What should be clear[3]  …I did it again. I’m so sorry. I know what I did, and it won’t happen again. by now, though, is that something like having a clear sense of self—or at least believing that you do—can be a critical human experience with links to everything from well-being to relationship satisfaction.

More research is needed to understand how a person might be able to attain a clearer sense of him or herself, but what we know now sheds light on everyday experience.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.   Sorry I got aggressive there.
2.  I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me up. Be honest—you saw that pun coming, but you deserve better.
3.   …I did it again. I’m so sorry. I know what I did, and it won’t happen again.

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