Strengthening Your Self-Concept and Heal Your Attachment Wounds

When I ask you who you are, what do you imagine? Do you see yourself as attractive,
intelligent, funny? Pride yourself on being a self-taught artist? Perhaps you value adventure,
integrity, or community. Do you think you’re a compassionate and caring person who is a good
friend and supportive family member? Maybe you’re convinced you’re not a morning person.
All of these are examples of the many aspects that make up a person’s self-concept—a collection
of perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and attitudes that one holds about themself.

By Dr. Judy Ho

Clinical and Forensic Neuropsychologist

Author of Stop Self-Sabotage and The New Rules of Attachment

Self-concept is formed through a combination of experiences, social interactions, and
cultural influences, from family background, peer groups, education and work experiences, and
exposure to media messages. Having a healthy, stable, and resilient self-concept is crucial to
experience success and fulfillment in all the domains of your life—and a healthy attachment
bond is where it all begins. Self-concept may seem self-explanatory, but it’s actually a nuanced,
multifaceted idea with big implications for our mental health. When psychologists talk about
self-concept, what we’re really talking about are its three components: self-image, self-worth,
and ideal self. 1

Self-image is how you perceive yourself right now, in this moment. It does not
necessarily reflect reality, and it can be altered by your thoughts, how you are feeling on a given
day, and what you think about your behaviors and actions or what they signify to you. For
example, on days you volunteer for a charity you might think of yourself as a generous person, while having an argument with a loved one over something trivial might lead you to view
yourself as impatient. Your self-image can consist of social roles, personality traits, physical
attributes, or abstract concepts of being. It’s also possible to have a more lasting, generalized
negative self-image such as believing you are unlovable or incompetent.

Self-worth is how much value you place on yourself and how much you like, respect,
and accept yourself. Although self-esteem and self-worth are often used interchangeably, self-
worth is thought to be more stable and enduring, whereas self-esteem can be more variable and
situational. Self-esteem often comes from how others react to you, how you compare yourself to
others (and whether you believe you measure up), how you identify yourself, and what roles you
hold most dear in life. For example, the prestige or stigma related to particular roles in life may
change, boost, or hurt your self-esteem depending on how much you believe those roles define a
central part of you. In general, people with higher self-esteem tend to also have a stronger sense
of self-worth because they have more positive and accepting views of themselves. On the other
hand, people with lower self-esteem might also struggle with feelings of inadequacy, which can
erode their sense of self-worth over time.

Ideal self is who you’d like to be. When your ideal self and your self-image are similar,
with alignment in the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and actions of both selves, you feel safe and
stable as you go through life. If, however, your ideal self and your self-image have very little in
common, that discrepancy can cause intense emotional discomfort. 2 , 3

The intersection between how you feel about yourself in the moment, how much you like
and respect yourself, and how closely your sense of yourself in the present aligns with who you
aspire to be all factor into that bigger picture we call “self-concept.”

Self-Concept and Attachment

Almost every patient who comes to me in my private practice is struggling with some
type of negative self-belief. They struggle with poor self-image, low self-worth, and think that
their ideal self is likely to go unrealized in their lifetime. These deep-seated, strongly held
negative beliefs can usually be traced back to their early childhood experiences and represent
their greatest fears about how others might see them. What’s even more challenging is that these
negative self-beliefs act as self-fulfilling prophecies: We’re convinced that we see ourselves
accurately, and the rigidity of those self-perceptions gets in the way of healthy relationships,
satisfying connection, and successful goal pursuits.

Our minds are naturally inclined to use simplified strategies to conserve mental energy
and reduce cognitive load. In many ways this is adaptive and necessary (for example, when we
have to make decisions without time to analyze the nitty-gritty), but this cognitive miserliness
can lead to biases and errors in our thoughts and actions. This is why our attachment experiences
have such a profound impact on us as we grow: The stories we learned from our caregivers
become the simplified strategies we use to see the world and ourselves. They become shortcuts
to our self-concept that are hard to shake for two reasons. The first is because they’re so readily
accessible. We are likely to quickly classify ourselves as being less capable, less worthy, or less
lovable than others just because these thoughts have been with us and percolating for some time.

The second reason has to do with the brain’s self-confirmation bias. Going back to that
cognitive miserliness, our brains prefer confirming an existing belief—even when it’s
negative!—to creating a new one, so we are less likely to entertain a new idea or a new action
that will change how we think about ourselves. We may even unconsciously seek evidence to
further cement these existing unproductive beliefs. The influence of our self-concept goes
beyond how we think about ourselves and impacts how we relate to others.

People with insecure attachment styles and, relatedly, negative self-concepts develop
problematic attachment scripts, which are rigid, inflexible rules about how they should respond
to different situations and people in their lives. When these scripts are followed, they create the
disappointing results they’ve come to expect.

For example, if your self-beliefs tell you that you are unlovable, unworthy, and incapable,
you may believe that no one can take care of your needs or that you don’t deserve good things in
life. You may say, “I’m terrible at relationships, so why bother?” and subconsciously activate a
script of detachment where you immerse yourself in solitude, work, or other ways of achieving a
self-fulfilling prophecy. You may go from job to job unable to find a stable working environment
or develop connections with co-workers. Although you may feel lonely, you might vehemently
deny the need for relationships because you are so busy with work or other solo activities.
Because you feel unwelcome or that you don’t fit in with the group, you may avoid family or
other social gatherings.

Or you may have a gnawing, persistent worry that your loved ones don’t care about you.
You may have subconsciously activated a script of dependency where you may indiscriminately
cling to any relationships, come on too strong, or ask for repeated reassurances that exhaust the
people in your life with your emotional neediness. You may be on high alert to signs that others
are displeased or detaching from you and engage in extreme people-pleasing behaviors to gain
acceptance. This creates a vicious cycle where your self-esteem is attached to how others
respond to you. Your self-perception can turn on a dime and cause you to feel a lack of control.
You may have difficulty making decisions without input from other people and feel stressed or
scared when you’re alone for too long. You can find yourself obsessing over ways to avoid being
hurt or rejected and run hot and cold with loved ones, and these erratic behaviors can provoke the very reactions from others that you most fear. It’s a classic cycle of self-sabotage that strengthens your negative self-beliefs and makes it even more challenging for you to heal your attachment

What Makes Up Your Self-Concept?

Despite self-concept playing such an integral role in our daily lives, most of us are unfamiliar
with the idea and the enormous impact it has on our behavior and who we are. So, let’s pause and
do an exercise that will help you to get to know yourself and take the time to think about who
you are, what you think, and what you value.

Exercise: Self-Concept Wheel

Draw a circle on a piece of paper or in your journal, write your name in the middle, and then draw
several spokes that radiate out from the circle (it will look a little like a sun).

Now, think about the characteristics, behaviors, and accomplishments that represent who
you are. How do you see yourself? How would you introduce yourself to a stranger? What are
the most important things to know about you, past, present, and future? At the ends of the
spokes, write down what comes to mind, and feel free to add more lines if needed. Don’t
overthink this; simply write down what comes up without judging the result.

When you’re done, look at your wheel and ask yourself the following questions:

– How many of the items are personality traits or characteristics that are internal
aspects of yourself (patient, adventurous, caring, hard-working, humorous)?
– How many are physical descriptions (the color of your hair, eyes, or your body
– How many are social roles (mother, son, friend, teacher)?
– How many are achievements (college graduate, financially independent)?
– How many are activities you engage in (running, cooking, blogging)?
– Did you list your job, where you live, what inspires you, or aspirations (traits you
hope to embody or goals you wish to achieve)?
– What about more abstract, existential ideas about the self (such as “I’m a human
being,” or “I’m a spiritual being”)?

Connected explorers, or those who are securely attached, tend to maintain balance in the
various components that make up self-concept. Their self-descriptors include a range of
categories and aren’t too heavily focused on one at the expense of another. Their self-concept
also strikes a balance between beliefs and ideas that are rooted within themselves and those
concepts and ideas that rely on information from the outside world.

That balance is what gives secure attachment its power. We can’t always predict how
others might react, what mood they’re in, or how much they want to engage with us on a given
day. During these moments, having aspects of self, rooted within us, that are stable, consistent,
and relatively impervious to change is important for us to feel good about ourselves and to carry
out the things we have to do on a daily basis with efficiency and ease.

The world and the people around us change from moment to moment, as do our
relationships with them. So, if your self-concept relies on one aspect of your life over another
(such as an overidentification with a romantic relationship or a job), when that area isn’t going
well, it is easy to feel like, somehow, your whole self isn’t worthwhile or lovable. These self-
beliefs can then impact your functioning in other important areas of life.

However, if your self-concept is diversified, when you have an argument with your
romantic partner or your boss offers you negative feedback, the other aspects of your self-

concept can buffer you against negative self-beliefs. For example, if you’re beating yourself up
for being unproductive at work, you can go home, focus on being a parent, and feel good about
honoring your top values of family and community.

Bonus Exercise: Diversifying Your Self-Concept

Look back at your self-concept wheel and make a conscious effort to add different
categories related to how you see yourself. Add physical characteristics or personality traits if
they were missing from your original exercise. Consider adding more abstract definitions of
yourself (e.g., I’m a spiritual being) or different roles that are important to you (like being a
sister, a volunteer, or a mentor). If you didn’t list goals or accomplishments, this is a good
opportunity to add a couple. If you feel that your original exercise showed an overdependence on
certain people or relationships, expand your self-concept to include roles with other important
people in your life. Fill in as many additional spokes as you’d like; the more multifaceted, the

Now, think about how you might nourish and strengthen one “spoke” of your self-
concept. You are looking for ways to make this aspect of your self-concept take root within
yourself so that it will be a solid part of who you are and not as dependent on the day-to-day
influences of others.

When you have selected one “spoke” of your self-concept that you’d like to nourish,
think of one way you could invest in, and strengthen, this aspect of yourself. How can you
increase a skill, improve your mood, or make yourself feel like you are aligning more closely
with this aspect of who you are? It would be helpful to think of something you can do right now,
even if it’s a small activity that takes only a few minutes, as well as think of something that you can do over a longer period of time (for example, over the next week or month) that will continue to build upon your skill or investment in this area of yourself.

For example, if you wrote “knowledgeable,” you could spend some time delving into a
new topic of interest or reading a chapter in a book on your bookshelf that you’ve been meaning
to get to. Over the next week, you might decide to finish the book or think about a way to expand
your knowledge on a topic of interest by doing something to build your knowledge over time
(like enrolling in an online course on graphic design). You could choose to invest time in one of
your favorite activities (like working on a jigsaw puzzle) or revisit a past hobby (like buying
some knitting supplies today and then over the course of the next month knitting a hat for your
baby nephew) to affirm that you are a multifaceted person, and all aspects of yourself are worth
cultivating and honoring.

Again, the purpose of diversifying your self-concept is so that you aren’t overly reliant
on any one aspect of it to fulfill your self-esteem needs. Take the time to invest in all the spokes
in your wheel, but don’t feel you need to nurture them all at once.

1 Rogers (1959)

2 R. F. Baumeister, “Self-concept, Self-esteem, and Identity” In V. J. Derlega, B. A. Winstead,
and W. H. Jones (eds.), Personality: Contemporary Theory and Research (Chicago:
Nelson-Hall, 1999), 339–375.

3 C. Rogers, “A Theory of Therapy, Personality and Interpersonal Relationships as Developed in
the Client-Centered Framework,” in S. Koch (ed.), Psychology: A Study of a Science, Vol.
3: Formulations of the Person and the Social Context (New York: McGraw Hill, 1959).

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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