What is Self-Image and How Do We Improve it?

Key Takeaways

  • Self-image, first mentioned by Morris Rosenberg in 1965, is the view or concept that one has of themselves (the sort of person we think we are). This also includes body image and gender.
  • Self-image consists of what a person perceives to be or thinks of themselves, what they perceive others think of them, and the way someone would like to be — their ideal self. These thoughts can relate to someone’s perceived physical appearance, personality, skills, values and principles, and perception of how they fit into society’s norms around masculinity and femininity.
  • Self-image and self-concept are two similar but distinct ideas. In general, self-image deals with how one sees the concrete, measurable concepts of themselves, while concept relates to how one sees themselves on an abstract level.
  • A number of mental health disorders surround self-image. One example is body dysmorphic disorder, where someone focuses on a perceived flaw — either real or nonexistent — in their personal appearance at the cost of their self-esteem and self-image.

Definition & Characteristics

One’s self-image is their view or concept of themself. Self-image is a fundamental aspect of someone’s personality that can determine the success of relationships and a sense of general well-being. A negative self-image can be caused by self-abuse, self-defeating, or self-destructive behavior.

Suzaan Oltman, for example, says that the three elements of self-image are (Oltman, 2014):

  1. The way a person perceives or thinks of themself;
  2. What a person thinks others think about themselves;
  3. and the way a person would like to be or their ideal self.
Morris Rosenberg’s book Society and the Adolescent Self-Image was one of the first in-depth explorations of the concept of self-image.
There is no widely agreed-upon framework for self-image; however, there are some proposed types and dimensions of the concept.
  1. The Physical Dimension: how someone evaluates their appearance.
  2. The Psychological Dimension: how someone evaluates their personality.
  3. The Intellectual Dimension: how someone evaluates their intelligence.
  4. The Skills Dimension: how someone evaluates their social and technical skills.
  5. The Moral Dimension: how someone evaluates their values and principles.
  6. The Sexual Dimension: how someone feels they fit into society’s masculine and/or feminine norms.


Self-image is the product of thought patterns developed through the social influences of those around someone from childhood on.

Self-image is a product of learning. Early childhood influences, as well as one’s experiences with others on the individual and societal scales, can influence one’s image of themselves.

How someone relates to their peers can often influence self-image. For example, a child who was bullied in school due to an unusual psychical trait may develop a self-image of unattractiveness that carries with them into adulthood.

Nonetheless, self-image can be altered and improved through techniques such as non-judgemental thinking, meditation, and taking steps to cultivate unconditional positive regard for others.

Self-Image vs. Self-Concept

Self-image has been defined as the total subjective perception of oneself, including an image of one’s body and impressions of one’s personality, capabilities, and others.

This definition equates self-image with self-
concept. Meanwhile, other psychologists have said that one’s self-image is one’s mental picture, one’s physical appearance, and the intersection between one’s experiences, desires, and feelings (Bailey, 2003).

Bailey (2003) has argued that the difference between self-image and self-concept lies in how self-image pertains to the (measurable) concrete things that one does, how one appears, and the material things that one has.

These measurable characteristics of a person can include:

  • Unchanging genetic attributes present at birth, such as the shape of one’s eyes or noose;
  • Genetic attributes present at birth that do change, such as body proportions and height;
  • Chosen acquired material things obtained for the enhancement of one’s physical body self-image, of one’s public persona, and of one’s measurable “work products.” These can include things such as money, possessions, or jewelry.

Self-image can also factor in the things that someone does that can be measured, such as achievements at work and in sports (Bailey, 2003).

The self-concept is a more overarching concept than self image: it involves how you see yourself, how you think about yourself, and how you feel about yourself. Self-image is just one component of several that make up self-concept.

Meanwhile, self-concepts are qualities present in oneself and can be assessed through estimates rather than measurement. These qualities can concern what one does — such as often using compassion and consideration — as well as non-measurable aspects of how one appears, such as how attractive one thinks they are.

The assessments placed on these qualities may be significantly influenced by one’s immediate environment as well as society at large.

For example, Bailey (2003) mentions how institutionalized racism in America may lead to black Americans internalizing stereotypes of inferiority presented by whites. Similarly, a delinquent teenager may take the position of their peer group that being academic is not “cool.”

Differences Between Self-image, The Ideal Self, And The Real Self

The ideal self is an idea deriving from Carl Roger’s humanistic psychology. Rogers proposed that the personality is composed of the real and ideal self.

While the real self is the person that someone believes they actually are, the ideal self is an idealized self-image created out of what they have learned from their life experiences, the demands of society, and what they admire in their role models.

Self-image can often exist in relation to one’s ideal self. Usually, there is an incongruence between one’s real and ideal selves and their self-image.

That is to say, how someone imagines themself to be in an ideal life may differ from how they see themselves, which, in turn, can differ from who that person actually is and is perceived by others. While someone may believe that they

Implications of (in)congruence and between self-image and ideal-self

Someone who believes that they are far from their ideal self may, in turn, develop a low self-image. Conversely, the closer our self-image and ideal self are to each other, the more consistent or congruent we are and the higher our sense of self-worth.

Someone is said to be incongruent if they see some of their experience as unacceptable to them and are denied or distorted in their self-image.

As a result, psychologists have theorized the discrepancy between the real and ideal self as a motivating force for entering psychotherapy. Rogers (1980) calls this gap between the real and ideal self incongruence and believes this can lead to maladjustment.

Research studies have attempted to measure levels of real-ideal self-congruence by having participants sort cards describing themselves as they would like to be and as they are. This is called the self-ideal Q sort.

Therapists have attempted to improve self-ideal congruence in their treatments by emphasizing one’s positive characteristics and how they can move toward expressing more of these characteristics.

Parents can also help their children achieve greater congruence between their real and ideal selves by giving them unconditional positive regard or unconditional love.

According to Schmitt (1980), people who are accepted and prized tend to develop a more caring attitude toward themselves.

Improving Self-Image

A good self-image can be built by routinely converting setbacks into accomplishments. People would typically call this “turning a lemon into lemonade.”

In doing this, the person doing the conversion can build self-confidence in one area that is important to them.

Having a positive self-image involves having a good view of oneself. For example, someone who has a positive self-image may:

  • See themselves as attractive and desirable.
  • Believe that they are intelligent.
  • Believe that they are inherently happy and healthy.
  • Believe that they are making progress toward, or are at least somewhat close to, their ideal version of themselves.
  • Believe that others perceive them as having the positive qualities they see in themselves.

Meanwhile, someone who has a negative self-image may:

  • See themselves as unattractive and undesirable.
  • Have an image of themselves as stupid or unintelligent.
  • Believe that they are unhappy or unhealthy.
  • Believe that they are nowhere near their ideal self and that they are unable to become closer to being their ideal self.
  • Believe that others perceive them as being as inadequate as they believe they are.

Self-image is changeable and can be built up. Numerous researchers have conducted studies on how groups of people such as students, musicians, and people with disabilities can improve their self-image. These studies have used methods such as:

  • Improving some aspect of one’s appearance, either through taking on healthy habits (such as exercise and adequate nutrition) or surgery (such as through dentistry).
  • Nonjudgemental reflection, such as loving-kindness meditation. This can help someone reframe self-critical and judgemental thoughts into thoughts that are constructive and reflective of reality. By using nonjudgemental reflection to become more aware of harmful thinking patterns, people can develop a greater capacity to provide themselves with unconditional positive regard. In addition, meditation has been shown to increase one’s sense of social connectedness (Hutcherson, Seppala, & Gross, 2008).
  • Calling out negative thought patterns, commonly referred to as the “inner critic.”

Researchers have also proposed methods through which others can improve the self-image of those they interact with. These include (Campbell, 1981):

  • Accentuating positive aspects of a person and vocalizing one’s strengths
  • Publically displaying someone’s personal achievements. For example, a teacher may put a picture of a student and their personal achievements on a bulletin board every week.
  • Allowing someone to share their expertise with a group, such as through solving a problem or giving a lecture on a topic of interest.


Body Dysmorphic Disorder

When self-image is greatly detached from reality, serious emotional and psychological problems can result. One such example of this is Body Dysmorphic Disorder.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a body-image disorder characterized by persistent and intrusive preoccupation with an imagined or slight defect in one’s appearance.

As a result, those with Body Dysmorphic Disorder may engage in the following:

  • Camouflaging their perceived defect, such as with clothing or makeup;
  • Comparing their “flawed” body part to others”;
  • Seeking surgery;
  • Checking or avoiding mirrors;
  • Skin picking;
  • Excessive grooming and exercise;
  • and changing clothes excessively.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder is a result of an incongruency between one’s self-image — how they believe they look — and their real self.

As numerous researchers have shown, those who have Body Dysmorphic Disorder develop drastically reduced self-esteem as a result (Phillips, Pinto, & Jain, 2004).

Negative Self-Image In Therapy

The thought patterns behind negative self-image are characteristic of several mental health disorders, such as depression (Patton, 1991). Researchers such as Stinkens, Lietaer, and Leijssen (2012) have discussed how self-image impacts the relationships between patients and their therapists.

The researchers warn that clients with a negative self-image often decline to discuss topics in therapy. Often, those with negative self-image take one of two views: that they cannot solve their problems themselves or that their therapist cannot contribute to them solving their problems.

Oftentimes, clients with negative self-image avoid directly asking for attention and compassion due to feelings of insignificance; instead, they may profile themselves as a victim (Stinkens, Lietaer, & Leijssen, 2012).

These conflicting and indirect interactions often push therapists to suggest impossible solutions, further confirming the client’s dependence and strengthening their conviction that they cannot deal with their problems.

To break through these habitual patterns with clients who have a negative self-image, Stinkens, Lietaer, and Leijssen suggest therapists must balance displaying empathy and concern with attempts to gradually confront clients with the conflicts in their communication, guiding them toward directly asking for attention, and affirming their desire for love and affirmation and their inability to receive these (Stinkens, Lietaer, & Leijssen; 2012).


Bailey 2nd, J. A. (2003). Self-image, self-concept, and self-identity revisited . Journal of the National Medical Association, 95 (5), 383.

Campbell, L. P. (1981). Every student a success: Improving self-image to increase learning potential. NASSP Bulletin, 65 (441), 76-78.

Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8 (5), 720.

Oltman, S. (2014). Investigation on self-image in young people. Cumbria.

Patton, W. (1991). Relationship between self-image and depression in adolescents. Psychological reports, 68 (3), 867-870.

Phillips, K. A., Pinto, A., & Jain, S. (2004). Self-esteem in body dysmorphic disorder. Body image, 1 (4), 385-390.

Schmitt, J. P. (1980). Unconditional positive regard: The hidden paradox. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 17 (3), 237.

Stinckens, N., Lietaer, G., & Leijssen, M. (2013). Working with the inner critic: Therapeutic approach. Person-Centered & Experiential Psychotherapies, 12 (2), 141-156.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.