We all wonder when we’ll finally feel like fully-formed adults. At what point do we stop developing our sense of self and settle into a stable identity? The truth is that our self-concept—how we see and understand ourselves—is always evolving. Even as we age and gain more life experiences, our core values, beliefs, goals, and personalities continue to develop in subtle ways.
While major life events in our early years, like going off to college or landing a first job, can spur rapid changes in self-concept, development never really stops. The person you were in your 20s isn’t the same person you’ll be in your 40s or 60s. We are constantly learning and adapting to new roles and environments. The key is to embrace growth and see each stage of life as an opportunity for positive change. Our self-concept may never be “finished,” but that just means there’s always potential for us to become better, wiser, and more authentic versions of ourselves.
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When is the development of self-concept finished? Never.
Why Self-Concept Development Never Truly Ends
As humans, our self-concept, or how we view ourselves, is constantly evolving based on our experiences, relationships, values, and life events. Our sense of self is shaped by the world around us, so self-concept development never truly ends.
- Our experiences and interactions teach us new things about ourselves all the time. Trying new hobbies, jobs, or activities exposes sides of ourselves we never knew existed. Every challenge we face and overcome builds our self-confidence and resilience.
- Our relationships also play a key role in how we see ourselves. The way people close to us view us significantly impacts our self-worth and identity. As our relationships change over time, our self-concept adjusts to incorporate these new dynamics.
- Major life events prompt periods of self-reflection and growth. Becoming a parent, changing careers, or moving to a new place—these transitions force us to reevaluate our values, priorities, and sense of purpose. We emerge from these pivotal moments with a shifted self-concept.
- Societal attitudes and cultural values have a constant influence. As views on gender, race, and orientation evolve, our self-concept expands to integrate these new ways of thinking. We see ourselves through an ever-changing cultural lens.
In summary, the development of self-concept is a lifelong process. While a stable sense of identity provides continuity, our self-concept must remain flexible enough to adapt to new phases of life. An open and inquiring mind is key to continuous self-concept development and becoming our best selves.
What is a self-concept?
So what exactly is self-concept? Simply put, it’s how we view ourselves. It develops over our lifetimes through our experiences, interactions, and interpretations of the world around us.
As kids, it is based largely on the feedback we get from our parents and teachers. Their praise, encouragement, and guidance helped shape how we saw ourselves during those early years.
As we get older and interact more with peers, their influence grows. We start comparing ourselves to others in our age group and social circles. How our friends and classmates see us becomes a key part of how we define ourselves.
Social media’s impact
With the rise of social media, self-concept development now extends well beyond our local community. We are constantly exposed to curated versions of other people’s lives, careers, relationships, and successes, all of which factor into how we perceive our worth and potential. The nonstop desire for likes, hearts, and retweets suggests it has become more dependent on validation from others.
While self-concept development may never truly end, as adults, we have more control over how we view ourselves. We can choose to limit social media influence, surround ourselves with a strong support system of people who appreciate us for who we are, pursue meaningful goals and hobbies, practice self-care, and work to overcome negative self-perceptions from our past. Our self-concept is a continual work in progress, but with conscious effort, we can build a healthy and balanced sense of self.
Different Theories of Self-Concept Development
As we age and gain life experience, it is constantly evolving. According to several theories, self-concept development is a lifelong process that never really ends.
Social Comparison Theory
Proposed by Leon Festinger, this theory suggests that we develop our self-concept by comparing ourselves to others. We evaluate our abilities and opinions by comparing them to others who are similar to us. These social comparisons drive us to adapt our self-concept to align with the values and abilities of our peer groups. Since we interact with new people throughout our lives, social comparisons are ongoing.
This theory by E. Tory Higgins focuses on how we work to reduce the gap between our actual self-concept and our ideal self-concept. Our ideal self represents the person we would like to be, while our actual self represents the person we perceive ourselves to be right now. We are motivated to minimize the distance between these two selves by changing our behaviors and self-perceptions. However, as life circumstances change, so do our ideals, meaning self-discrepancy reduction is a lifelong effort.
Possible Selves Theory
Our self-concept includes not just who we are now but also who we might become—our possible future selves. According to Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius, envisioning these possible selves motivates us to work toward becoming our desired future selves and avoid becoming our feared future selves. However, as we age and progress through life stages, our possible selves change. What seemed like an ideal future self at age 20 may differ greatly from our ideal self at age 50. Thus, possible self-development is ongoing.
In summary, theories suggest our self-concept develops through social feedback, reducing discrepancies between self-perceptions, and pursuing possible future selves. However, because these forces driving it operate throughout our lifetime, developing our self-concept is a continual work in progress. Our self-concept today will not be the same tomorrow. Self-concept development never ends.
Key Stages of Self-Concept Development
Our self-concept—the mental image we have of ourselves—is shaped and reshaped throughout our lives. While the early years are critical in forming our initial sense of self, development does not stop after childhood or adolescence. It continues to evolve in response to life’s experiences, relationships, and personal growth.
As we age and go through different life stages, several key periods significantly impact how we view ourselves.
In childhood, it revolves around concrete aspects like physical characteristics, possessions, and skills. As kids interact with family and peers, they start to develop a sense of self that extends beyond the physical, incorporating social and psychological dimensions.
The teenage years bring rapid changes physically, emotionally, and socially. Adolescents explore various identities to determine who they are and want to become. Relationships with peers greatly influence it during this stage.
In early adulthood, people solidify a self-concept that will guide them for years to come. They pursue higher education or a career, establish long-term relationships, and take on more adult responsibilities. How they navigate these transitions shapes their view of themselves and their abilities.
In middle age, physical aging, shifting social roles, and the reevaluation of unfulfilled life goals or dreams may challenge one’s self-concept. However, life experiences, meaningful relationships, and a sense of mastery in one’s career or community can also enrich it.
For older adults, self-concept incorporates a lifetime of experiences, accomplishments, and wisdom gained. While physical or cognitive decline may require adjustment, it often remains largely intact due to a well-developed sense of identity built up over many years. Close relationships and social connections help maintain a positive view of oneself.
Our self-concept is a work in progress, continually evolving across our lifespan. No matter our age or stage in life, we can always grow in our understanding of who we are and what gives us purpose and meaning. Development never really ends—we just keep learning and refining our sense of self.
Influences on Self-Concept in Childhood
Our sense of self develops throughout our entire lives, but childhood is an especially formative time. The influences that shape how we view ourselves as children have a lasting impact.
Our families play a huge role in how we see ourselves. The messages we receive about our worth and abilities stick with us. If we’re constantly criticized or made to feel like we’re not good enough, it’s hard not to internalize that. On the flip side, being encouraged, supported, and praised helps build a positive self-image.
As kids, what our peers say and think matters a lot to us. We look to friends and classmates to help determine our worth and fit in. Positive interactions and acceptance from peers boost our self-esteem. Bullying, teasing, and rejection do the opposite.
Teachers and mentors
Teachers, coaches, and other role models also significantly influence our developing self-concept. When they believe in us, support our efforts, and help us discover and pursue our talents and interests, it strengthens our self-confidence and self-worth. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Harsh criticism, a lack of support, and messages that we’re not capable or talented can be extremely damaging.
Interests and activities
The activities we participate in as children, especially those we’re passionate about, shape who we become. When we discover things we’re good at and pursue them, it gives us a sense of competence and purpose. However, if we struggle to find interests or talents that engage us, it can negatively impact our self-esteem.
Significant life events, both positive and negative, alter how we see ourselves. Things like a family move, illness, achievement, or loss of a loved one can strengthen or weaken our self-concept, depending on how we’re able to navigate them. With the support of others, even difficult events can be opportunities to build resilience and a more balanced view of ourselves.
Self-Concept in Adolescence and Early Adulthood
As teens and young adults, our self-concept is still developing in important ways. This period involves establishing our independence and identity as we transition into adulthood.
We’re exposed to many potential paths in life and have the freedom to explore different options. We can try on different “selves” to see what fits, like careers, relationships, and hobbies. Some experiments will lead nowhere, but others help us discover our interests, values, and priorities. This exploration helps shape our evolution.
Developing life skills
Learning practical skills that prepare us for independence also contributes to our self-concept. Things like managing money, cooking healthy meals, and resolving conflicts constructively are life skills that build our confidence in ourselves as capable adults.
Forming close relationships
Intimate relationships play a key role in how we see ourselves during this time. Our self-concept can be heavily influenced by our closest friends and romantic partners. Their feedback, support, and how they treat us impact how we value and perceive ourselves. These relationships teach us how to connect with others in meaningful ways.
Whether we pursue higher education, vocational training, or another path, continuing to learn and challenge ourselves intellectually at this stage of life further develops our self-concept. We discover and pursue our interests, clarify our values and priorities, and work to achieve goals that shape our emerging identity and place in the world.
Our self-concept will always be a work in progress as we continue learning and evolving over our lifetime. But adolescence and early adulthood represent a pivotal period of self-discovery and growth that establishes a foundation for who we are and who we want to become.
Self-Concept Development in Middle Adulthood
As we enter middle adulthood, our self-concept continues to evolve in new ways. Our sense of identity is shaped by the roles and responsibilities we take on during this life stage.
We may become spouses, parents, leaders in our careers, and active members of our communities. These new roles influence how we see ourselves and the beliefs we hold about our own abilities and potential. Our self-concept tends to become more complex and multifaceted.
Raising children encourages us to see ourselves as nurturers and role models. We develop stronger future orientations as we make important life decisions that will impact our families for years to come. Seeing our children become independent and start their own lives can lead to a shift in self-perception and purpose. This transition period is often referred to as “empty nest syndrome.”
A lifetime of experiences, accomplishments, and learning has given us a chance to identify our key values, priorities, strengths, and weaknesses. We have a better understanding of who we are and who we are not. While self-concept stability tends to increase with age, we remain open to growth and new challenges.
Midlife is also a time when we may start to seriously reflect on our legacies and what we hope to achieve before life’s end. Thoughts of aging and mortality influence how we think about ourselves and what matters in the grand scheme of things.
Our self-concept in middle age is a work in progress. We continue learning, developing our identities, and finding meaning through the roles and relationships in our lives. Self-acceptance and life satisfaction often come more easily as we recognize that true self-concept development never really ends. There is always opportunity for continued growth if we choose to pursue it.
Evolving self-concept in late adulthood
As we age into our later years, our self-concept continues to evolve in response to life’s ongoing changes and challenges.
The late adulthood years often bring a shift in perspective. We begin to accept life’s imperfections and inevitable losses more readily. Things that once seemed urgent now feel trivial. We start to appreciate each day as a gift. This broader outlook allows us to be less critical of ourselves and others. Our self-concept becomes more balanced and forgiving.
Looking back on our lives, we gain a sense of meaning and purpose. We can see how events, choices, and relationships have shaped us. Reflecting on both accomplishments and regrets, we make peace with our past and who we have become. This life review process further matures our self-concept.
Roles that once defined us, like parent, employee, or spouse, change or end. We must redefine our self-concept and purpose. Some embrace new roles as grandparents or mentors. Others pursue hobbies, sports, volunteer work, or part-time jobs. Staying socially and physically active in our later years helps maintain a positive self-image.
Loss is inevitable in late adulthood—loss of loved ones, physical abilities, independence, and youth. How we handle loss impacts our self-concept. Finding meaning, connecting with others, and maintaining gratitude can help overcome feelings of regret or worthlessness. Focusing on what we can still do and influence keeps our self-concept strong.
Our self-concept is a lifelong work in progress. Approaching late adulthood with wisdom, grace, and an openness to continued growth allows our sense of self to remain vibrant to the end. We can see beauty in our imperfect, aging selves and understand that our true worth isn’t defined by roles, abilities, or youth, but by the life we have lived and the light we brought to others along the way.
The Role of Life Events in Self-Concept Change
As we go through life, our self-concept is constantly evolving based on the experiences we have and the events we encounter. Some of the biggest influences on how we see ourselves are major life events. These events shape our sense of identity in profound ways, for better or worse.
When we graduate from high school or college, for example, it signals the end of a familiar stage of life and the beginning of new opportunities and responsibilities. We have to adjust to a new self-image as “adults” in the real world. Getting our first real job, career change, or promotion also impacts how we define ourselves. We might see ourselves as more capable or successful in our new role.
Romantic relationships, marriage, and divorce are also powerful life events that can transform our self-concept. When we fall in love with or commit to a long-term partner, we often incorporate them into our sense of self. We become “we”. If the relationship ends, it can damage our self-worth and force us to reevaluate who we are as individuals again.
The birth of children is frequently cited as a life event that shapes self-concept in a meaningful way. We take on the role and identity of a parent, which becomes central to how we see ourselves. Our priorities, values, and daily activities revolve around our children.
Traumatic events like illness, injury, the loss of a loved one, or financial hardship can also alter our self-concept, often in a negative way. We may see ourselves as “vulnerable” or “unlucky” and struggle with feelings of helplessness. With time and effort, we can work to rebuild our self-concept into something more positive and resilient.
In the end, our self-concept is a continual work in progress. While life events may temporarily shake or reshape our sense of self, we have the power to grow from these experiences and become the person we want to be. Our self-concept develops over a lifetime.
Continually Evolving Your Self-Concept Throughout Life
Our self-concepts are continually evolving throughout our lives based on new experiences, relationships, accomplishments, and life events. As we age and mature, our sense of self is shaped and reshaped.
The experiences we have in life, both good and bad, help define who we are. With each new experience, our self-concept adapts. Traveling to new places, trying new activities, overcoming difficulties, and achieving new things all contribute to how we view ourselves.
The people we surround ourselves with have a significant impact on our self-concept. Our close friends and family, partners and spouses, mentors, and role models all shape how we see ourselves through the way they treat and view us. As our relationships change and evolve, our self-concept follows suit.
Accomplishments and Life Events
Reaching milestones like graduating, getting married, having children, or landing a new job or promotion signifies growth and transition in our lives. Our self-concept expands to incorporate these new roles and responsibilities. Setbacks or losses can also impact our self-concept, but with time and healing, we can integrate them into our sense of self in a healthy way.
Our self-concept is never static or fixed. We have the ability to consciously cultivate our self-concept through the choices we make and the paths we pursue in life. We can seek out new experiences that align with how we want to see ourselves. We can build relationships that enrich our lives and support our growth. And we can work to achieve meaningful accomplishments and life events that help us become the people we aspire to be. Our self-concept development may never end, but we have the power to direct where it leads.
We may look at ourselves today and think our sense of self is fully formed, but the truth is, our self-concepts are constantly evolving. As we continue to gain life experiences, interact with new people, and face challenges and opportunities, our views of ourselves will shift and change. While the core parts of our identity may remain steady over time, the details are always being refined.
So when does self-concept development end? The short answer is never. We are always learning, growing, and becoming. The person you are today won’t be exactly the same person you are tomorrow. And that’s a good thing—it means we have endless opportunities for growth, change, and reinvention. Our self-concepts are a journey, not a destination. So take a moment to appreciate how far you’ve come in developing a sense of self, but never stop exploring who you are—and who you have yet to become. The adventure is in the making.
- Possible Selves: Theory, Research and Applications By Curtis Dunkel, Jennifer Kerpelman from Google BOOks
- Self-Discrepancy Theory: What Patterns of Self-Beliefs Cause People to Suffer? Author E. Tory Higgins
- Social comparison theory From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Self-Concept Research: A Historical Overview , by Morris Rosenberg
- The Invisible Force – self-image – enables you to achieve great goals | Dan Lok | TEDxStanleyPark
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