Module II: Perception

Section 3: Perception of self

After completing this section, students should be able to:

  1. define self-perception and how it is comprised of self-concept and self-esteem.
  2. explain how self-image is comprised of self-appraisal and feedback.
  3. explain how self-esteem is the developed via the application of a criterion.
  4. differentiate between internal standards and external standards in the development of self-esteem.
  5. describe how the fallacy of oughts and musterbation impact self-esteem


How we perceive others has a direct impact on how we choose to communicate with them.  Recalling the six images conceptSelf-concept, other-concept, and meta-concept. Module II, Section 1, the first image that comes into play is actually our perception of self. Our self-perception influences how we choose to present ourselves to those around us. If Bev sees herself as confident and interesting, she is more likely to be outgoing and talkative. If Ruth sees herself as uninteresting, she is more likely to be shy and more hesitant to engage others.  

Self-Perception is an image we hold about our self and our traits and the judgements we make about those traits. Self-perception includes two, core perceptual processes: our self-concept, or the picture we have in our heads of who we are; and our self-esteem, or how we judge and evaluate those traits.

A note of caution before we continue. Self-concept and self-esteem are complex, psychological dynamics with a myriad of influences. The intention here is introduce a basic, perception-based way to view self-concept and self-esteem. In other words, this is a simplified look at a complex human dynamic. Realize that to understand this topic, there is far more to learn from fields such as psychology and sociology.


Our self-concept is our perception of the traits we have, a list of the characteristics we see in ourselves.  This list is not positive nor negative, but it is just a list of what we believe is true about ourselves. We create our list through self-appraisal and feedback from others. Our self-appraisal is our perception of our traits and behaviors. It is like looking in a mirror and using our own senses to perceive what we are. We must realize, however, that the perceptual processes that influence our interpretation of others applies to us as well.  Those influences can lead to a distorted picture. As teenagers, we all went through the acne stage, and at times we became overly focused on a single spot to the

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point that it was all we could see in the mirror, when others may have barely noticed it.  A young man distraught about his family’s history of male-patterned baldness may be hyper-attuned to his hair and any changes, over emphasizing slight variations in thickness. On a more serious note, an individual with anorexia nervosa will perceive herself as "fat" when, in fact, she may be dangerously underweight. As we know about the perception process, we cannot always believe our own eyes, so we need to be kind to ourselves, realizing our perceptions can easily be distorted. 

The feedback we get from others is a way we can check and validate our self-appraisal. If Todd sees himself as a very funny person, people laughing at his jokes would validate his self-appraisal.  He would see evidence that he is viewed by others the same way he views himself. If Marjorie sees herself as a caring friend, having others seek her out for comfort and support validates that self-appraisal.  Marjorie sees evidence that others see her as a caring person. 

Sometimes we may see an incongruity between our self-appraisal and feedback from others. For instance, Don may think he is an interesting conversationalist, yet no one seems to want to carry on a conversation with him. When faced with this sort of disparity, Don can either reevaluate his self-appraisal, or he can choose to ignore the feedback.  The origin of the feedback makes a difference.  Feedback from our reference groups will usually be harder to ignore, while feedback from strangers can be more easily dismissed.  While ignoring feedback from trusted individuals may be risky, being overly sensitive to the reactions of others is likewise unhealthy.  In our western culture, we tend to emphasize traits we see as negative, so reevaluating our self-appraisal in light of this feedback can be a healthy way to keep our self-image in check. 


After we become aware of our traits, we evaluate them; we judge whether we like a specific trait or behavior. For instance, Gabrielle may evaluate her weight as undesirable; thus, her self-esteem in this aspect of her self-concept is lower. However, she may also evaluate her relationship with her partner as a very good and healthy, so she has higher self-esteem in this aspect of her self-concept.

In order to evaluate anything, including our traits and behaviors, we must compare those traits and behaviors to something. We use criteria, standards by which we measure something.  If we are interested in buying a certain car, the only way we can evaluate the price is by comparing it to other cars of similar value.  We may shop around at various dealers, or perhaps we look up the suggested retail price from Kelley’s Blue Book.  That suggested price is a criterion, a measure, by which we can determine if the offered price is appropriate.

Our self-esteem works the same way. Our fields of experience contain standards by which we measure and judge ourselves. For Esther to evaluate her weight, she can compare herself to those in her reference group, to her relatives, to medical height/weight charts, to celebrities, and so on.  As the criteria, the thing to which she compares herself, changes, her evaluation will likely change.  If weight issues run in her family, in comparison to them she may see her current weight favorably.   If she compares her weight to what the medical community deems appropriate for her height, however, that evaluation may be less positive.   We all have ideas of what it means for a person to be attractive, and we use those as standards to judge ourselves as well.  So if Esther’s sense of attractive body size is the unrealistically thin nature of many models and celebrities, she may judge her weight quite severely.

Self-esteem, then, is a function of the perceived distance between our criteria and our current selves.  As we move closer and closer to our goals, our self-esteem strengthens.  Too often we assume the only way to improve self-esteem is to change the reality of ourselves, such as losing weight, to be closer to our ideal.  However, another avenue is to re-evaluate and re-consider the criteria itself.  Often, the standards we hold for ourselves are unrealistic and unattainable.  The type of standard we use to evaluate ourselves is crucial in maintaining healthy self-esteem.  There are two sources for these criteria: internal standards, and external standards.

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Internal standards are standards we have decided are right and reasonable for us individually.  We use these to set goals and direction in our lives.  If Khalid has decided that earning a college degree is right for him, that standard helps him have a clear goal; it can give a sense of direction and purpose.  Khalid can evaluate his behavior based on how well it aids him in reaching his goal.  If Juliana decides that losing 20 pounds is a proper goal for her, she has a concrete, measurable target.  She can measure herself by her progress in reaching that goal.  These are goals to reach, and they are realistic and attainable.

External standards, however, can be dangerous.  When we fall prey to standards that are thrust upon us by societal forces, such as family, friends, and media, we are in dangerous territory. Consider the unrealistic standards our entertainment industry sets for physical appearance for both males and females. We see highly manipulated images of attractiveness, and through constant exposure to those images we can begin to feel they embody the criteria we need to reach.  The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty (Dove 2013) is an example of an attempt to counter these overwhelming external pressures, and to emphasize the need to measure oneself internally, not on what others say we should be.  Focused on young women, the program works to make people aware of those external pressures and, as a result, to reduce the influence of such societal images.

These external, social pressures are very powerful, and they are not accidental.  In The Poverty of Affluence, Paul Wachtel (1988) argued that advertising deliberately works at keeping those standards just out of reach.  Advertising creates ever-moving standards of beauty, wealth, health, or other such measures.  By constantly changing the standards, we keep buying their products to try to meet those false standards.   We can always be thinner, have more/better hair, look sexier, or act cooler.  Continually setting new standards for dress and appearance drive purchasing.

Wachtel goes on to explain that this constant inadequacy leads to us to measure ourselves in terms of material possessions or money. If we do not have the right type of car, house, clothing, hair style, and on and on, we are not "with it." The way to be "with it" is to buy something that someone else says we ought to have, wear, or use. This is such a danger to our self-esteem because as one matures, the search for higher self-esteem can lead us into a more and more frantic attempt to meet these unrealistic standards.

In this frantic attempt, we easily fall prey to the fallacy of oughts. The fallacy of oughts is the mistaken belief that we must satisfy everything we ought to be, ought to do, ought to buy. These oughts are the products of our society, our peers, our colleagues and advertising. These are the standards we mistakenly feel we must live up to. Once we get caught in the trap, we start what Albert Ellis labelled musterbating, the act of attempting to meet this powerful and overwhelming world of oughts (Nemade, Staats Reiss, & Dombeck, 2007). We constantly strive to fulfill the external standard, ignoring our internal standards.

Although the external pressures to measure up to social standards can be very powerful, as we become aware of those influences, we can combat them.  We can use our internal standards to evaluate the external ones, assimilating those we find appropriate for us, but tossing aside those that are not. However, if we are under the influence the external standards, our internal ones often fall by the wayside, buried in the onslaught of external forces.

Perception of self is the same process as perception of others, just turned on oneself.   We sense information about ourselves, either through self-appraisal or from the feedback from others.  We use this information to create our self-image, a list of our traits and characteristics.  And we interpret what that self-image means to us; we measure how much we like those traits, developing our self-esteem.

As mentioned at the beginning of this section on self-concept, self-esteem issues can be quite complex, influenced by a multitude of factors in one’s life.  To learn more about self-concept issues, consider an appropriate psychology class to investigate the deeper dynamics of self-concept.

We see that perception of self is subject to the pressures of variables that can cause distortions in that perception. By recognizing those pressures, we can moderate the effects of those pressures.

Key Concepts

The terms and concepts students should be familiar with from this section include:





Dove. (2013).  The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.  Retrieved 3/21/13 from Social-Mission/campaign-for-real-beauty.aspx.
Nemade, R., Staats Reiss, N., & Dombeck, M. (2007). Albert Ellis’ Cognitive Theory of Depression. Retrieved from
Wachtel, P.L. (1983). The poverty of affluence: A psychological portrait of the american way of life. British Columbia, Canada: New Society Publishers.