Self Identity: Theory & Definition

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  • 0:02 Who Are you?
  • 1:54 Society's Role in Self…
  • 3:28 Social Identity…
  • 5:20 Self-Esteem & Introspection
  • 7:05 Changing Roles
  • 8:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Sarah Lavoie

Sarah has taught Psychology at the college level and has a master's degree in Counseling Psychology.

Expert Contributor
Jennifer Levitas

Jennifer has a Ph.D. in Psychology. She's taught multiple college-level psychology courses and been published in several academic journals.

Self-identity plays a large and significant role in shaping each of our lives. Learn about self-identity in psychology, and test your understanding with a quiz.

Who Are You?

If you have ever read Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, you probably remember the infamous Caterpillar perched on his mushroom. The first thing he says to little Alice is, ''Who... are... you?'' Alice responds with, ''Why, I hardly know, sir. I've changed so much since this morning, you see.'' Alice is experiencing a crisis of self-identity. Self-identity is defined in many ways and with many theories within psychology; however, it is most easily explained by understanding all the parts that can make up our self-identity.

Take a moment to think about what you would say to someone when asked the question, 'Who are you?'

Although it sounds like a simple question, are you finding it hard to choose words to describe your personality? Self-identity is a very complex idea. So complex, in fact, that even those who actively work on understanding themselves and their self-identity still have great difficulty. Some aspects of self-identity can be identified and described by others. When thinking about how to define yourself, did you use the words that describe your job, hobbies, family ties, nationalities, religious beliefs, and group affiliations? But how about what you think? Your morals and values cannot truly be known by anybody else; nobody else can hear your thoughts. These parts of self-identity can only be truly explained by you.

Let's go back to Alice in Wonderland. How do you think she should have responded to the Caterpillar? Alice could have stated many things, including her name, her age, her height and weight, and other physical descriptors. She could also say that she is a daughter, a sister, a student, a cat-owner, and a book-lover. All of those last descriptors involve relationships with other people. Since we all live in a world with many other people, the external world of our society plays a huge role in defining our self-identity.

Society's Role in Self Identity

As humans, we all have a need to develop a personal identity that distinguishes us from others. Questions such as 'Who am I?' and 'Why am I here?' or 'What is my purpose in life?' are critical parts of understanding ourselves and defining our self-identity. Simply distinguishing ourselves from other people makes defining our identity a social comparison. Even the most simple of physical descriptors such as our height and weight can be evaluated socially. Are you tall or short? If you consider yourself tall, short, or even average, it is a comparison to other people in your social culture. Although weight is just a number, many people judge themselves based on other people's weight.

In this example, society plays a huge role in defining what is acceptable through the media. In many historical cultures, weight was a sign of good health. Since food was scarce, weight was a sign of health, wealth, and therefore, beauty. Those who were thin were easily identified as lower, working-class people, while the well-fed were likely rich and of high birth. In society today, food is easy to obtain. A higher weight is not valued the same way it was in ancient times. Today, television has a tendency to use only the thinnest women and the most fit men, who are often professionals when it comes to looking good for the camera. How would you value your weight differently if you had no access to television and media? Most likely, you would consider yourself far more acceptable without the skewed ideas from the media.

Social Identity

Clearly, society plays an essential role in how we evaluate and define our self-identity. We cannot define our self-identity without the context of our society. Let's go back to Alice for an example. We can theorize that one of the difficulties Alice has in answering the Caterpillar's question has to do with the society of Wonderland. Alice is new to this land and has not established her place in this weird world. She has few friends and does not know the rules. Alice may have been a cat-lover at home but in Wonderland, cats are strange beasts. At home she may consider herself a lover of croquet, possibly even a fan of the sport. In Wonderland, she finds that she is not much of a fan of the sport at all, since they use flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls. Alice has lost her sense of self-identity, not just her personal, internal self-identity, but also her social identity.

Social Identity Theory

As psychologists continually refine their theories of the self, sociologists also continue to refine social identity theory. Social Identity Theory explains that we can define ourselves by the social categories that we feel we belong to such as nationalities, religious or political associations, gender roles, families, and even as niche as a group of fans of a certain sports team. Social identity includes memberships of social groups and the perceptions and behaviors associated with those groups. Throughout history, many political, religious, and cultural groups have gone to war to preserve the ideals of their groups. Gay pride parades and religious groups picketing abortion clinics are common. But even those social affiliations that seem the most harmless can be taken very seriously by their members. Rioting sports fans are an excellent example of how seriously we take our social identities and wish to protect them.


As you're starting to see, there is both an internal and an external component to self-identity. What makes self-identity so tricky is that we evaluate ourselves as humans based on how we believe we are supposed to feel and how we are supposed to act according to our society. Sometimes, we can evaluate ourselves negatively or critically. Critical thoughts can affect our self-esteem and how we think of ourselves.

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Additional Activities

Self Identity

Activity 1:

You read about the different aspects of self-identity in the lesson. For this activity, take a piece of paper and write "Who am I?" at the top. On each of the next twenty lines, write "I am (a/an) _." Once you have written that on twenty lines, then go back and fill in the blank with twenty different characteristics. The first few will come easily but it will become more difficult as you progress down the list. Do not give up, but persist until you have completed the twentieth sentence. Look over your list. How do you primarily identify yourself? Do you identify yourself in relation to others (sister, son, etc.)? Do you identify yourself in terms of your beliefs (Catholic, Muslim, etc.)? Do you identify yourself in terms of your affiliations (Republican, Independent, etc.)? Do you identify yourself in terms of your emotions (happy, confused, etc.)? Do you identify yourself in terms of abstract qualities (member of the human species, etc.)? In examining your list, you can gain insight as to your own self-identity and observe the dimensions that are most important to you.

Activity 2:

Erik Erikson posited that the primary developmental task of adolescence was to find one's identity. Do you feel that you have settled on your identity? Do you have a religious identity? A political identity? A social identity? A sexual identity? A gender identity? In two or three paragraphs, describe yourself on each of these dimensions, and anymore that you can conceptualize. Also describe the process by which you feel you settled on your various identities (e.g., did you rebel, "try on" other roles, or take on your parent's beliefs?)

Activity 3:

Do you feel that you have "settled" on your identity, or will it change over time? How is your identity different today than it was ten years ago? How do you think it might be different ten years from now? How about twenty years from now? How about in thirty years? Write a journal article reflecting on how your identity has changed throughout your life, and how you feel it might continue to change.

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