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The Development of Self-Identity

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

As discussed in the preceding sections, emotional maturity is indicated by the ability to identify and express emotions appropriately, and the ability to demonstrate a repertoire of positive coping responses to stress. Because emotional maturity requires the ability to understand and reflect upon oneself, it is closely related to the parallel development of self-identity and self-esteem. Self-identity refers to the descriptive characteristics, qualities, and abilities that people use to define themselves. Self-esteem is a concept very similar to self-identity but includes a value judgment about one's identity.

believe in yourselfWhile self-esteem is a judgment made about oneself, it is strongly influenced by a number of factors, particularly the perceived judgments of other influential people. The physical changes of puberty, coupled with newly emerging mental abilities, cause youth to become self-conscious about their bodies and concerned with how others perceive them. As a result, self-esteem seems to be at an all-time low during early adolescence. However, during middle to late adolescence, youths' self-esteem begins to improve because their increased maturity enables them to enjoy many new experiences. For example, they can now maintain and enjoy lasting friendships; attract romantic partners; get and keep a job; and meet scholastic goals such as graduating from high school, or getting admitted into college.

Self-esteem also begins to improve as youth begin to understand the difference between performance outcomes resulting from inherent, natural talent and ability; versus, performance outcomes resulting from hard work and perseverance. This means youth now recognize that even though they may not possess the natural talent of a star athlete, or the intellectual abilities of an honor student, they can still take pride and personal satisfaction in achieving their goals particularly when they have worked hard and to the best of their ability.

As youth begin to ponder, "Who am I?" they are now able think about themselves in more abstract terms and this new ability to think abstractly enables them to expand their self-definition. Younger children who think more concretely will use concrete, observable characteristics to describe themselves such as their ability to run fast, or the color of their hair. In contrast, adolescents now begin to use more abstract characteristics to describe themselves such as their loyalty, kindness, and humor.

A number of theories have been proposed that describe the process by which a self-identity is formed. We will review two such theories and then discuss the way in which self-identity influences the development of a personal value system.