Understanding Communication and the Self

Our perceptions of ourselves influence our communications with others. For example, if we believe we are always right, then by definition, when someone disagrees with us, we believe they are wrong. If we perceive of ourselves as tolerant of difference, we will try to not be critical of those unlike ourselves. It is worth examining perceptions of the self a bit more in depth to gain a fuller grasp of how our self-perceptions influence our interactions with others, and ultimately shape our relationships.


The idea of self-concept is our own identity. This is what you say in response to the question, "Who am I?" Which words would you choose to describe yourself? Which answers would be most important? The answers might include such external characteristics as your name, nationality, or profession. Answers might also include adjectives about how we define our character or other personality characteristics, such as "stubborn" or "smart". Our sets of ideas about who we are don't change with our moods, but are relatively stable and enduring over time.

Sometimes our self-perceptions are unreasonably positive. Certainly, you know people who have unrealistic perceptions about their attributes and abilities. Consider the street fighter who challenges a well-trained fighter to a battle and doesn't realize he's severely outclassed, or the surprise of an aging beauty queen who is passed over for a woman half her age. Similarly, consider the average-educated man who believes he is smarter -- and therefore more entitled -- than all women, in the company of a woman whom he must address as "Your Honor" or "Doctor." We often deem these people as holding an inflated sense of self, egotistical, or overly confident.

Conversely, sometimes our judgments of ourselves are unreasonably negative. Consider the truly talented individual who has little confidence in his abilities, or the person who constantly feels the need to "prove" herself well beyond others' satisfaction. Low self-concepts are related to low self-esteem, and people holding low self-concepts often respond to constructive criticism or disagreement with harsh self-criticism.

A self-concept does not develop overnight; it develops slowly over the course of a person's lifetime, and is a function of a person's biological makeup, how and where a person was raised, and their social environment. Several studies have indicated that once a self-concept is developed, we seek the company of others who will confirm it. That is, if we hold a positive self-concept we seek the company of those who hold a positive impression of us, and if we have a negative self-concept, we tend to seek the company of those who also hold a negative impression of us. In this way, our self-concept is reinforced and even more resistant to change.

Self-concepts can change, however, in response to developmental changes and significant life events. For example, a woman's self-concept might improve when she becomes a wife and mother (if she holds these roles as indicators of personal success). Similarly, her self-concept may be damaged if she loses her marriage and home. Additionally, if a boy with a low self-concept is drafted for professional sports, his self-concept will likely improve as a result of an invitation to that elite, exclusive group. Conversely, if a man with a positive self-concept suddenly becomes disabled, he may suffer a blow to his self-concept.

A healthy self-concept is flexible and subject to change as life circumstances evolve. Self-concepts can change over a person's lifetime, usually in connection with significant life events, but they don't always. Undergoing extensive therapy can improve a person's self-concept. In general, most people's self-concepts don't change much over the course of their lives.

The idea of reflected appraisal suggests that our self-concept develops as a reflection of what we believe valued others think of us. Perhaps a particular teacher or other role model influenced us significantly and helped build our self-confidence, or perhaps at home we were led to believe we were inferior, irrelevant, or always wrong. The impressions of these significant others on us matter, deeply, to the development of our self-concept. Since our self-concept helps determine the quality of the life we lead, the influences of these significant others is crucial.


Accurate perceptions of yourself, and satisfaction with yourself are two different things.The latter speaks to self-esteem.

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Self-esteem is the value you place on yourself. It is the assessment of your self-image as positive or negative. To reiterate, self-concept is your identity, who you believe yourself to be, while self-esteem is how you feel and what you think about that person that is yourself. People with high self-esteem tend to be more outgoing and willing to communicate, try harder to accomplish a task a second time after failing at it the first time, are more comfortable initiating relationships, and are more likely to believe that expressions of love and kindness from the relational partners are genuine. Also, when their relationships have problems, they are more likely to end the relationship and seek out new ones. They are also believed to perform better academically and professionally, and be more shielded from stress. Conversely, those with low self-esteem tend to behave aggressively toward others, tend toward substance abuse, and tend to become sexually active at an earlier age than those with a more positive self-image. Low self-esteem is often blamed for criminal and antisocial behaviors. Those with high self-esteem are generally happier with their lives than those with low self-esteem.

Self-esteem is more dynamic and changeable than a self-concept. While a self-concept usually only changes in response to a major life event, self-esteem can fluctuate in response to minor individual events such as getting a date with an amazing person, or failing an important exam. Poor self-esteem can hold us back from achieving our full potential because we simply don't believe in ourselves enough to reach our greatest heights.

Our degree of self-esteem doesn't only affect us; it also affects our communications with others. Research suggests that our self-esteem interacts with three important interpersonal needs that affect how we communicate with other people. These are the need for control, the need for inclusion, and the need for affection. Our need for control motivates us to achieve and maintain some level of influence in our relationships. We need to have some say in what happens. When we feel that we have no control, we are often less satisfied with those relationships. Research suggests that people with higher self-esteem tend to feel more control of their lives.

The need for inclusion is our need to belong. We need to be included in the activities of others, and to have positive human contact. When our need for inclusion is not met, research shows that people can experience mental and physical distress. People with higher self-esteem tend to be more outgoing, thus, are perhaps more motivated to seek out relationships that fulfill their need for inclusion. For example, they might be more willing to join groups or sports teams in an effort to meet other people. This is not to say that people don't need their down time – everyone needs solitude every once in a while.

Each of us also has a need for affection. We need to have people in our lives who love and appreciate us and express their affection toward us. We also have a need to give love and intimacy to others. Research has shown that the more affection people give and receive, the healthier and happier they are. This relates to self-esteem in that people with higher self-esteem tend to be more expressive of affection than those with lower self-esteem.

Research suggests that all of these needs are fundamental and necessary for humans. We all have these needs, though perhaps to different degrees. It is not that people with higher self-esteem have stronger needs for control, inclusion, and affection, but that they are more successful at meeting these needs through their communications with others.

Self-presentation: Image Management

Image management is the process of projecting one's desired public image. A modern-day manifestation of self-presentation or image management is our Web 2.0 or social networking sites. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, match.com, and other websites that require us to fill out a profile and post a picture of ourselves epitomize self-presentation and image management. Posts on these websites are carefully considered and often even checked for feedback from friends before posting to ensure we are presenting an appropriate, acceptable image of ourselves – we want to be sure we look good. Image management has three components: It is collaborative, we manage multiple identities, and it is complex.

Image management is collaborative in that we get help managing our image from those around us. If other people accept the image you seek to portray, you will tend to behave in ways that reinforce that image. If you project yourself as a confident person, and others see you as confident and treat you that way, this will strengthen that part of your identity in your own mind.

We each put forth different identities around different people. Consider, for example, your teenage years and the image you portrayed to your parents, versus the one you portrayed to your friends. When our worlds collide, such as bringing home a boyfriend to meet your parents, we may be uncomfortable. This is because we are forced to manage two very different identities in one moment. Our family and our new boyfriend each know a very different part of ourselves. Each context in which we are known carries its own distinct expectations of our role, as we probably create and put forth a very different identity in each one. You likely communicate differently at work and at home, or with your friends and your family. We all manage multiple identities, or show different parts of ourselves to different people in our lives. This management of multiple identities is easier for some than others. Those with hidden medical conditions, such as cancer or diabetes, have to decide how to incorporate these aspects of themselves into their public image. They might only tell certain people. The challenge is similar for those of many sexual minorities. Sexual orientation is not always visible on the surface, so those of sexual minorities have to negotiate when, how, and to whom to reveal their sexual orientation.

Image management is very complex. We might have competing goals in our interactions with others. For example, we might have conflicting needs of projecting ourselves both as responsible and in need of assistance when we are seeking help from a family member. We typically manage these conflicting needs with narratives we construct, such as, "I promise to contribute to the household while I'm here."

Managing face needs

As part of our discussion of image management, the concept of "face" is very relevant and important. "Face" is a person's desired public image. We work to maintain that image. This concept is the work of sociologist Erving Goffman. "Face" is our desired public image, and "facework" is what we do to project that image to others. Further research suggests that face is actually comprised of three face needs. These are needs for fellowship, autonomy, and competence. Fellowship face is the need to have others like and accept us. This is what motivates us to make friends and seek out the company of others, and to behave pleasantly around other people. Autonomy face is our need for not being imposed upon by others.This motivates us to remain in control of our time and resources and to make our own decisions. Competence face refers to our need to be respected and to have others acknowledge our abilities and intelligence. This face need drives us to seek careers and situations in which we can succeed and excel over those in which we will embarrass ourselves.

Our face can be threatened by a situation that challenges one or another of our face needs. When this occurs, we typically find ourselves compelled to save face. We also help save the face of others. For example, if you trip and fall in public, you might get up quickly and hope no one saw. You might also blame what was on the floor for your fall. If you are with a friend, he might help you save face by pointing out that the cord you tripped over shouldn't have been there, and reassure you that no one saw. In this way, he helps minimize the embarrassment and restore your competence face.

Face threats are common, unfortunately, for many members of marginalized groups. For example, as we age, we lose much of our autonomy. Many people with disabilities may also perceive threats to their autonomy face due to an inability to do the same things that people without disabilities can do. Marginalization can also create threats to both fellowship face and competence face, because people may feel disrespected and shamed about their membership within a stigmatized group.


The act of intentionally providing information about yourself to another person when you believe that person does not already have that information is known as self-disclosure. It involves sharing a part of yourself with someone else. It is intentional, or deliberate sharing, and truthful. As a relationship develops, social penetration theory tells us that communication increases in both breadth and depth. In other words, self-disclosure over time is like peeling away the layers of an onion. Breadth is the range of topics one discloses to another, and depth is the level of intimacy with which one discusses those topics. Self-disclosure varies among relationships, as not every relationship is characterized by the same levels of breadth and depth of self-disclosure. Some relationships are characterized by more breadth, such as co-worker relationships, while others are characterized by more depth, such as your relationship with your doctor. Self-disclosure follows a process, as closeness develops over time. As people get to know each other better they tend to reveal more about themselves. An exception to this usual progression of intimacy can be found in relationships that are formed online, where the lack of face-to-face interaction actually encourages self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is typically reciprocal, which means that when one person self-discloses to another, the second person is expected to self-disclose in kind. It is also influenced by culture and gender roles; self-disclosure is affected by the expectations imposed upon us based on our gender and the culture in which we find ourselves.

Self-disclosure has many important benefits. It increases trust and enhances relationships. Sharing with those in our lives helps us to maintain those relationships and reinforce the trust that we share with those people. Through reciprocity, self-disclosure allows us to get to know other people and for them to get to know us. Self-disclosure can also be an emotional release as sometimes we need to get something off our chest. We can also self-disclose in ways that help others, such as sharing something about yourself in an effort to console someone who is going through a hard time. Alcoholics Anonymous is an example of self-disclosing in efforts to help others.

Though beneficial, self-disclosure also carries certain risks. We risk rejection if the person doesn't accept or like what we have disclosed. It can also give an impression of obligating others if you have self-disclosed, but they are not yet ready to, although they feel compelled because you have. Self-disclosure runs the risk of hurting others with disclosures that are too critical or too personal. It can also violate other people's privacy when you share something with one person in your life about another person in your life.

How we self-identify, how we feel about our own identity, the techniques used in image management and facework, and considerations of self-disclosure all affect our communications with others. In general, we tend to feel more comfortable around those that validate our identities and our self-esteem, and help us present favorable public self-images. It is not only useful to recognize this about ourselves, but also to recognize that everyone has the same needs. This awareness can lead us to more competent communication and ultimately to greater relational satisfaction.