Self-concepts and Self-concept Change:
A Status Dynamic Approach

Raymond M. Bergner, Ph.D., Illinois State University
James R. Holmes, Ph.D., University of West Florida Counseling Center

[Scheduled for publication in Psychotherapy]


In this article, a new formulation of the self-concept and of self-concept change is presented. The article comprises the following parts: (a) a status dynamic conceptualization of the self-concept; (b) a delineation of the self-concepts' many implications for the quality of persons' lives; (c) an analysis of why self-concepts tend not to change in the face of disconfirming evidence; (d) some logical and empirical justifications for preferring the present formulation to existing alternatives; and (e) a presentation of some core therapeutic approaches to modifying self-concepts.

Self-concepts and Self-concept Change:
A Status Dynamic Approach
"The term stigma, then, will be used to refer to an attribute that is deeply discrediting, but it should be seen that a language of relationships, not attributes, is really needed."
Erving Goffman (1963, p. 3)

This article introduces a new formulation of the self-concept and of self-concept change. Conceiving the self-concept as a single causal/explanatory source lying at the heart of a wide array of many clients' problems in living, the formulation illustrates how changes in it will result in profound and pervasive changes in the quality of these persons' lives. Further, it explains in a parsimonious fashion the self-concept's notorious resistance to change in the face of seemingly disconfirming facts. Finally, the formulation provides the logical basis for new and very powerful forms of intervention to change the self-concept, which forms are described in the final section of the paper.

The present formulation, which is part of a larger conceptual system known as Descriptive Psychology (Ossorio, 1978, 1981, 1985), will be discussed in two major sections. In the first of these, the nature of the self-concept, its many critical implications for our clients' wellbeing, and some empirical and logical justifications for preferring the present formulation to existing alternatives, will be presented. In the second, therapeutic interventions for altering the self-concept will be related.

The Self-concept and Its Implications

Nature of the Self-Concept

On the present account, an individual's self-concept is conceived as that individual's summary formulation of his or her status. (Ossorio, 1978; 1998). This conception differs significantly from traditional ones in which the self-concept is universally considered to be a kind of organized informational summary of perceived facts about oneself, including such things as one's traits, values, social roles, interests, physical characteristics, and personal history (James, 1890; Snygg & Combs, 1949; Rogers, 1959; Wylie, 1968; Kihlstrom & Klein, 1994; Baumeister, 1995). For this reason, and because the notion of "status" will be unfamiliar to most readers, this section will be devoted to explaining the present conception.

A helpful means for making the transition from thinking in informational summary terms to thinking in status terms is to consider what we might naturally say to a child if we were teaching her the game of chess. Suppose that we have a board set up, the pieces arrayed in a midgame situation, and we are explaining what a "knight" is. In doing so, it is highly unlikely that we would use an informational summary approach, which would include telling her such things as that our knights were made of onyx, weighed 2 ounces, were forty years old, and were made in Mexico. Rather, we would provide her with information that has to do with the knight's place or position in the total scheme of things. Thus, we would describe what a knight is by informing her of its relationships to the other pieces in the game (e.g., its ability to capture them, to block their movements, to move vis-a-vis them only in a certain distinctive fashion, etc.). Further, looking at any given knight's position relative to other pieces in the game situation displayed, we would help her to understand its current strategic importance. The crucial point here is that our thinking about the knight, indeed our thinking about what it is to be a knight, is quintessentially relational or positional in nature. When we have completed our description, what we have given our child is a summary formulation of the knight's status---its overall place in the scheme of things---not an informational summary of many different kinds of facts about knights.

Returning from chess pieces to persons, the status dynamic view maintains that the self-concept is most usefully identified, not with an organized summary of myriad perceived facts about oneself, but with one's summary formulation of one's status. That is to say, it is one's overall conception of one's place or position in relation to all of the elements in one's world, including oneself. In a simple and humorous, yet illuminating, illustration of this notion, cartoon character Charlie Brown once lamented that he was unable to initiate a relationship with a little girl on the playground because "I'm a nothing and she's a something." He then went on to relate that, if he were a "something," or she a "nothing," he could pursue her, but that, since "nothings" cannot hope to succeed with "somethings," he could not act. In this example, Charlie provides us with a simplified illustration of the self-concept as a summary formulation of one's status ("nothing" existing in a world comprised of "somethings" and "nothings"); and illustrates how what is fundamental about self-concepts is not that they are informational summaries of myriad facts about oneself, but that they place one somewhere in the scheme of things.

Self-concept Delimits One's Behavioral Possibilities

A person's self-concept, by virtue of it being a summary formulation of his or her status, is in the bargain a summary formulation of his or her perceived behavioral possibilities, and of the limits on these (Ossorio, 1978, 1982; Roberts, 1985). To pursue our chess analogy, when we have given a summary formulation of the status of a given knight by virtue both of its being a knight and its location vis-a-vis other pieces in an actual game, we have simultaneously formulated everything that this piece can do and cannot do at this point in the game. When Charlie Brown makes a summary appraisal of his own status as that of a "nothing in a world of somethings," we see that he has simultaneously appraised his behavioral possibilities and the limits on these.

One's self-concept sets limits on one's behavioral possibilities in several ways. The first of these, as captured in Charlie Brown's lament, is that, by virtue of one's self-assigned-status, one may appraise oneself as ineligible for many forms of valued life participation. When one considers certain commonly encountered, global, self-assigned statuses such as "unlovable," "irrational," "inadequate," "incompetent," "worthless," or "inferior," one can easily see that, by virtue of their ascription, persons have declared themselves ineligible for various forms of participation in life. To believe oneself "unlovable," for example, is to appraise oneself as ineligible for the love of another person. To believe oneself "irrational" is to appraise oneself as ineligible to render logical, well-grounded judgments and decisions, a perceived ineligibility that is vast in its behavioral implications.

A second limitation imposed by a person's self-concept is captured well in the expression: "I could never do that and still be me." Here, individuals are bound by self-concept in such a way that, being who they take themselves to be, the action in question is unthinkable as something they would or could do. In their minds, it would so violate who they are that, should they do it, they could no longer take themselves to be the same person, but would be forced to see themselves as a different (and usually distinctly lesser) person (Ossorio, 1976; cf. Rogers, 1959) . In general, this constraint serves as a force for social good insofar as for most people antisocial acts such as child abuse or murder are "unthinkable" or "something I just could never do." However, at other times, this constraint proves debilitating in people's lives because crucially needed actions have become for them such unthinkables (e.g., leaving a destructive relationship, or defending their rights in an assertive and forceful manner).

A third and final type of limitation imposed by the self-concept is on what a person will take to be the case about the world. Essentially, persons will "read" the world in ways that are in keeping with their self-concepts. For them, this will be "just the way the world is." For example, one client, when urged to look at some positive things about himself, told his therapist that "You don't seem to understand; the deep-down bedrock truth about me is that I am a complete and utter a--hole." From the point of view of this client, given who he was, the therapist's favorable comments could only be read as a case of misunderstanding. For this same client, minor criticisms from his wife simply "were" emotional abandonments, and praise from his employees simply "was" ill-motivated, deceitful flattery. To have a self-concept is, in the end, not just to have a certain appraisal of oneself--it is to live in a certain world.

Self-concept Influences How It is Deemed Appropriate to Act

In addition to restricting the behavioral possibilities of persons, the self-concept has important positive implications for how such persons will deem it appropriate to act. An old expression in the American culture is that of persons "knowing their place." Often used with reference to individuals in disadvantageous social positions, the expression indicates that the person in question understands his or her position vis-a-vis others and what it calls for in terms of behavior towards them, and acts accordingly. The expression, "knowing one's place," captures well certain behavioral implications of the self-concept when viewed as one's summary formulation of one's place or status. Clinically, we observe that persons whose self-concept is that of "lowly nothing" will often express this interpersonally by behaving in ways that are self-effacing, deferential, nonassertive, and even servile. In contrast, others, whose conception of themselves is that they are "special persons" (Raimy, 1975), will frequently express this with behavior that is arrogant, demanding, presumptuous, condescending, and heedless of the desires and rights of these others.

An important special case of the self-concept determining how it is appropriate to act concerns the matter of how persons treat themselves. Depending on the status one assigns to oneself, one may judge it appropriate to do such things as continually criticize oneself for one's many failings, disregard oneself, doubt the soundness of one's own judgments, engage in continual efforts to transform oneself from an unacceptable human being into an acceptable one, or even in extreme cases to execute oneself.

Self-concept Resists Empirical Disconfirmation

An empirically well-documented fact about the self-concept is that it possesses a curious resistance to change in the face of apparently disconfirming facts (Baumeister, 1995; Ossorio, 1978; Swann, 1992). A man continues to believe himself to be inferior despite what others view as compelling evidence to the contrary, and does so even when this evidence consists of facts that he himself admits are veridical. A woman believes herself selfish despite the many factual counterinstances posed by her reassuring friends. World renowned musicians and actors, despite years of glowing reviews from critics, continue to believe that they will surely fail and disgrace themselves the next time they go on stage.

On the status dynamic view, the self-concepts' imperviousness to seemingly contradictory factual input is explained by the hypothesis that the self-concept does not function as an informational entity, but as a positional one, and by noting the way that positional conceptions function vis-a-vis factual input (Ossorio, 1978, 1998). Essentially, so long as the ascription or assignment of a status (position) to something does not change, there is no way for any new fact to be disconfirming of that status. Indeed, in such a situation, there are no disconfirming facts. To illustrate this point by way of a simple nonclinical example, if I know that Tom's position on the baseball team is that of "pitcher," no fact that I discover about his behavior or accomplishments as a player will disconfirm my belief that he is a pitcher. The most that any such fact (e.g., that he bats .300, or that he does not possess a particularly strong throwing arm) might do is to apprise me of something that I find quite surprising for someone in his position. Moving in a more clinical direction, if I am a bigot, and I have assigned to some outgroup the status of "inferior," I may realistically perceive the impressive accomplishments of members of that outgroup but wind up thinking only that "some of them are surprisingly talented...but of course they're still inferior." Finally, if my self-assigned status (self-concept) is that I am an "uncaring" person, and I perform a caring and thoughtful act (e.g., I send a condolence card to a friend who has lost a loved one), for me this will not count as evidence that I was wrong about who I am. Rather, I will tend to regard it as an uncharacteristic (or questionably motivated, or merely socially obligatory, etc.) thing for an uncaring person like me to do. In the end, the important general truth here is that status takes precedence over fact (Ossorio, 1978, 1998).

Further Barriers to Self-concept Change

In most cases involving problems of self-concept, the origins of the problem lie in the statuses that clients were assigned when they were very young by their families, peers, school personnel, and others (cf. Koestner, Zuroff, & Powers, 1991; Swann, 1992). Parents, for example, may have assigned them statuses as various as "bad through and through," "mommy and daddy's perfect angel," or "our emotionally disturbed child," which statuses may have varied greatly in the degree to which they miscast the child. Each of these statuses carried with it certain ways that the child was to be regarded and treated, as well as a place or a part in the family drama that the child was to carry out (cf. Bowen, 1978, on "family projection process"; and Hoffman, 1981, on "typecasting").

For the most part, children tend to unreflectively accept the statuses that they have been assigned by important others (Marshall, 1993). Unfortunately, by the time they have acquired the sorts of observational and critical powers that might enable them to evaluate and question these statuses, they already have well-established self-concepts. Thus, for a considerable period of time, they have been operating from within a formulation of self-in-relation-to-world, which formulation has long been an unquestioned given powerfully determining how they saw themselves and their worlds, how they acted, how they restricted themselves, how they viewed events, and more. Furthermore, they have with some frequency incorporated certain attributes into their self-concepts (e.g., "irrational," "stupid," "crazy") that are such that they have disqualified themselves as persons who are competent to rethink and redecide their status. Finally, in many cases, they may find themselves unable to negotiate their status with important others (e.g., to effectively dispute the family's or the spouse's view of them as "irrationally emotional") (Kirsch, 1982). For all of these reasons, the effects of parents and others assigning negative statuses to children can be both devastating and permanent.

Despite this rather discouraging picture, clients nonetheless occupy a position of power, greater or lesser depending on the individual, from which to reconsider and to change their self-concepts. The critical fact here is that, in the last analysis, the self-concept is by definition self-assigned--is one's own conception of oneself. While individuals may in most cases have had little say in its formation, they are now in every case persons who are accepting the statuses assigned by others, and assigning them to themselves. As implied in Eleanor Roosevelt's assertion that "no one can make you feel inferior without your consent"(Bright, 1988, p. 159), they retain the critical power, at times precious small, to effectively dissent from and to revise the debilitating statuses that have been assigned to them by others.

Advantages of the Present Formulation

The present conception of the self-concept conveys a number of important advantages over traditional informational summary accounts. Foremost among these are the following.

Parsimonious account of resistance to change. As noted previously, abundant empirical evidence supports the contention that the self-concept is resistant to change in the face of seemingly disconfirming empirical evidence (Baumeister, 1995; Swann, 1992). If the self-concept is conceived as an organized summary of perceived facts about oneself, it becomes difficult to see how new information that is recognized by the person, and that is inconsistent with his or her current conception of self, does not result in self-concept change. Traditionally, the way out of dilemmas involving inconsistent factual information has been to posit ego-defensive mechanisms and biases that result in persons either failing to register negative evidence about themselves at all, or distorting such evidence so as to render it non-injurious to self (e.g., Baumeister, 1995; A. Freud, 1936/1966, p. 109; Greenwald, 1992; Raskin & Rogers, 1995). However, such accounts encounter several serious problems. First of all, some of them entail positing unobservable and highly questionable censoring mechanisms that somehow review all facts, decide if their level of threat to the self is tolerable, and if not repress or distort them. Second, all such accounts have difficulty accomodating the frequent, highly clinically significant, cases where the disconfirming facts in question are positive, fully recognized, and acknowledged as veridical by the individual ("Yes, I know that I spend countless hours doing things for my children, husband, and others, but I still feel like I am a selfish, narcissistic person"). Third, all such accounts require a commitment to a view of persons as inherently irrational (i.e., as creatures ineluctably caused to deny or distort reality in light of their needs), a position that is enormously undermining to the whole enterprise of science as a rational enterprise since presumably scientists, as persons, are not exempt from such reality-distorting inevitabilities (Ossorio, 1978). The formulation of self-concept as summary formulation of one's status, as demonstrated above, explains the phenomenon of resistance to change more parsimoniously, does so without mysterious mental mechanisms, easily accomodates the case where such resistance occurs in the face of positive and fully recognized information, and accomplishes all of this without any commitment to a view of persons as inherently irrational.

Ties together a wide range of phenomena. The present account of the self-concept ties together a wide variety of observed empirical phenomena. As documented above, it explains restrictions on individuals' behavioral possibilities, held conceptions of how it is appropriate to act, ways of viewing the world, the binding effects of the self-concept on changes in itself, and the resistance of self-concepts to change in the face of what would seem disconfirming evidence. From a pragmatic clinical standpoint, these many linkages bring home an important point for the efficient and powerful conduct of psychotherapy: the self-concept is a "linchpin" factor (Bergner, 1998), i.e., a single causal/explanatory source lying at the heart of a wide array of factors crucial to the quality of clients' lives. Changes in it may therefore be expected to result in changes in these many factors and thus to have a profound impact on the overall quality of these lives. With this in mind, let us turn to a presentation of some core therapeutic interventions that are heuristically suggested by the present account, and that have been employed by the authors and their colleagues to good effect for many years.

Psychotherapy: Changing Self-Concepts

In the status dynamic approach to helping persons alter their self-concepts, change is fundamentally about enabling clients to move out of the limiting, self-assigned statuses that are the source of their problems, and assigning themselves new statuses that convey far more behavior potential. To accomplish this objective, the fundamental general strategy of status dynamic therapists is to create a two-person community with their clients, assign certain statuses to them, and treat them with the utmost consistency as persons who have those statuses (Bergner, 1999). In essence, while they might employ traditional means such as cognitive restructuring, insight conveyance, or behavior rehearsal, their primary means of achieving change is that of actually placing clients in relational positions that are incompatible with the ones articulated in their self-concepts .

Since this conception of psychotherapy is a relatively novel one, the following examples, two fictional and one real, will hopefully serve to orient the reader to it. First, in the film classic "It's a Wonderful Life," the protagonist, George Bailey, holds a conception of himself as a "complete failure in life." George's "therapist" (and guardian angel), Clarence, has a rather different view. Appraising George as an invaluable positive contributor to his family, friends, and community, Clarence sets out to bring about a change in his self-concept. He does so, not by conventional therapeutic means, but by magically placing George in a new relational position, that of visitor to his small town community as it would have been had he never been born--an infinitely poorer place where people's lives are far more wretched. In essence, he places George in a position where he could not have been the failure that he takes himself to be and have made the kind of difference that in fact he has made. By this means, George comes to a new and far more positive conception of himself, his place in the world, and the significance of his entire life. Second, in the stage musical classic "Man of La Mancha," the hero Don Quixote brings about fundamental changes in the self-concept and in the life of the prostitute Aldonza when he assigns her the status of his "Dulcinea" (i.e., the elevated "lady" in whose service his knightly quests are undertaken) and steadfastly treats her accordingly. Finally, bringing this matter out of the fictional and into the real world realm of psychotherapy, the central element in the person-centered therapy of Carl Rogers (1957; Raskin & Rogers, 1995) was his assignment to all clients of the status "unconditionally acceptable person" and his subsequent, highly persistent treatment of them as such.

In this section, we will relate some of the ways in which this core idea of therapeutic status assignment may be carried out by therapists in helping their clients to alter their self-concepts (for further interventions, see Bergner, 1987, 1988, 1993, 1999). First, we will discuss the essentially a priori application of this idea in the therapeutic relationship. Second, we will discuss other, more empirically-based applications. Throughout, it may be noted that the utilization of these ideas can be undertaken in concert with other, more traditional therapeutic interventions.

The Therapeutic Relationship: Assigning A Priori Statuses

Above, we briefly considered the therapeutic work of Carl Rogers. Expanding upon this, if we view his work, not through his own person-centered lenses, but through status dynamic ones, we see Rogers as someone who assigned to all of his clients the status "unconditionally acceptable human being," not on the basis of observation, but a priori. The central element in person-centered therapy, and indeed the element cited by its practitioners as necessary and sufficient by itself to achieve therapeutic change (Raskin & Rogers, 1995; Rogers, 1957), consisted in providing a relationship in which clients, independently of the facts about their lives and persons, were genuinely regarded and treated as acceptable persons.

Where Rogers assigned one status a priori, the status dynamic approach to the therapeutic relationship advocates that therapists assign a large number of statuses on this basis (Bergner & Staggs, 1987). In status dynamic therapy, the client is regarded and treated, a priori, as a person (1) who is acceptable; (2) who makes sense; (3) whose best interests come first in the therapeutic relationship; (4) who is important and significant to the therapist; (5) who already possesses enabling strengths, knowledge, and other resources for solving problems; (6) who, given a choice between equally realistic but differentially degrading appraisals of him or her, is to be given the benefit of the doubt; and (7) who is an agent (i.e., an individual capable of entertaining behavioral options and selecting from among them, as opposed to a helpless victim of genetic, historical, environmental, or other forces).

The therapeutic policy becomes one of assigning all of these statuses a priori, and treating the client with the utmost consistency as one who has them. Thus, in this two-person community, the therapist sees to it, to the limits of his or her ability, that the client is accepted, does make sense, is significant; is given the benefit of the doubt, and so forth. In this regard, to cite an old aphorism, "actions speak louder than words." Just as the lover must go beyond merely saying "I love you," and genuinely regard and treat the other as a beloved, so the therapist must genuinely regard and treat the client in these ways--must genuinely give the client these places in his or her world--if the therapeutic relationship is to be more than an empty and ineffectual ceremony (see Bergner & Staggs, 1987, and Bergner, 1995, for detailed treatments of this approach).

Most people who come to therapy with negative self-concepts view themselves as not beingacceptable, not being someone whose interests really matter to others, not being someone with significant personal power, and so forth. Thus, to be genuinely regarded and treated in the above ways is already to have been moved to a new and more accredited position, and is a critically important part of the effort to alter the client's self-concept.

Assessment, Reformulation, and Therapeutic Status Assignment

In the status dynamic approach, the fundamental task of assessment is to determine the nature of the individual's presenting difficulty and, when the facts so indicate, the problematic formulation self-in-relation-to-world that is at the root of it (Bergner, 1999). To return once again to our Charlie Brown heuristic, we would assess Charlie's presenting concerns of depression and behavioral paralysis, and establish how these are rooted in his conception of himself as an ineligible "nothing" existing in a world of worthy "somethings."

Having assessed these matters, the next task of the therapist is that of reformulating who the client is--of reformulating the client's status within his or her world. In the optimum case, this reformulation would possess the following characteristics. First, and most fundamentally, it would expand the client's behavior potential. That is, it would take a form such that, should the client accept it, previous limitations would be diminished and new possibilities and alternatives would be opened up for him or her. Second, the reformulation would be realistic. It would be, as it was in the case of George Bailey, consistent with the facts regarding the client's actual position in the scheme of things. It would not be some implausible view that the client would find incredible or, should he or she accept it, find impossible to carry off in the real social world. Third, it would alter the significance of the client's whole life. In the optimum (if not always realized) case, the new status assignment would be one that would change the significance of the client's behavior, and even of his or her whole life, without the client doing anything different. In the case of George Bailey once again, as soon as he had accepted Clarence's status assignment, the significance of what he had been doing all along, and indeed of his entire personal history, was transformed ex post facto: he already was and had long been an invaluable contributor to his family and community. The contrast here is to therapeutic approaches that would require clients to change their behavior and/or cognitions first before success could be attributed: "Well, you are quite unassertive now, but with some assertiveness training I believe you can someday do much better." From a status dynamic point of view, it is better to provide clients with empowering actualities than it is to give them only hope for better possibilities.

The foregoing considerations apply straightforwardly to cases where the therapist, like Clarence above, assesses the situation and sees the client in very status-enhancing ways. However, as we will see in one of our cases below, there are times when the therapist surveys the situation and finds that the client's position in the scheme of things is a far less salutary one. To illustrate our point once again with a familiar fictional example, one has only to think of the three ghosts who placed Ebenezer Scrooge in a position to see the not very flattering picture of who he had become. In such cases, the therapist, like the three ghosts, may need to assign a less socially desirable status, but nonetheless one calculated to make an immediate difference in the client's behavior potential. Such a status assignment, further, would hopefully prove transitional and would help the individual to a new and better position in the world and a corresponding conception of self.

Finally, having arrived at a reformulation of the client's status, the fundamental strategy of the status dynamic therapist is to assign the client this status, and to steadfastly treat him or her accordingly. The therapist, often in concert with traditional interventions such as imparting insight, altering maladaptive cognitions, and encouraging new behavior, engages in the powerful tactic of putting the client in a new position, and treating him or her as an occupant of that position with the utmost consistency possible. Expressed verbally, it is as if the therapist is saying to the client: "This is who you are, and I will treat you as such." Obviously, as with any approach, it is critically important for therapists to be watchful for any reactions or further information from the client that would indicate that their assessments and/or interventions have been misguided, and to make appropriate modifications if needed.

In order to convey how the status dynamic approach to modifying self-concept is implemented in actual cases, this paper concludes with two case examples.

Case #1. Sandy, a young college woman, had long appraised herself as "intellectually dull." She had acquired this view of herself in the context of being the youngest child in a family composed of rather accomplished individuals. Since the family placed a great premium on the importance of being intelligent, being "slow" was a core, and very painful, element in her self-concept, and one that had caused her to set her sights in life rather low. Growing up in her family, Sandy was always a bit behind everyone else since she was two years younger than her next youngest sibling. The family treated her as the cute, amusing, but slightly dim "baby of the family," and she came in this way to adopt such a view of herself. Sandy, however, had completed grade school with virtually all A's, and matriculated from a very competitive high school with a 3.5 grade point average. When she entered therapy, she was carrying the identical 3.5 average while taking a rather demanding curriculum at a large state university.

In the course of therapy, Sandy was asked how she squared all of the evidence from her scholastic career with her view of herself as "intellectually dull." How could she continue to look at the countless "A" and "B" grades from teachers in demanding courses and still regard herself as unintelligent? In teasing out the answer to this question, Sandy revealed many ways in which she preserved this status in the face of what would seem contradictory evidence. Confronted with an "A" grade, for example, her primary explanation was along the lines of the old saying about genius being more a matter of perspiration than of inspiration: "Isn't it amazing what an unintelligent person like me can do if I work hard enough!" On other occasions, she would explain away her success on grounds that she had been lucky, that the professor was not very demanding, that she had fortunately studied just the right things, and/or that it was her roommate's help that got her through. Finally, when Sandy occasionally did receive a bad evaluation, she viewed this simply as confirmation of her lack of intelligence. The net result of all of this was that her self-assigned status, "unintelligent person," had remained remarkably intact despite massive evidence to the contrary.

In Sandy's case, the therapist brought about change in this central aspect of her self-concept in the following manner. First, having personally assigned her the status of "intelligent individual," he helped her to see how "unintelligent" was essentially a place that she had been assigned in her family of origin, and that the facts strongly suggested that this place was assigned more on the basis of her necessarily lagging position in the family than on anything factual about her intellectual abilities. Second, in collaboration with Sandy, he teased out the picture described in the preceding paragraph of how she unwittingly preserved her status, "unintelligent," by holding fast to it as an unquestioned given, while interpreting all events in light of it. Third, in order to place her squarely in a position of power that she already occupied but didn't realize, the therapist assigned her the following homework. Having written down on an index card all of the specific ways in which she preserved her self-concept in the face of seemingly disconfirming evidence, he instructed her to go out that week and, every time she did something that seemed to require significant intelligence, she was to take the card out and say to herself: "I am an unintelligent person; this seeming discrepancy can be explained away in the following manner..." and then to check off one or more of the discounting explanations listed on the card. In implementing this exercise, Sandy was in effect consciously occupying a position that she had unconsciously occupied all along, that of one who preserved a negative status by systematically discounting a great deal of evidence. Operating from this position, she found herself increasingly unable to continue to do so and, in the end, was able to assign to herself a new status: "intelligent person."

In this case, it should be underscored, the basic intervention was not the classical cognitive one of evaluating a self-schema in light of empirical evidence (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979; Beck & Weishaar, 1995). Rather, it was the status dynamic one of placing the client in a new position, that of intelligent person who was actively (if unwittingly) discounting her own achievements, and of exploiting this new position to bring about fundamental change in her self-concept (Bergner, 1993).

Case #2. TJ, a man in his late forties, requested therapy initially because he had been having multiple affairs during most of his 30 year marriage, despised himself for this, but did not think he could stop. In addition to this primary concern, TJ reported others. In his job, he was in trouble much of the time because he repeatedly informed his superiors that he was completing work when in fact he was not. He was constantly in debt because he acted the role of "big spender" and "man of means" with others, when in fact he was often on the verge of bankruptcy. He had a long history of alcohol abuse, but had been sober for several years when he entered therapy. Basically, TJ lived his life with smoke and mirrors and was always just a few steps away from one crisis or another, all of his own making.

At the time of intake, TJ's basic conception of himself was that he was a "nobody masquerading as a somebody." Beneath his public displays of bravura, he saw himself as a weak man who in his countless affairs, pretenses at being a man of means, lies to his superiors, financial crises, and abuse of alcohol, had failed at everything in his life.

A man of relatively small stature who grew up in a tough neighborhood, TJ had always yearned to be a big man on the street. In his neighborhood, the model of a big man was the "made man" or professional criminal who played by his own rules, cared about little, and was afraid of nothing. While TJ did not have the size and strength to make it as a physical tough, he was able to achieve status in his neighborhood by becoming a consummate con man--someone who could talk people into doing what he wanted, who could get women to feel sorry for him and lure them to his bed, who could always get around doing what he was supposed to do, and who was very good at getting out of any trouble he might create, often by having his parents, and later his wife, clean up any messes that he made.

In the past, other therapists had tended to tell TJ what was wrong with what he did, but TJ seldom went back for more than 2 or 3 sessions. Not wanting to repeat this unsuccessful strategy, the status dynamic therapist elected to assign TJ a new status, one that both fit the central facts of TJ's life and that cast him, in certain important respects, as both successful and powerful. However, given the largely unsavory details of TJ's life, the status assigned was less like the highly positive one assigned by Clarence to George Bailey, and more like the rather negative one assigned by the three ghosts to Ebenezer Scrooge. Like the latter, further, the hope in this case was that the new status would spur positive changes in TJ and thus prove a transitional one.

The therapist's basic message to TJ was: "The way I see it, you have succeeded very well in becoming exactly who you always wanted to be: a successful con man who can deceive others into giving him what he wants, who can get all the women he wants, who derives enormous satisfactions from presenting himself as a big man and a big spender, who doesn't have to play by the rules like everyone else, who can successfully avoid the tedious, day-to-day stuff that ordinary people have to put up with--and who at the end of the day can always get away with it. You've been very successful at becoming exactly who you wanted to be, so why give it up unless you find something even better."

TJ readily accepted this status assignment--this portrayal of who he was. However, since the portrayal spoke to and satisfied only one side of his ambivalence (i.e. the part of him that had always wanted to be a successful criminal; but not the part that had destroyed his marriage, family, and career, and that experienced emptiness, self-hatred, and worthlessness), it did not take him long to become dissatisfied with the status quo. TJ soon began to ask questions like, "Well, if it makes so much sense for me to do all these things, how come I don't enjoy them anymore?" and "How come nothing and nobody means anything to me?" The therapist then began to show TJ that the most he could ever accomplish if he pursued his lifelong agenda was to become a better con man, and no matter how good a con man he became, he was likely to find it provided limited satisfaction and little significance once he proved he could get away with it. Having given TJ the status of "successful con man," the therapist in essence turned the tables on him by having him experience the emptiness of his place in the world.

If TJ wanted enjoyment and significance in his life, the answer was conceptually simple: give up being a con man and be authentic; i.e., give up impersonating someone with something to offer and be someone with something genuine to offer. At this point, the therapist, noting certain motivations and other qualities in TJ, assigned him a second and more accrediting status: that of someone who did have something genuine and valuable to offer others. Not surprisingly, getting TJ to a place where he could see that he actually had something of value to offer others, and that he had more behavior potential through being authentic than through being a con man, took a good deal of time. While the details of this effort are beyond the space limitations of the present article, two examples may serve to convey the nature of this final phase of the therapy.

TJ knew a good deal about computers and was something of a graphics expert. In the course of therapy, the therapist made it a point to ask for TJ's advice about a number of computer problems. In doing so, his objective was to assign TJ the status of "computer expert and consultant," and to treat him in this respect as someone who had a genuine, high quality contribution to make. TJ responded to this by offering his help freely and was obviously quite pleased that he was able to be helpful to the therapist. The therapist then focussed on what it was like for TJ to be in a relationship in which people could and would depend on him. This led to a series of discussions on what it would take for the therapist to trust TJ if they had met outside of therapy.

A second significant interaction had to do with the fact that TJ often ended up in situations in which he had to lie to his family or his employer. The therapist one day simply said to him, "You usually don't have to cover things up if you have clean hands." This became a motto for TJ in many of his subsequent dealings with the world. While he struggled with it, it became an important part of his formulation of who he was becoming: a person who played it straight and did not have to lie because he kept his hands clean.

Over several years time, TJ came to develop a radically different self-concept, that of someone who had something genuine and valuable to offer others, and who therefore could succeed without being a con man. As this conception developed, he began to venture into a wide range of new positions in the world. He obtained a new job that put him in a place in which he had to produce at a high level on a regular basis. He decided to try to develop a love relationship with his wife even though that meant dealing with the results of many years of betrayal and mistrust. He was able to regain the respect of his children. At last report, he and his wife are making significant strides in their relationship. He has performed exceptionally well in his job. Recently, his difficulty in managing financial responsibilities resulted in a fairly significant crisis, but he took full responsiblity for the crisis and managed to find a way to deal with it on his own.


In this article, a new formulation of the self-concept and of self-concept change has been presented. The article has included (a) a status dynamic conceptualization of the self-concept; (b) a delineation of the self-concepts' many implications for the quality of persons' lives; (c) an analysis of why self-concepts tend not to change in the face of disconfirming evidence; (d) some logical and empirical justifications for preferring the present formulation to existing alternatives; and (e) a presentation of some core therapeutic approaches to modifying self-concepts.


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Authors' Note

The authors wish to express their great indebtedness to Dr. Laurie Bergner for her extensive efforts in reviewing this manuscript and offering many helpful suggestions for revisions.