The perceptions, ideas, and feelings we hold of ourselves, whether consciously or not, are a natural, intrinsic part of our daily functioning. They seem a necessary ingredient of our attempts to sustain a basic sense of identity, or as Erikson (1950) described it, to protect a sense of personal continuity, unity, and social recognition. As such, they make us an individual in the eyes of others as well as ourselves. But they are also the orientating instruments by which we try to bring some coherence to our own life or to set out new directions. For psychologists, self-referential processes retain an intriguing, though somewhat elusive character, which makes it difficult to capture them in a single, neat conceptual and empirical framework. In a sense, the content of such processes seems to typify the person one has grown to be. Yet, in another sense, they constitute the foreshadowing of the person one could become. Moreover, in both cases, as James explained, these processes introduce an element of recursivity in the way we experience ourselves, without totally merging with ongoing mental, behavioral, and social processes.
In chapter 1, we stated that in past decades psychologists have tried to deal with the indefinite status of such generic concepts as self and identity by exclusively focusing on the more tangible aspects. This generally meant that self and identity were equated with the self-concept, which was seen as a relatively stable, generalized set of selfrepresentations that people have formed during their lives. This opened the way to the still predominant empirical practice of using self-descriptions and self-ratings as reliable indications of an underlying self-concept.