Our Private Self and Our Public Self
We’re not all phonies or hypocrites. It’s just that we do not reveal to others a certain part of ourselves—our fears and insecurities, our feelings and desires, our hurts and memories, our real thoughts.
We put on a social mask, or many masks, depending on the situation. We choose to present ourselves in a way that gains acceptance or at least doesn’t cause us a problem.
We do this for many reasons. For some, it’s a self-esteem issue (feeling inadequate and needing to pretend to be what you are not). For others, it may be a fear of being hurt or becoming vulnerable (not revealing sensitive things about ourselves). For many, it’s a socialized form of discretion, of being polite (so as not to offend). At times it is simply to fit in, to restrain one’s true self to conform to external norms.
We may engage in role playing because that’s the public image we want to convey. Or, we might be role playing because our job requires a certain persona and behavior, unlike our actual selves. For example, certain jobs require a dress code and correct language usage, but in private we may dress differently and use coarser language or talk in a different language altogether.
Whatever and however we act, and wherever we act, and with whomever we interact, the reality is that we are acting. We are performing. We are managing the impression we make on others. We are selective in what we say, how we say it, and in how we behave with that person or those persons. We suppress our conscious thoughts and feelings, or at least suppress expressing them, in order to function in that setting.
Because we interact in many settings each day—in our households, as pedestrians or commuters, at work, in school, in meetings, on social occasions, and in many other ways with friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues—we are multiple persons in the course of a day. That may cause us to have a variety of public selves, but we only have one private self.
Our public self is interactive; our private self is reflective. Our public self is the image we want others to see; our private self is one that we only allow a rare few, or just a special someone, or even no one to see.
In my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate, about Ellis Island in the 1890s, we find some individuals whose public self is that of a dedicated, selfless employee, but whose private corrupt self is that of a user, a taker, an exploiter of others. We also find some whose image conveys a satisfied life and dignified behavior but underneath the façade is an unfulfilled person with a passionate nature and repressed sexual desires.
Some are conflicted between their public and private selves, while others are not, because they deliberately create false public selves to secure what their private selves truly crave.
Many of us have been hurt at one time by someone we trusted, someone we thought we knew but whose real self became known only through an act of betrayal. Many of us have also encountered phonies, someone we recognized behind a mask that didn’t fool us. We knew them right away for what they were.
I think all of us can also relate to the presence of inner conflicts between what we think and want against what we instead say and do. Life teaches us the necessity of holding back sometimes.
That is why many of us can identify with Matt and Nicole in Guardians of the Gate. They are good people, but they are not perfect. None of us are. They want to do the right thing, but their love is stronger than the dictates of society. How they resolve the torment between their desires and life’s realities is part of the plot of this historical novel.