“Be obedient. Study. Work. Get married. Have children. Get a mortgage. Watch the TV. Ask for loans. Buy many things. And, above all, do not ever question what they have told you that you have to do”, said George Carlin.
We live in a society that, although it seems increasingly permissive and liberal, continues to judge each of our actions, thus conditioning our way of being and acting. Sometimes that social pressure becomes so strong that we can feel “obliged” to hide who we are, characteristics that define us but that we believe – for one reason or another – do not fit in the environment in which we live.
Psychologists at the University of Southern Illinois warn us that maintaining a hidden identity has a high emotional cost, a cost that may not be worth paying.
The risks of hiding who you are to try to fit
We have two identities: one visible and the other hidden. There are things practically impossible to hide that, in one way or another, make up our identity. Such is the case of our ethnic origin, sex and stature. There are also personality characteristics that are difficult for us to hide, such as extroversion or shyness. All these characteristics, added to those that we glimpse without problems make up our visible identity, which the others perceive.
However, we also have characteristics that we do not want to reveal, such as our sexual orientation, some mental disorders, certain motivations or that we belong to minor political or religious groups. These characteristics make up our hidden identity.
There are many reasons that lead us to want to hide some aspects of our identity. We can think, for example, that those who make up our social network will reject us if they know the truth, or maybe we just want to avoid conflicts because we know they think differently. Perhaps we feel obliged to hide certain aspects of our identity because they represent a social stigma, or simply because we want to continue enjoying certain privileges that would be prohibited to our authentic identity.
However, a study conducted at the University of Southern Illinois revealed that people with visible “stigmas” – such as gender, race or disability according to the cultural context in which they live – are always exposed, so they are forced to prepare themselves psychologically to manage these harmful social interactions.
This means that, although these people are exposed to a greater number of conflicts, they also develop more tools to face adversity, so that in the end, these supposedly negative characteristics become an incentive to grow emotionally and develop resilience. Although it seems paradoxical, what was initially a disadvantage, is transformed into a situation that generates added advantages.
People with “stigmas” that can hide, such as depression or sexual orientation, have the possibility of hiding those characteristics and go unnoticed to fit in the group and avoid negative consequences. However, hiding parts of the identity can become extremely exhausting because we are forced to continually use a kind of disguise or social mask, which demands a huge “emotional work”.
Having a hidden identity forces us to be on guard at all times, attentive to what we say or do not say, that our attitudes do not disclose what we want to hide. This leads us to act superficially trying to adapt as much as possible to the others, which will cause us to experience a sense of lack of authenticity.
In some cases, when the features we’re hiding are essential pillars of our identity, we can feel that we are a “fraud”, which will end up undermining our self-confidence and self-esteem. The fact of hiding a part of us, in a certain way, also indicates that we use the yardstick of the others and that we do not fully accept that characteristic. In the long run, to avoid conflicts with others, we develop internal conflicts. Rita Mae Brown had already said: “The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”
These psychologists warn us: “Hiding the identity can make us feel socially isolated, depressed and anxious, affecting our performance and health.” In fact, although we hide certain things to fit the group, deep down we know that we do not fully fit, so we can feel even more isolated, even if it is paradoxical.
The “explosion” due to mental breakdown
According to the research, it is likely that we will end up revealing that hidden identity due to the emotional exhaustion we experience. The tension generated by hiding those traits ends up causing a mental breakdown that makes us “explode”.
In that case, it is most likely that we unveil our hidden identity in the worst possible way, thus confirming our greatest fears, since that act will not be marked by emotional maturity but by resentment, anger and tension. We will blame the others for having “forced” us to hide what we are, which will only further deepen the gap.
We will also be more likely to reveal those hidden traits if we usually keep in touch with our emotions. If we have a high Emotional Intelligence, we are less likely to hide important features of our personality, since we will be able to manage the possible conflicts and discrepancies that arise.
Another condition for revealing the hidden traits is the importance we give to maintaining a well-integrated sense of identity. If congruence is an important value for us, the dissonance that we experience hiding parts of our identity is so great that it will lead us to reveal – sooner or later – these features.
Intolerant cultures promote hidden identities
Unfortunately, there are still cultural contexts in which some people are forced to hide some features of their identity. In fact, these researchers confirmed that social openness, tolerance and the possibility of expressing the true feelings are crucial for a person to decide to reveal his hidden identity.
If the environment is not favorable, it is very difficult to be authentic. It is no coincidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment”, simply because he wants us all to fit in predetermined molds.
On the contrary, a culture that accepts individual expression favors its members to be authentic and allows normalizing the hidden identities. That culture needs to accept that we are all different, that we do not like the same things, think in the same way and, above all, that we do not aspire to the same thing.
The only limit is one in which the freedom of one invades the freedom of the other. This culture of authentic acceptance is good for all because authenticity implies richness and diversity, the fertile ground for all of us to grow and learn from the others.
A culture that condemns different members and segregates them is a culture that phagocyte and condemns itself to intellectual and emotional impoverishment. In this culture, the problem does not reside in people who struggle to overcome their fears and try to show themselves to the world for what they are, it resides in the groups and mechanisms of oppression that are fed by prejudices and are reluctant to change.
Freedom means nothing, unless you can be authentic
The fear of being rejected paralyzes, dwarfs and even makes us forget who we really are, becoming a sad shadow of what we could have been. When something that is part of our being does not let us be, we have a problem that we need to resolve as soon as possible.
Expressing our true identity can be a challenging process, but in the long run we will feel more satisfied with ourselves, less anxious and depressed and we might even find more social support, or at least a more genuine support, a support for our true “ego” and not the social mask we had built.
For taking that step, in reality the biggest obstacle we have to overcome are the insecurities that we have been feeding inside us.
The key lies in asking ourselves if we need more energy to hide than to reveal our true self. If the emotional cost we are paying to hide our identity is really worth it. Facing those fears can be extremely liberating and can even change the reality that surrounds us.
Although, perhaps, everything can be summarized in this quote of Fritz Perls, who knew in first person what it is belonging to a marginalized group, when he said: “I know who you are and say what you feel, because those who bother do not matter and those who matter do not bother.”
Berkley, R. A., Beard, R. & Daus, C. S. (2019) The emotional context of disclosing a concealable stigmatized identity: A conceptual model. Human Resource Management Review; 29(3): 428–445.