“Be obedient. She studies. Work. Married. Have children. Take out a mortgage. Watching TV. Borrow money. Buy many things. And most importantly, never question what you have been told you must do, ”wrote George Carlin.
We live in a society which, even if it seems increasingly permissive and liberal, continues to judge each of our actions, thus conditioning our way of being and acting. Sometimes this social pressure becomes so strong that we can feel "obligated" to hide who we really are, the characteristics that define us but that we believe - for one reason or another - that do not fit the environment in which we live.
Psychologists at the University of Southern Illinois warn us that maintaining a hidden identity comes with a high emotional cost - a cost that may not be worth it.
The risks of hiding who you are to try to fit in
We have two identities: one visible and the other hidden. There are things that are practically impossible to hide that, in one way or another, constitute our identity. This is the case with our ethnic origin, gender and height. There are also personality traits that are difficult for us to hide, such as extroversion or shyness. All these characteristics, added to those that we let glimpse without problems, constitute our visible identity, the one that others perceive.
But we also have characteristics that we do not want to reveal, such as our sexual orientation, certain psychological problems, certain motivations or belonging to minority political or religious groups. These characteristics constitute our hidden identity.
There are many reasons that lead us to want to hide some aspects of our identity. We may think, for example, that the people who make up our social environment would reject us if they knew the truth, or maybe we just want to avoid conflict because we know they think differently. Perhaps we feel obliged to hide some aspects of our identity because they represent a social stigma or simply because we want to continue to enjoy certain privileges that would be forbidden to our authentic identity.
In this regard, the study conducted at the University of Southern Illinois reveals that people with visible "stigma" - such as gender, race or a disability based on 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 cope with adversity, so eventually these seemingly negative characteristics become an incentive to grow emotionally and develop resilience. Although it seems paradoxical, what was initially a disadvantage turns into a win-win situation.
People with "stigma" that can hide, such as depression or sexual orientation, have the ability to hide those characteristics and go unnoticed to fit into the group and avoid negative consequences. However, hiding parts of identity can become extremely exhausting because we are forced to continually wear some sort of disguise or social mask, and this requires enormous "emotional effort".
Having a hidden identity forces us to be always on guard, careful about what we say or do not say, that our attitudes do not reveal what we want to hide. This leads us to act superficially to adapt as much as possible to others, and this will make us feel a sense of lack of authenticity.
In some cases, when the characteristics we hide are essential pillars of our identity, we can come to feel "false", and this will eventually undermine our self-esteem. The fact of hiding a part of us also indicates that we use the yardstick of others and that we do not fully accept that characteristic. In the long run, to avoid conflicts with others, we will develop internal conflicts. Rita Mae Brown said, "the reward for compliance is to please everyone but you."
These psychologists warn: "hiding our identity can make us feel socially isolated, depressed and anxious, affecting our performance and health." In fact, even if we hide some things to adapt to the group, deep down we know that we don't fully adapt, so we can feel even more isolated, even if it is paradoxical.
The explosion due to emotional exhaustion
According to the study, we are likely to end up revealing the hidden identity due to the emotional exhaustion we experience. The tension generated by hiding those personality traits will eventually cause a nervous breakdown that will make us "explode".
In this case, it is very likely that we will reveal our hidden identity in the worst way, thus confirming our worst fears, because the act will not be marked by psychological maturity but by resentment, anger and tension. We will blame others for forcing us to hide who we are, which will only deepen the gap further.
We will also be more likely to reveal those hidden traits if we tend to stay in touch with our emotions. If we have high emotional intelligence, it will be less likely that we will hide important characteristics of our personality as we will be able to manage the possible conflicts and discrepancies that will arise.
Another condition for revealing hidden traits is the importance we attach to maintaining a well-integrated sense of identity. If congruence is an important value for us, the dissonance we will experience by hiding parts of our identity will be so great that it will lead us to reveal - sooner or later - these characteristics.
Intolerant cultures promote hidden identities
Unfortunately, there are still cultural contexts in which some people are forced to hide some characteristics of their identity. Indeed, these researchers confirm that social openness, tolerance and the ability to express true feelings are crucial for the person who decides to reveal their 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 "the greatest achievement in life is being yourself, in a world that is constantly trying to make you different" simply because he wants us all to fit into predetermined patterns.
Conversely, a culture that accepts individual expression fosters the authenticity of its members and allows for the normalization of hidden identities. That culture has to accept that we are all different, that we don't like the same things, that we don't think alike, and most importantly, that we don't have the same aspirations.
The only limit is that in which the freedom of one invades that of the other. This culture of authentic acceptance is beneficial to all because authenticity implies richness and diversity, the fertile ground for us to grow and learn from others.
A culture that condemns different members and segregates them is a culture that engulfs itself and condemns itself to intellectual and emotional impoverishment. In that culture, the problem is not people struggling to overcome their fears and trying to show themselves to the world as they are, but lies in the groups and mechanisms of oppression fueled by prejudice and reluctant to change.
Freedom means nothing, unless you can be authentic
The fear of being rejected paralyzes us, diminishes us and even makes us forget who we really are, turning us into a sad shadow of what we could have been. When something that is part of our being does not allow us to be, we have a problem that we must solve as soon as possible.
Expressing our true identity can be a difficult process, but eventually we will feel more satisfied with ourselves, less anxious and depressed, and may even encounter greater social support, or at least more genuine support for our true "me" and not for the social mask we had built.
In order to take that step, actually the biggest obstacle we have to overcome is the insecurities we have been feeding within us.
The key is to ask ourselves if we need more energy to hide than to reveal our true selves. If the emotional cost we are paying for hiding our identity is really worth it. Facing these fears can be extremely liberating and can even change the reality around us.
But perhaps everything can be summed up in this sentence by Fritz Perls, who knew firsthand what it means to belong to a marginalized group, saying: "be who you are and what you think, because those who get annoyed don't matter and those who matter they are not disturbed. "