A Question of Identity and Hidden Secrets

I suspect that many people have at least one secret they are unwilling or unable to share with anyone, even the person (or the people) closest to us. Sometimes, I wonder whether we might be unwilling to share it even with ourselves. We know something’s concealed under self-deprecating humor or defensive anger or some other form of obfuscation, but we’re afraid of peeling back the protective layers. Either we fear what might be hidden beneath or we’re terrified that the impact of unveiling that secret might utterly change the way the world sees us.  The secret need not be something terrible or ugly, just something that might call into question the legitimacy of the façade we’ve spent so much time creating. The more time we invest in obscuring that truth about ourselves, the more difficult it becomes to understand how the secret defines who we are. We ask ourselves questions: Am I more authentically “me” with the secret hidden away, or am I, at my core, the person the world would see if the secret were revealed?

The question of authenticity intrigues me. I often think about the degree to which external influences modify who we are. I wonder whether the more “authentic” personality is the one within which we lived before or the one in which we live after being influenced. For example, let’s assume a person’s personality changes after a life-changing event such as the murder of a parent. Before the murder, he was a gregarious, cheerful, guy who was always ready to help friends in need. Afterward, though, he became withdrawn, sullen, and unwilling to help his friends, even when asked. And let’s assume that’s the way he is today, twenty years after the murder. Which expression of his personality is the more authentic one: pre- or post-murder? I suppose an argument can be made that both are authentic expressions of the person’s personality, but which one represents who he is at his core? Is he a naturally cheerful, gregarious person or is he naturally a person whose attitudes and behavior are shaped entirely by external events? The questions call for either/or answers, when in fact reality is far too complex for simple answers to suffice.

Back to people who hold secrets close: The question I posed might suggest that our authenticity (or lack thereof) hinges on how we are perceived by others. [And the questions about the murder-orphan’s authenticity might suggest the same.] That raises another aspect of “who we are.” To some extent, which I am sure varies according to the individual, we define ourselves through our responses to the way others perceive us. We modify what we say and how we present ourselves in various contexts. We behave like chameleons, adapting to our environments. I wonder how our self-recognition that we change to fit the situation impacts our self-image. We might question whether there is a “real me” or whether “I am defined not by who I really am, but by my desire to be perceived in one way or another.” When I mentioned secrets we don’t share with anyone, that’s the one I was thinking of. Is there, truly, a real me?

A few of the characters I’ve written into short stories question their own identities and whether their behaviors represent who they are or simply how they want to be seen. And they question the extent to which they possess a “real” identity, or whether they simply represent the emotional and behavioral output of their collective life experiences.

I have, on occasion, attempted to have conversations about these issues. Invariably, I get the impression that the topic makes the other person uncomfortable—a common response is laughter or a suggestion that I might be more than moderately crazy for thinking such things. And maybe the ideas are funny or crazy. Maybe I am either or both.  Maybe I, alone, have these questions, though I seriously doubt that’s the case.

I can argue with conviction that our secrets define us. I can argue with conviction that our experiences don’t define, but merely help shape, us and that we are who we are, regardless of how others see us. I can argue with conviction that we are simply products of  socialization and the way we are taught to behave and believe. But I never win any of the arguments. I’m simply left with questions that I may have answered, but the answers don’t satisfy my desire to know more deeply what is real, what is true.

Incidentally, “authenticity” is a word and a concept that’s bandied about far too often in the touchy-feely world of introspective exploration and self-help. “Be the authentic you” is the mantra of the month in some such circles. I have nothing against self-help circles, only in them co-opting such an attractive, genuinely good word. 😉


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to A Question of Identity and Hidden Secrets

  1. I’m glad I’m not alone in this, Chuck. And I agree with your point about labels and the fact that they are oddly magnetic for some people. As for the extrovert in solitary, I know of a few of them I’d be willing to volunteer for a 20-year long experiment. 😉

  2. Chuck says:

    These are questions I’ve thought on for most of my life, so no argument here. I’m curious too, and I can see how the various identities we assume can be considered definitional in a sort of way, although that gets quickly into metaphysics and aack. Gonna skip. It did remind me, though, of the personality tests that seem to be so popular in corporate and academic (and probably other) settings, e.g., Myers-Briggs. I can how they can be useful, but the attachment some people seem to have to these labels is very strange to me. Sort of like astrology. If you’re an extrovert, and you’re placed in solitary confinement for 20 years, are you still one? And so on.

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