Persons and Their Private Personas: Living with Yourself

Talia Morag


Public life is usually understood to be whatever we do or say in our formal and professional relationships. At the workplace, at the doctor’s office or at the café, we need to make a good impression and we cannot say everything we think or do anything we want. We need to appear a certain way to be liked, get ahead, or simply stay out of trouble.

The distinction between private and public presupposes that we invest efforts in maintaining a public “persona” whereas at home we can “be ourselves.” A closer examination, however, reveals that we also have a persona within the circle of our immediate family and close friends. We often censor ourselves with the people closest to us, in order to be seen by our loved-ones as caring partners, devoted children or loyal friends. Can we ever relax and really be ourselves without maintaining a persona?

Even in our most private moments, at home alone, we are under the pressure of a private persona, a self-image we want to maintain even when nobody else is looking. We also want to impress ourselves, so to speak, to feel and think about and interact with people in a manner that reflects the way we think we are, or should be, in our social world. On occasion, we explicitly endorse certain values or character traits that we see as guiding our social interactions as well as our private thoughts and emotions.

Naturally, most of us probably think that who we are, as reflected from our actions and reactions, thoughts and emotions, matches quite well our private persona. But when we consider those around us, especially those we know well enough to know what they think about themselves, we often notice patterns of behaviour that are in tension with their private persona. We could say that they have a false, or at least a partially blind, self-image.

The philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear provides a good example to think about these tensions in one’s private persona. In A Case for Irony, he describes a woman who displays prototypical femininity in some of her mannerisms, gestures and her style of clothing, and self-consciously comports herself according to traditional gender roles. Yet, Lear notices that she also exhibits “boyish” behaviour without realising it, a behaviour that further demonstrates that she cares about being “boyish” (42-71).

Consider other examples such as: a proud anti-authoritarian whose gestures and reactions reveal that he evaluates people according to their social hierarchy; or a person who fiercely defends her independence in close relationships and yet remains financially dependent; or the delicate flower that cannot hurt a fly with a killer instinct. Around us, many people hold onto a self-image that captures only a part of their social ways of being and ignores other parts that are apparently in tension with it. We ascribe to one another the ability to turn a blind eye to what is there to see. 

In such cases, it appears that some patterns of social interaction fit well with what we may call one’s endorsed private persona whereas other identifiable patterns do not. Those, in turn, seem to fit a hidden private persona, certain values or character traits that the person does not acknowledge having. In other words, one’s private persona may include an endorsed aspect that is in tension with its hidden aspect. In this paper, I critically examine Jonathan Lear’s suggestion as to how to understand and deal with such tensions. In particular, I examine how one’s private persona may get caught up in such tensions in the first place.

Endorsed Private Persona

Our roles in our relationships and group-belongings comprise what philosophers call our practical identities, such as being a spouse, a parent, a friend, a child, a teacher or a member of the neighbourhood cat-rescue organisation. These practical identities do not just impose on us duties and obligations and appropriate ways of interaction dictated by our social niche. They are also, as the philosopher Christine Korsgaard says in The Sources of Normativity, “description[s] under which [we] value [ourselves], description[s] under which [we] find [our lives] to be worth living and [our] actions worth undertaking” (101).

Our social roles present us sometimes with dilemmas, challenges and moments of choice. When we face an important decision in our lives, such as leaving a boyfriend or getting married, telling or not telling a friend that her husband is cheating on her, we may explicitly ask ourselves: do I want to be the kind of person that pursues this course of action? Am I this kind of partner, this kind of friend? It is not just about what others would think of me, it is about what I will think of me: will I be able to live with myself if I make this choice? These are typical moments in which we encounter our endorsed private persona, and reflect upon certain values that we attempt to cultivate through our choices.

We also describe ourselves and identify with certain social styles, character traits, or virtues that guide some of our social gestures and actions. We care about being confident or modest, polite or direct communicators, courageous or risk averse, feminine or masculine, light travellers or collectors of objects. These labels do not just comprise the way people see us or how we want them to see us. They describe how we see and want to see ourselves and thus form a part of our endorsed private persona. We often self-consciously attempt to sustain and cultivate behaviours that would fit our endorsed personal style and qualify us as cool or elegant or nerdy, daring or cautious.

We also encounter our endorsed private persona when we assess our spontaneous behaviours, in particular our emotional reactions. Those are moments when we face criticism or self-criticism about our emotions. Emotions may be criticised on the ground that they do not fit the circumstances (e.g. fear of a tiny spider), or that they are exaggerated in intensity (e.g. rage about a minor offence), or that they are ungraceful and reflect badly on us, or that they show we are immoral (e.g. envy of a friend or anger at a child), or excessively touchy (e.g. taking offence by a joke), and so forth.

Our practices of criticism demonstrate that although we often forgive or accept emotions as episodes we cannot help but undergo, they nevertheless show something about us, about what kind of a person we are. We take such criticisms to heart when they reveal, on reflection, that our emotion is incompatible with our private persona, with our being someone rational, or moral, or with a hippy’s temperament. At times, we embrace the criticism, make it our own, and use it to control our emotion, with varied degrees of success.

Our endorsed private persona includes values, virtues, character traits, and styles of social interactions that cut across practical identities. They are ways of inhabiting our various roles and relationships. Many of our spontaneous behaviours, our gestures and emotional reactions, fit with the way we want to be in the social world. Other people may characterise us similarly to how we characterise ourselves and use the same labels to do so, such as “courageous” or “cautious.” It is the fact that we self-consciously care about fitting those labels that makes them a part of our endorsed private persona.

A Hidden Private Persona?

Our spontaneous reactions, our passing thoughts and emotions, and our non-reflective actions or gestures, often fit well with the way we see and want to see ourselves. Those are the spontaneous behaviours we notice, endorse, or just accept as forgivable or understandable. They reflect who we think we are and what we self-consciously care about. And yet, many such spontaneous behaviours do not fit so well with the endorsed aspect of our private persona.

We do not normally pay much attention to those behaviours. We are quite skilled in ignoring them so they typically do not manage to shake our self-image. They are more like background “noise” for our general self-aware comportment in our social interactions. Even in the privacy of our own mind, of the spontaneous emotions and thoughts that strike us without anyone else knowing, we tend to comply with our own endorsed private persona and ignore those passing thoughts that are incompatible with it. And when such behaviours cannot be easily ignored, such as certain emotional reactions, we may be able to control them, to some extent, in reference to our endorsed cares and concerns.

But are the spontaneous emotions and gestures that we ignore or reject nothing more than background noise? Do they follow no other positive rhyme or reason? Do they affirm nothing about us in their own right? Lear says that often, the background noise is not just an aggregate of unacknowledged or un-reflected upon emotions and gestures (46). Reflecting on his experience as a psychoanalyst, he claims that this ignored portion of our social lives is often well unified under another social label or “pretence” that the person does not acknowledge or explicitly identify with, even if certain aspects of that person’s behaviour suggest that she actually cares about fitting that hidden “label” (46-51).

Although Lear calls these hidden labels “practical identities,” the example of “boyish” and “feminine” demonstrates that he is talking about personal styles, character traits or virtues, such as “self-sacrificing” or “selfish” or “needy.” When we shut off and ignore what we see as mere background noise, Lear says, we effectively shut off a vibrant and unified part of ourselves (64). Lear notices that subjects who are not aware that a certain label unifies aspects of their patterns of social interaction, self-consciously describe themselves with another counter-label, which is the exact inverse of the hidden label (46-47). Lear’s patient is consciously feminine and also exhibits “boyish” behaviour without realising it. Consider also the married man who also exhibits single-life behaviour, or the self-sacrificing family member who actually also cares about what she sees as her selfish needs. These inversions or tensions occur within larger categories: married life; womanhood; self-concern; adulthood, and so forth. The people in these examples inhabit those social categories in ways they find contradictory. How can I be both married and lead a single’s lifestyle? How can I be both a feminine woman and a boyish woman at the same time?

As Lear sees things, once his patient acknowledges that she lives in such a tension, she should reassess her ways of organising her behaviours under such rubrics (59-60). The feminine-boyish woman should examine the behaviours that she classifies under the two conflicting labels and ask: “What does any of this has to do with being a woman?” (59). In other words, Lear expects or hopes his patients ask what are, in effect, philosophical questions: what does it mean to be a woman—for me? How do I fit in this category, “woman?”

Such negotiation can help people reach some kind of integration whose general purpose is self-acceptance. Perhaps some apparently conflicting identities may serve to qualify one another into reconciliation. Some may be gradually let go. New identities may arise, through reflection, and regroup, so to speak, the behaviours that until then were grouped separately and in opposition. Alternatively, one may accept both sides of the contrariety as parts of oneself that can be given their own time and place for expression.

Persona in a World Full of Clichés

In her comments on Lear, Korsgaard remarks that the categories of womanhood that trouble Lear’s patient are “most banal” (“Irony” 81). Indeed, Lear’s example—as well as the examples I suggested so far for such tensions—manifests social clichés. His patients exhibit behaviours describable by two poles of society’s stereotypes, prejudices and unqualified moralisms, as if a woman must be either “feminine” or “boyish,” as if love relationships are either “for life” or “dalliances,” as if one is either “loyal” or a “free-spirit,” or either good and “self-sacrificing,” or bad and “selfish” etc. Society offers us many clichés to label ourselves with and some of them may infect our private persona. How did Lear’s patient get caught in opposing clichés? 

Lear seems to claim that all such people need is some philosophical therapy that would liberate them from this one glitch of their private persona into a superficial dichotomy, inherited from the social world. Are things that simple? Are all the rejected spontaneous behaviours that do not sit well with our endorsed private persona unified by just one social label that comprises what Lear calls our “core fantasy” (e.g. 46; 57)?

Our spontaneous behaviours, whether or not we acknowledge or endorse them, give rise to quite a few identifiable patterns, which in turn organise our emotional life. The tensions Lear speaks about are only one such identifiable structuration. That people’s spontaneous emotions and gestures follow various patterns is familiar from ordinary experience. Although we cannot exactly predict the reactions of those we know well, although they may surprise us, we are usually able to make sense of their reaction in light of their past reactions. Our various mannerisms, gestures and emotional reactions lend themselves to groupings in various patterns of reactions.

On the one hand, these patterns do not follow a clear rule (or we would be able to predict each other’s emotions much more easily and reliably). And on the other hand, each identifiable pattern brings to light some common aspect in which the behaviours of a pattern are similar to one another. Some reactions resemble one another straightforwardly, like the irritation I feel often with the same rude waiter. This does not mean that each time I see the same rude waiter I will get irritated but, rather, that when I do get irritated, it is partly because of the similarity of the situation now to certain past irritations.

Other reactions, as Freud noticed, resemble one another symbolically, such as the resentment one may feel toward one’s female boss here and now symbolising the resentment he has (secretly) harboured for many years toward his mother. As Freud claims, this symbolic connection is also a causal connection and the current resentment is partly caused by the old resentment. Some reactions may be the inverse of one another as in cases of mixed feelings, such as the joy for and the envy of the same friend who achieved something that we wanted for ourselves. Ambivalence, as Freud repeatedly discovered in his case studies, pervades many of our emotional reactions.

In Emotions and the Limits of Reason, I propose that our spontaneous emotional life is stitched together through imaginative connections. That is, every reaction of ours is similar to, or symbolic of, the inverse of, or somehow imaginatively relates to, many other reactions from our past. The emotional imaginative network thus gives rise to many traceable patterns. And for each pattern one could, in principle, articulate the respects in which the reactions that follow it connect with one another imaginatively, through similarities and symbols or inversions etc.

When we articulate thematic threads that run through such patterns, we can identify various cares and concerns that emerge from our emotional-imaginative network about people and things, ideas, virtues and styles of social interaction. If we are able to identify patterns of both the reactions we endorse and the reactions we normally ignore, the cares and concerns that emerge from our imaginative-emotional network would include those we ordinarily endorse as well as those that we normally fail to recognise.

The similarities and other imaginative connections among our various spontaneous reactions do not come at first instance with “subtitles” or with a list of the respects in which they hold. Yet, given that these respects can be articulated in language, these similarities make implicit use of familiar labels. And some of these labels are clichés; they are prejudiced and stereotyped models for being a woman or a parent or good etc.

Sometimes, an imaginative emotional network can also give rise to inversions among various patterns such that one group of patterns falls under one social label and another group of patterns under the contrary social label. Such a person may endorse one label and ignore the counter-label. As Freud remarks, “the unconscious [is] the precise contrary of the conscious”(“Notes” 180). Consciously, we do not like to appear contradictory. But, to paraphrase another Freudian maxim, the unconscious knows no contradiction or negation. Imaginatively speaking, this person occupies two—apparently conflicting—positive prototypes of womanhood or adulthood etc., one through her endorsed private persona and another without acknowledgment. 

But there is no reason to suppose that inversion is the only kind of unity available nor that overcoming it is a once and for all effort, as Lear suggests. Our private persona may inhabit more than one such clichéd couple of apparently conflicting stereotypes that may or may not cause emotional turmoil at various stages in life. On the picture I propose, we may dig ourselves out of one cliché about our private persona and then find ourselves in another. Alternatively, the same cliché may return to haunt us. The solutions we may find to our personalised Socratic question in Lear’s clinic—such as “what is a woman?” or, “what is a sacrifice?”—do not comprise the final word, not for society and not for oneself.

Living with Yourself 

There is no graduation from therapy or immunisation to clichéd inversions or to the pathologies they may cause at some stage in our lives. Perhaps what one can acquire is an attentive attitude to one’s spontaneous behaviours, including those that are not compatible with one’s endorsed private persona. The skill involves the capacity to “listen” to one’s emotions and passing thoughts, to notice one’s non-reflective gestures and ways of interacting and let them inform one’s endorsed cares and concerns and valued styles, character traits and virtues. The goal is not to unify one’s private persona and reach some ideal peace where one is exactly what one wants to be. The goal is, rather, to attend to the spontaneous interruptions of one’s endorsed private persona and at times be prepared to doubt or negotiate the way one sees and wants to see oneself.


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self-image; Lear; Freud; emotions; imagination; persona

Copyright (c) 2014 Talia Morag

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