“Oh yes, I’m the great pretender, Pretending that I’m doing well, My need is such I pretend too much, I’m lonely but no one can tell…” —From Buck Ram’s “The Great Pretender”
These days too many of us lack an identity. We may say we are our own persons and claim to be independent. Yet we are the first to run to the mall because everybody else is doing that. We may claim to be happy with our lives. Yet we might be consumed with envy when someone else has what we don’t have. We may say that our success is self-made. Yet we crumble like a cookie when someone even slightly criticizes us. Some of us deceive ourselves into thinking we are our own persons when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.
Pretending to have an identity hurts our relationships as we may suppress our disagreements with others for fear of being disliked, have insincere relationships, and live with diminished life satisfaction. However, the one more hurt by self-deception is ourselves. When we can’t be who we are, we inevitably see ourselves as ugly and unlovable.
You may ask, “What’s the harm in pretending? Doesn’t everyone do that?” Actually pretending isn’t harmful in itself. We all do it. Actors, salesmen, and ordinary people put on a certain face to be effective in their craft or to protect their deserved privacy. The real harm comes from pretending when we do it for the wrong reasons or don’t realize that we are pretending at all. Sheldon Kopp, a wise psychotherapist, once said, “It’s not the pretending, it’s the pretending that we are not pretending that hurts us.” When we withhold information that others have a right to know, put on a false face to hide our inadequacies or overrate just how strong-minded we really are is when pretending hurts us. Living the false life robs us of kinship with others and makes us persistently lonely.
Modern life cultivates pretending. So many of us are desperate to fit in, we adopt an “attitude” and pretend to not care what other people think of us. In our culture people with an attitude are idolized. Others want to be around idols, as witnessed by the millions who worship at the altar of “American Idol.” Unfortunately, arrogance, being “all that and acting like the star are often confused with confidence. Just the opposite is true as these behaviors hide the private world of deep insecurity in people with big egos. Looking strong is not the same as being strong.
The problem of identity loss is only getting worse. Young people are especially prone to identity loss. Research indicates that too many college students these days suffer from a “Peter Pan” syndrome. They may be technically smart but are overly compliant and conformist, avoid controversial stances, and overall defer to authority figures. Literally they don’t want to grow up into full adults as they’ve been trained all their lives to have their moms and dads solve their problems for them. Why would they suddenly opt now in college years to have their own identities when it’s just too comfortable for them not to grow up. So they become Peter Pans. Furthermore young people get ambushed by careerism. The overemphasis on career success to the detriment of learning for its own sake leaves many young people on a treadmill chasing the proverbial carrot on the stick instead of slowing down and getting to know themselves and deciding their own life course. Additionally, social factors—technology replacing human interactions, personal legal identities being bought and stolen, civic and community relationships diminishing, and parents being increasingly absent in the emotional lives of their families—all contribute to mass anomie. These days, being your own person are mere words. In fact, we are a long ways from becoming “An army of one” as our national military recruiters would like us to believe.
What’s the harm in lacking an identity?
Some of us disappear…simply because we are not ready to accept our deep dark secrets.There are evident problems with being invisible. You lose respect for yourself when you constantly have to dance to other people’s expectations. Even when you succeed you can’t be secure since tomorrow only brings another set of external expectations. You have to live with chronic anxiety of not fitting in unless you conform. The responsibilities for pleasing others becomes endless as what was asked of you today will not suffice for tomorrow. You are never truly accepted for who you are and have to live with chronic loneliness and unexpressed alienation even when things are good. More subtle difficulties arise as well. When you don’t know yourself, you struggle with even being a person. You may constantly waffle in making decisions and have problems with commitment and resist leadership in relationships and work. Consequently, in the absence of a core, you may be forced to resort to gamesmanship. The game of life may be like blindly playing darts. Sometimes you hit the mark; sometimes you don’t. Eventually others who can see—your spouse, children or boss—will run your life for you. You will feel you don’t have a life. When you lack an internal presence to reflect on yourself, you will be prone to depression, divorce, and emotional dysregulation. You will hate being alone with yourself. You will see little point to life. Is it any wonder you pretend?
How do you know when you lack an identity?
Having an identity means that you have an accurate and balanced view of yourself including strengths and weaknesses that you can articulate and you have a respect for others who differ from you. You have an identity when you stand up for what you believe in despite losing perceived benefits. Finally you have an identity when you respect that right of others to have their identities and are concerned with what they think of you. Some signals of a lack of identity include:
- Continually trying to make people like you.
- Claiming to not care at all what others think of you.
- Persistent avoidance of disagreement or conflict with others.
- Lacking awareness of your own feelings, physical sensations, thoughts or expectations.
- Chronic spaciness and an altered sense of reality.
- Oblivion or indifference to the emotional needs of others.
- Inability to make decisions or state a personal preference.
- Chronic anxiety over being alone or left out.
- Continuing problems with envy, jealousy and holding grudges.
- Depression and addiction problems.
- Living through someone else’s life glories.
- Persistent caretaking and needing to be needed.
Why we may prefer to be identity less
Despite its flagrant disadvantages, being a mere shadow of our potential self has its benefits. Some of us are living in truly threatening circumstances and doing a disappearing act is our way to cope. If we are in a physically abusive relationship, conformity may be our key to survival. Having a three car garage, several credit cards to pay off and three kids to put through college may prompt us to submit to a very undesirable but lucrative workplace setting until we can be in better circumstances down the road. Certainly when we lack emotional skills to know ourselves, much less express ourselves around critical others, due to our own childhood limitations some of us may decide to sit on the sidelines of life and watch life pass us by. Noe of us deserves to be judged harshly for simply surviving and coping with the traumas and real threats in our life. We do the best we can.
However, some of us may choose to remain identity less due to perceived but not real threats to our lives. In reality the threats are internal, not external. We do a disappearing act in life and only pretend to be present when we fear some gravely unacceptable aspect of ourselves may be revealed to others. We become stoic and can’t allow others to see the most feared aspects of ourselves. We deceive ourselves into believing that if we can spare others from knowing our big, bad secrets than we ourselves will be safe from them.
Some of us disappear—by having inflated or deflated false public selves—simply because we are not ready to accept our deep dark secrets. Usually our secrets are nothing so great once they are exposed but keeping them hidden imprisons us in permanent shame and selflessness. Some of us become so good at hiding that we get others, like a spouse, to fill in our missing pieces for us. The perceived benefits of being a “kept man” or “trophy wife” may be too hard to resist. We may even forget that we are only pretending.
Getting a self
Getting a self is a lifelong retraining process, not a dramatic one-time act in itself. Although there are things we can do alone to foster a personal identity—such as keeping a feelings journal, reading a book on self-assertion and selfhood (Who Am I? Really by Sheldon Kopp), or developing a beloved but long-lost art or hobby, we really can’t do it all on our own. We all need other trustworthy people to have a self. Having a self always occurs through caring relationships that accept us for who we already are.
Having a self always occurs through caring relationships that accept us for who we already are.Some of us have one trusted friend we can be more open to than we have been. Some of us may need a professional guide to help us open up and even recognize who we really are. Some of us may have no idea who we really are because we have never allowed somebody to know us or else we have distracted ourselves by over involvement with another person’s problems. Attending a regular Alanon group may very much help us with a sense of self. The show-and-tell of having encouraging, and honest feedback from another human is how we develop a self. Our brains turn on and we learn who we are when get up close and personal.
It may seem odd and paradoxical that we need other people to be fully independent. Too many of us feel to be our own person we shouldn’t need others. Just the opposite is true. We become independent when we emotionally take in and incorporate the loving support of others. Love gives us life. Recall the wise words in the marvelous story, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams: “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child love you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”
John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men.
This article was first published in the September 2008 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn a small commission via some of the links on this page – at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support the website.
Last Updated on August 20, 2023