Face Value

The science of nonverbal communication

Jodie Foster's Divided Self

Jodie Foster is not alone in dividing her private self from her public self.

Jodie Foster’s acceptance speech at the 2013 Golden Globe Awards for the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award was not your classic inventory of thanks to all those co-workers and collaborators, spouses and offspring, agents and advocates and let us not forget, high school teachers, who made it all possible. Instead her speech was more like a compressed Samuel Beckett play. It was a performance and the audience was cast into the role of watching “Waiting for Foster” who, like Godot, never really showed.

In her speech, Foster set the stage for high drama with every pause and vocal inflection, intimating that she was about to declare that she was gay; yet, the climax was that she was “single.” She begged for privacy yet ended with a plea “to be understood deeply.” She more than hinted at imminent retirement with “I may never be up on the stage again” but later reversed course declaring that she was now more into acting than she had ever been.

What is noteworthy about Foster’s complicated soliloquy, however, is not that it was an idiosyncratic acceptance speech or even her status as an acting heavyweight. Rather, what stands out is something that is actually not at all uncommon, a psychological reality that our research group calls the “divided self.”

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The divided self is not to be confused with a split personality or a dissociative identity. It is the result of living a life filled with constant attention to and monitoring of the boundary between one’s private self and one’s public self. The private self is the life lived at “home”, the place where one can safely be one’s self. The public self is the life lived “out there.” It is not one place—it is where people work, study, play, and socialize. The person with a divided self works incessantly to keep the in-here and out-there clearly segregated.

It is true that we all keep parts of ourselves just to ourselves while revealing other aspects to a special few and sometimes to practically anyone. A person with a divided self, in contrast, is perpetually motivated to conceal a particular private-self for fear that bad consequences will result should that particular self become known. Given society’s tendency to stigmatize, people with a divided self feel that their private self is an undesirable fact, a blot on their character that should therefore be concealed.

In a soon to be published report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology*, we studied gay men who are “out” at home but not at work. We also studied students who are devoutly religious at home but closed-mouthed about that commitment with fellow students at a secular university. The gay men and religious students showed similar signs of having a divided self. For example, gay men were faster than heterosexual men at sorting personality traits that described themselves into at home or at work categories. Likewise, religious individuals were faster than non-religious students at sorting traits into self-at-school and self-at-home categories. In other words, people with need-to-conceal stigmatized identities were faster at categorizing personal attributes into public and private selves than were those who did not separate their private and public selves into clearly dissociated domains.

The gay men we studied did not see themselves as having a different personality in private from the one they had in public. Nor did they see themselves as possessing more negative traits in public than in private than those without a divided self. They differed from their counterparts only in how aware they were of the boundary between their two selves and their apparent need to constantly monitor it.

Being aware of the distinction between private and public has a psychological downside. It is cognitively taxing to keep one’s mind alert for possible slippage; it is emotionally draining to make sure that that which is concealed stays concealed. Indeed, we found that gay men who made a sharp distinction between their private and public selves showed greater social stress and depression than those who felt they had no need to hide a central part of who they are.

In the Harvard Law Review, legal scholar Cheryl Harris highlighted the psychic cost of having a divided self in describing her grandmother, a woman who passed as white: “Each evening, my grandmother, tired and worn, retraced her steps home, laid aside her mask, and reentered herself. Day in and day out she made herself invisible, then visible again” at a cost too precious to conceive. She left the job some years later, finding the strain too much to bear.”

At the close of her speech at the Golden Globe Awards, Jodie Foster also alluded to costs in having a divided self when she articulated two personal aspirations that are unfortunately not possible when one works so hard at hiding the private self from the public self. She said, “I want to be understood deeply” and “to be not so very lonely...”

 

 

* Sedlovskaya, A., Purdie-Vaughns, A., Eibach, R., & LaFrance, M. (in press, 2013). Internalizing the closet: Concealment heightens the cognitive distinction between public and private selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

 

Marianne LaFrance, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Yale University.

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