What Do You Try to Hide About Yourself?
A new study highlights the emotional costs of hiding your true identity.
Posted June 22, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
What do you want other people to know about you? Your appearance sends out immediate cues about your age, race or ethnicity, sex, weight, and height. These are features of your visible identity. What others can’t necessarily guess by looking at you are the so-called concealable identities having to do with whatever illnesses you might have, your sexual orientation, and your nationality. They may be able to guess your religion, but only if you choose to reveal this through your dress or jewelry.
People conceal aspects of their identity for a variety of reasons. You might feel that you’d be rejected by the people in your social network if they knew the inner truth about you, or you might feel that you’ll be prohibited from receiving certain benefits at work. You might even try to conceal a visible identity, such as your age, if you feel this will help you avoid stigma.
There may be no particular reason for you to hide your identity other than your preference for maintaining your privacy. However, if your invisible identity is one that carries a stigma, you will reveal it only to those you trust the most. According to a new study by Southern Illinois University’s Robyn Berkley and colleagues (2019), individuals with visible “stigmas” (in some contexts) such as gender, race, and physical handicap are always “on display,” requiring them to prepare in advance, and manage, social interactions that place them in an out-group. People with “concealable stigmas,” they note, such as mental illness, criminal record, or sexual orientation, “have the option to hide the identity, ‘passing as one of the favored in-group and avoiding the negative consequences of being part of the out-group” (p. 428).
If you have an identity that you are trying to hide, you know how exhausting it can be due to your having to be on guard at all times. According to Berkley et al., the need to disguise yourself is a form of “emotional labor.” You engage in “surface acting” in which you try to fit in as much as possible with everyone else, leading you to experience a sense of inauthenticity.
At some point, though, you might decide that it’s time to let your true identity become visible. Perhaps you’ve tried to hide your age by coloring your hair, getting plastic surgery, using makeup concealers, and wearing certain clothes. This takes time and a good deal of effort, but you feel it’s worth it because to seem your true age might make others consciously or unconsciously start to discriminate against you. What determines when you reach the point where you decide all that concealing just isn’t worth it? How will you then let it slip that you are older than you have appeared?
Berkley and her fellow authors were interested in invisible identity disclosure in the workplace, using “affective events theory” as their framework. This theory predicts that as the term implies, your emotions play an important role in your workplace attitudes and feelings of engagement with your organization. Hiding your invisible identity can cause you to feel socially isolated, depressed, and anxious, affecting not only your workplace performance, but also your health.
Citing the previous literature, the Southern Illinois researchers list some of the examples of stigmatized and concealable workplace identities, including hidden medical conditions, mental illness, sexual orientation, pregnancy, minority religious group membership, non-traditional family structures (being a single parent), having a criminal record, and surviving sexual abuse. As you think about your own hidden identities, what other forms might you believe apply to you? Under what circumstances would you reveal them to other people, and what do you think the costs might be?
The model of identity disclosure that Berkley et al. build examines the factors that lead to the choice of a disclosure strategy, continuing through the factors that intervene, and then finally the consequences of the disclosure process. The individual factors that precede the disclosure strategy include emotional exhaustion associated with concealment, the extent to which you are in touch with your emotions (emotional intelligence), and the importance to you of having a well-integrated sense of identity. Your likelihood of disclosure depends, additionally, on the emotional culture of your organization and whether it is permissible or not to express your true feelings. Your disclosure strategy will then determine whether you feel you have to fake your identity to meet workplace expectations; “deep act," changing your feelings to meet workplace expectations; or allow your self to show through. You will also be affected by the extent to which you value authenticity.
Taking all of these factors into account, the Southern Illinois researchers propose that you will be most likely to fabricate or conceal your identity if the context is a toxic one unfavorable toward people with your identity or you don’t have a very good handle on your inner emotional state. You might purposefully create false information about yourself, actively hide your identity, or just avoid conversations in which your true identity risks being revealed.
If you move toward a deeper emotional commitment, and you judge the environment to seem more favorable, you might start to let out signals about your true self, at least to a trusted confidant.
Finally, you will be most likely to experience your genuine emotions in a culture that permits individual expression of emotion and your commitment to personal authenticity is high. At that point, you’ll let your identity be revealed and allow it to become normalized or accepted by your work environment. Indeed, as the authors point out, when workers are able to express their true identities, the workplace benefits not only because the workers are happier, but also because others learn and adapt to you.
In an ageist workplace, returning to the previous example, your letting your true age be known can educate other workers about why their ageist beliefs might need revision. Everyone can benefit, in other words, when people share their invisible identities and grow from each other in the process. Such acceptance can also help people feel safer about expressing their true selves.
To sum up, ask yourself what you're trying to hide, and what it would take to get you to reveal your true self. Think about the cost of letting your identity shine through versus the effort it takes to keep hidden facts a secret. As you start to imagine taking the disguise away, the load will lighten. If the Barkley et al. model holds true, you will feel more satisfied with yourself, happier with your job (if this is in a workplace context), more engaged in your relationships, less anxious and depressed, more socially supported, and higher in self-esteem. Expressing your true identity can be a challenging process, but these positive rewards can only add to your ability to experience self-acceptance and ultimately long-term fulfillment.
Berkley, R. A., Beard, R., & Daus, C. S. (2019). The emotional context of disclosing a concealable stigmatized identity: A conceptual model. Human Resource Management Review, 29(3), 428–445. doi:10.1016/j.hrmr.2018.09.001