Jekyll In Public, Hyde at Home? Our Fragmented Selves

It's damaging to deny one aspect of personality while functioning under another.

Posted Jul 17, 2013

Donna lived a life of secrets. She existed in two worlds: one that encompassed her public sphere and one that encompassed her private sphere. On the outside, she appeared competent and pleasant, not overly friendly, but hardly rude in any way. People basically commented that she kept her distance. Publicly Donna looked like she had her life together. Privately, Donna felt as if she were falling apart.

Growing up, Donna had learned to separate herself into two people. The one on the outside had it all together; the one on the inside didn't but only came out when she was alone. The outside person was collected. The inside person was a mess. Donna came to see me when the could no longer live two lives. Increasingly, the private person was coming out in public situations. Frustrated at not being able to maintain her composure any longer, she finally decided to try to put her halves back together.

As Donna shared her life with me, it became evident that she had learned this pattern early in life. Growing up with a strict Christian background, she had gone to church every Sunday she wasn't sick. Her father was a leader at church, and her mother was involved in a lot of church activities. Because of that, Donna and her siblings were expected to be always on their best behavior at church and around church people.

"Sunday best" meant more than just clothing as Donna was growing up. It meant changing how you acted. When Donna was with her father at church, he would put his arm around her shoulders and brag about how well she was doing in school. At home, though, he would rant and rave about her failure to have A's in every subject. At church her mother spoke quietly and calmly to her, taking time in front of others to explain whatever it was she needed Donna to do. At home her mother was short-tempered and exasperated when Donna didn't immediately understand what was expected of her.

Donna had grown up in a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" home. And just like Dr. Jekyll, she learned to conceal the identity of Mr. Hyde at all costs. No one must know she lived with a monster.

Concealment, deception, gentleness in public but harshness in private -- these are the signs of living with a Jekyll and Hyde. It could be your parent, your spouse, or even yourself.

All of us fragment ourselves to some degree. We are the child, the parent, the spouse, the friend, the employer, the employee, the teacher, the lover, the loner. We can have different moods depending on where we are. We can adjust our personalities to function under whatever circumstances we find ourselves. That flexibility is healthy. It is like our bodies responding to different levels of stress. Our breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure all react and change according to what is happening to us.

What is damaging is the denial of one aspect of our personality when we are functioning under another. When we're calm, we cannot deny we get angry. When we're happy, we cannot deny we get sad. When we're patient, we cannot deny we get impatient. When we deny certain aspects of our personality is taken to the extreme, we experience fragmentation. When fragmentation of the personality is taken to the extreme, it leads to the compartmentalizing of all of life's activities. In other words, when I'm in public I can only act and feel this way, but when I'm in private I can do whatever I want. When I'm in public I'll only show a certain side of myself to others, but when I'm in private anything goes. When I'm in public I'll wear a mask of serenity, but when I'm in private I'll rip it off to show the chaos underneath. When I'm in public I'll show that I love you, but in private I'll prove it's a lie.

Living with a Jekyll and Hyde means living with mixed messages. He loves me; he loves me not; he loves me; he loves me not -- except it's not the flower petals he's tearing off, it's pieces of your heart. Living with a Jekyll and Hyde means living a life of secrets. No one must know what your private life is really like.

We all come as a package deal. Parts of ourselves we like and other parts we don't. A prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr goes something like this:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

By doing this, we grant ourselves and others unconditional love. We send the message, "You don't have to be perfect for me to love you, and I don't have to be perfect to love myself." We need to be less of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and more of a "what you see is what you get."

2009, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse, Gregory L. Jantz, Revell.