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It’s a known fact that we act differently in different situations and around different people. Have you ever watched your child act completely differently around their friends than they do at home? Or perhaps you’ve witnessed how differently they act around one parent than the other. To some extent, this is perfectly normal. You might act relaxed and funny around your close friends at a pool party, but act seriously and professionally at work. And then you might act completely differently around your family. Everyone does this to a certain degree. You learn to adapt to your situation and act accordingly.
In psychological terms, we refer to the real self and the pseudo self. The real self is who you really are, including all of the good parts and all of the flaws. It’s who you show to those closest to you, those whom you trust and who accept you for who you really are. The pseudo self is the way you present outside the safety of those closest to you. It often involves pretending to be the person you wish you were or the person you think you’re supposed to be.
The concept was actually coined in 1960 by D. W. Winnicott, who described the real self or “true self” to “describe a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience, and a feeling of being alive, having a real self. The false self, by contrast, Winnicott saw as a defensive façade – one which in extreme cases could leave its holders lacking spontaneity and feeling dead and empty, behind a mere appearance of being real”.
When the real self and the pseudo self are drastically different, that is often a sign of an unhealthy person and of many mental disorders. Remember, this concept was coined in 1960. I now believe that we’ve gone even beyond this. It seems as if most of us now have a real self, a pseudo self, and even a social media self.
We all know that what we see others portray on social media is a selective and not very real representation of who they are. It makes sense on many levels that we only portray that which is positive, happy, praiseworthy, and such, and that we even choose to only post photos that we look really great in. Celebrities have even been known to hire people to filter and edit their photos before they post them so they can maintain this image of perfection. Others, including (maybe especially) teens and children, try to emulate them.
Everyone wants to be liked and admired, and we all know that this is especially true for teenagers. The real risks of not being yourself are many, though. For teens, their main developmental task is to form an identity separate from their family of origin. This is typically a difficult and tumultuous time, since it takes a while to really figure out who you are.
Before social media, it was hard, but not nearly as hard as it is now. Teens tend to view themselves through their social media self, and this is largely based on how they are perceived by others on social media. Got a lot of likes on that photo…great, I’m still popular and people like me. Negative comments or not many likes…wow, nobody likes me; I need to step it up a bit.
Stepping it up can look like buying designer clothes, appearing in provocative outfits, speaking in a way that isn’t at all who you are, but that you think your friends will like, going along with the crowd, even it means saying or doing things that might get you in trouble. Many teens have posted things that they knew were completely inappropriate. They just didn’t care. The validation was more important than the negative consequences.
So, what can you do to be more authentic and to help your teens be more authentic? Here are few tips:
- Pay attention to how differently you act in different situations and around different people. Ask yourself why you are doing that and what it is that you are trying to hide.
- Work on the parts of yourself that you don’t like or that you know are flawed. Everyone can stand to benefit from this.
- Accept that nobody, not even celebrities are perfect. Embrace that idea and love yourself, even with your flaws. This is the best example you can set for your children.
- Show your children and teens how celebrities alter their actual photos. Make sure they know that what they see is not real.
- Help build a healthy self-esteem in your children. Love them with all their flaws. Let them know they are good enough and worthy of love, just the way they are.
- Call out your teens when they are putting on an act. Don’t embarrass them in front of their friends, but you can say something like, “Wow, you sure were acting like a different person tonight in front of your friends. It seemed like you were working really hard to try and impress them.” You don’t have to attach a negative judgment to it Just call out the fact that they did it.
- Understand that anyone’s image on social media is selective and incomplete. While someone might post all of their children’s accomplishments and great pictures of trips and family outings, don’t think for a moment that they don’t also have fights, failing grades, mental disorders, financial struggles, and all of the other stuff that happens to every family. Make sure your children know this, too.
Most importantly, remember that the pseudo self hides the pain and suffering of the real self. This is precisely why every time a celebrity commits suicide, everyone seems so shocked. Just like so many others, they managed to mask their problems and their true feelings from those around them. Remember that people try to be the people that they think they should be. Learn to be non-judgmental so that people don’t feel that they have to pretend around you. And always find someone you trust to share your feelings with. Don’t ever feel that you need to keep all of your pain inside and pretend to be someone other than your true self.