By: Emily Ladau, Guest Blogger
It didn't occur to me while spray-painting canvas with one of my best friends that our latest artistic venture was actually a metaphor for my life. Using a cardboard stencil I made (interestingly, from tracing Nicki Minaj's side profile on a magazine cover), my friend and I taped it down three times in a row, creating a multilayered female form. First black, then turquoise, then gold. I was in love with it immediately. Seeing three faces of the same woman struck a chord with me, though I couldn't quite put my finger on why.
It wasn't until a couple months later, while I was in the fetal position in bed at noon on a weekday when I was supposed to be working, ignoring my mother's gentle urges to get up and push through another day of depression, that my appreciation of the piece finally made sense. By this point, the canvas had been hung up above my make-up table next to my bed so I'd have a little reminder of my friend and our lovely day together after she had spontaneously moved across the country. Seeing that I’d made no progress getting upright, my mother came in, pointed at the picture, and said, "You know, it just occurred to me that this is a symbol of who you are. You're three-faced."
Contrary to how that sounds, my mom wasn’t trying to say that I'm a much worse version of a two-faced bitch. I understood her perfectly. She was referring to my three distinct personas: public, personal, and private.
This idea of multiple personas certainly isn’t a unique revelation. Billy Joel was singing the truth about it in “The Stranger” long before I existed. But even though everyone has different faces for different people and situations, I think it’s become a much bigger issue for millennials in the age of social media.
Why are we compelled to create illusions in front of some people, but not others? Why do we keep certain things about ourselves totally hidden? I get that keeping parts of who were are either personal and private is a facet of human nature, but when did it become so taboo to be real?
So many people, myself included, seem heavily focused on giving off the impression that they are fine, just fine. We put up pictures or statuses about things in our lives that are cute, or exciting. We brag about great news. We even post mundane updates to let everyone know that we’re just fine. After all, no one ever likes a person who posts a bunch of negativity. Hence, the advent of social media has fostered a culture of people trying to paint pictures of ourselves that lead people to perceive perfect realities – versions of ourselves that we only wish were always real.
I'm totally guilty of this. I recently posted a Facebook status that read: “Just saw a marquee that said ‘Smile. It increases your face value.’ Totally cheesy but my face value definitely increased when I read it.” While I did genuinely smile after reading that, I’ll confess my underlying motivation in sharing was so people would think “Emily's so positive and upbeat!” It was a way for me to cultivate my ideal public persona.
Maintaining this persona can be mentally exhausting, especially because of the career path I've chosen. I have a physical disability and work as a disability rights activist, so one of my top advocacy goals is to bring attention to the fact that disability should not evoke pity. This makes me feel like I constantly have something to prove. I rarely write anything that gives off too many "woe is me" vibes, and when I do write or talk about an unhappy time, I try to be incredibly cautious with how I frame it so as not to invoke the pity I am so fervently advocating against.
Part of this stems from the fact that the majority of my work is done online, so I'm connected with lots of my professional contacts. In that way, keeping negativity to myself is a career strategy, which I know is a common practice. But, career aside, having a disability has in many ways caused me to spend my life with my guard up, probably more than most people.
Although I naturally let my closest friends and family in much more than other people I know, I am often even guarded around them. I absolutely confide in my friends about tough situations that I'm facing, but especially when my depression was at its worst at the end of last year, I did everything I could to hide from the world just how bad things really were.
Most days, I had to switch on my public persona at the drop of a hat. I'd be sobbing at my computer (something I could do, fortunately or unfortunately, since my office is my living room) when I'd get a work-related phone call. I'd put on my professional voice, schmoozing as though it was effortless and I was thrilled to be talking to the person on the other end. Then I'd hang up and try to figure out how to get through the rest of the day.
My friends would text me to say hi or my extended family would ask how I was doing, and even though most people knew some of what I was dealing with, I tried to keep from sounding like a total drama queen. I’ve always been like this. I worry that sharing too much will somehow diminish my public persona, make me seem burdensome, or cause people to see my disability as a weakness. So, I got in the habit of maintaining various levels of self-censorship in an attempt to stay in control of each of my three faces.
Fake it ‘til you make it, they say, right? This is what we all try to do. I just wonder if it’s actually working. For instance, when people ask how you’re doing, I think everyone’s instinct is to want to appear in control, so we sugar coat things and just say “Fine, thanks, how about you?” We all have our own personal issues, and we assume no one really wants to hear our real answer. And I guess the truth is most people don't. In the case of so many interactions, asking someone how they are is nothing more than a formality, and if we answer with anything more complicated than “Good, and yourself?” things might get a little weird.
But sometimes keeping up with three faces sucks. Sometimes I'm tired of trying to leave a carefully thought out impression so people will see that I’m in control of my life, so they’ll see that my disability has nothing on me. When my depression was to the point of being unbearable, there were days where the only response I really had when asked how I was, was to yell “The guy I loved moved to a different state to finish college and dumped me for another woman, I'm miserable working from home, I hate the way I look, I shouldn't have just eaten that extra piece of chocolate, I haven't washed my hair in a few days, I have no Friday night plans, and my neck is killing me because I have residual pain from the life-threatening spinal fusion I had, so I'm fine, just fine, thanks, how are you?” I'd never say such a thing though, because that would sound ridiculous. I'd put on my happy face, because replies to an outburst like that would be something along the lines of “Girl, get a grip and deal with yourself.” So instead of being honest, I bottled it up day after day.
I feared that if I let people in, I would seem broken. I felt that I needed to keep up a façade if I wanted to get anywhere in life, either personally or professionally. Faces one, two, and three each have always had their rightful place, and that’s just the way it’s been. But in so many ways, I stopped being true to myself so I could overcompensate for my disability. Now, I’m realizing that it’s time to work on taking my three faces and finding a way to reconcile them. It’s time for me to stop being ashamed of the whole person that I am. Real life is messy. People are vulnerable. We all have issues. And that’s okay. So here I am, taking a deep breath and letting my guard down, one face at a time.
We all juggle different roles, so how do you keep it real?
- What are some of the pros/cons of keeping up with different personas?
- When was the last time you shed a role? How did that feel?
- Why is it hard or uncomfortable to let people see our "real" faces?
Emily Ladau is a passionate disability rights advocate whose career began at the age of 10, when she appeared on several episodes of Sesame Street to educate children about her life with a physical disability. Emily blogs at Words I Wheel By about her experiences as a disabled young adult, challenging people to consider all aspects of the disability experience in new ways. She loves forming new connections, and invites you to connect with her via Words I Wheel By on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @emily_ladau.