Mental health and your hidden self

Hiding yourself repeatedly can lead to mental illness. Photo by Milan Surbatovic on Unsplash

You like others to see you as virtuous.  So you hide your ‘bad bits’, and show off your ‘good bits’.  It’s not just you; it’s one of the most prevalent characteristics in the human world.  The habit of hiding the ‘bad’ self, and promoting the ‘good’ self.

We can see it in politicians.  Professionally, they need to stay effective.  To stay effective, they need to carry people with them.  So they dissemble – they show a false front.  They construct a whole public persona around a set of opinions.  This public persona is a mass of attempted ‘good bits’.  Priests often have to do the same thing.  And many so-called professionals.  Anyone who has a public role must try to project ‘good bits’, while hiding ‘bad bits’.

This has an effect on our mental health in two ways.  Firstly, the effort of pretending tires us out, so that we are often exhausted when not projecting ourselves, recovering for the next episode of ‘acting good’.  Secondly, the hidden self must be heard, and so it seeps through into our behaviour in unpredictable ways.  We become, in essence, two people, the public face, and the private face.

You can see this, for instance, in the dynamics of some couples.  They argue in private, but seem charming in public.  One partner might be controlling and abusive when the couple are alone, but then switches to being apparenty happy and cooperative when the couple are exposed to the public gaze.  The other partner might be submissive and appeasing in private, but then switch to appearing in control and confident in public.

What is the mental health price we pay for such hidden lives?  Firstly, you will notice yourself becoming exhausted, and more and more wanting to withdraw from public gaze.  This is because, like a failing heart, your will to keep projecting this facade gets tired… your body is trying to protect itself, and withdrawal is its mechanism.  Secondly, you may notice illogical, hidden behaviours.  Typical behaviours include: angry outbursts, followed by profuse apologies; crying meltdowns, followed by attempts to pretend they never happened; periods of silent withdrawal, followed by periods of befriending the world again.

The hidden self, and the need to maintain it, thus results ultimately in a tired, withdrawn person, liable to fits of anger, worry or crying, who often withdraws from others, but is occasionally sociable.  The tiredness will often express as depression, and the anger, worry and crying will often express as anxiety.  (The anger will often be denied, and converted into ‘disappointment in others’, because we want to maintain a saintly illusion.)

If we notice this in ourselves, how can we find our way to recovery?  The path to recovery involves reversing the pattern of hiding, or, if you like, we need to ‘unhide’.

Unhiding involves letting your ‘bad self’, your ‘shadow self’, speak, so that you can openly acknowledge it and deal with it.  Some people worry that this means doing bad things.  It doesn’t.  It just means finding a way for your hidden self to be expressed.  It can be an immense relief to share these hidden aspects of yourself with trusted others.  It is the reason why trusted friendships, and effective counselling and therapeutic relationships, are experienced as liberating.


I am always trying to hide pieces of myself that I think the world will not like.  I dress myself up to emphasise my ‘good bits’ and hide my ‘bad bits’.  This is exhausting.  It also means that my hidden self bursts out of me in unpredictable ways, and at unpredictable times.

Perhaps I can relax a little, and find ways to be more compassionate with my ‘hidden self’.  Perhaps I can learn to love parts of my appearance which I try to disguise with make up or clever clothing.  Perhaps I can keep a private journal in which I acknowledge my more unpalatable emotions.  Maybe I can share them with trusted friends on occasion.  Or maybe I can, in counselling or therapy, ‘let it all out’ to someone who is trained to listen without judgement.

I want to be ‘good’.  But sometimes the ‘bad’ needs to be acknowledged with compassion.  Some of it does need to be controlled, but it is still a part of my biological human nature.  Some of it maybe doesn’t need to be controlled, if I can find a way to express it harmlessly.  Either way, by being kinder to my hidden side, I can learn to accept all of me.  In turn, this may help me to accept all of my fellow beings.