Alternate Title: Identity is both surface level and the hidden self
For a long time, I’ve held the notion that people are like icebergs. They’re adrift in the ocean (“society” for people) and trying not to melt (“make it through the day” for people). Another similarity to people is icebergs sometimes cause trouble for others, whether it be a direct hit (see: Titanic) or an overtime consequence (see: impact of increasing sea level).
But, the biggest similarity that’s always struck me about icebergs and people is the existence of the surface level and beneath the surface (henceforth: the hidden self). And it’s these two ideas that play directly into the central theme of this post: identity.
Just who are we?
Identity is who you are. But, the way someone personally distinguishes that varies greatly. For the sake of this post, I’ll try to limit it to the original analogy.
So, an iceberg’s identity is that it’s a large piece of ice floating along in open water. Some of it you can see above water, but another part is hidden below. A person’s identity is also the accumulation of their surface level and hidden self.
Now, the surface level is often viewed as the “shallow” side of someone’s identity. It usually refers to the “skin-deep” aspects such as race, fashion aesthetics, or physical attractiveness. Depending on the culture and person, the surface level may be looked down upon or perceived as inherently lesser than the hidden self. [We’ll come back to this idea soon.]
The hidden self is aspects like beliefs, dreams, morals, motives, personality, and more. It may help to think of it as the “abstract” things you learn about someone.
Here are some examples of the two:
- Surface level: Dresses in tailored clothes. Hidden Self: Strives to maintain a “professional” look because the perception of “mature” and “responsible” is important to them.
- Surface level: Has tattoos. Hidden Self: Loves the easy reminder of their favorite quote or an image that’s important to them.
[Of course, there can be many different reasons why someone wears tailored clothes or has tattoos. Sometimes it’s nothing more than “I like it.” Remember that these are just examples.]
Is the surface level shallow?
- Don’t judge a book by its cover
- Go beyond skin-deep
- Don’t just scratch the surface.
Those are just some idioms used to remind people to pay attention to what’s not surface level. But, why do we do this?
Well, allow me to be controversial for a moment and say: the surface level does matter. Yes, it does. How much it matters depends on who you are, the people around you, and the situation at hand. But it never ceases to completely not matter. For as long as people are alive, the surface level will likely play a role. [Note: I’m not saying it should matter, but rather just acknowledging that it does.]
But, why care about that?
Well, like a lookout, we’re almost all searching for signs of trouble. A lookout is wary of icebergs. You might be wary of people with green hair. Maybe it’s “thuggish” clothes. Or pricey suits. Or the way someone talks or how they laugh. Sure, we all have reasons, sometimes even traumatic experiences that make us judge one another. Or maybe you don’t have an actual problem with X, but you know other people do and so you avoid it on principle. And sometimes it’s as simple as “I just don’t like it.”
And obviously, all that can and does suck, especially for the person getting judged (or worse). But, in the end, it’s what people do. We all have points where we draw the line in the sand and decide to avoid someone or cease contact. And it’s this fact of reality, of living within a society (at least so far), that by default the surface level does matter.
Is the hidden self the real you?
The other part of our identity is the hidden self. [And, oh, does it have other names.] If you’ve seen The OA, then “invisible self” might be more your speed. But, as I mentioned earlier, “beneath the surface” is common. And the phrases “the real you” and “inner you” are also often used. Either way, they all refer to the concept of “who you are on the inside.”
But that’s a bit of an odd statement, right? Like why would I be different on the inside? Well, maybe for the same reason as to why the surface level gets called “shallow.” We live in a society, and whether you accept, reject, or are oblivious to its rules and expectations… you’re still a part of it.
Society offers us preconceived notions about the surface level and we run with it. But the hidden self is like an elusive, mysterious figure that’s never quite in arm’s reach. It’s “genuine” and so dependent on the individual that it’s hard to decipher and gauge from a distance. But, perhaps most importantly, it offers us the perception of having a pure version of our self, one that’s not dictated by the rules of society.
And people love that.
Just consider the popular concept that we all put on a fake face to survive. Although I would argue, those fake faces/masks/personas/facades, or however you’ll like to call them, aren’t that false. They’re more like another side of us – the side that for whatever reason we choose to save for certain situations.
(RT: Sometimes people mistake their iceberg setup as being right/optimal for everyone.)
Not everyone’s identity is split into equal parts. Some focus heavily on the surface level, intentionally or not. Others thrive on building and understanding their hidden self. And of course, there are so many options in between. Just like how an iceberg changes over time as it floats along, so do we. And no one is inherently “lesser than” because of how they prioritize the parts of their identity. Yet, we judge and get judge all the same.
And sure, if you only focus on the tip of the iceberg (the surface level), you may avoid trouble from the start. But, you also won’t be able to measure the depth of the iceberg (the hidden self) unless you look closer. And unlike icebergs, humanity is alive, opinionated, and vastly more complex. This leads to compromising not only on a small scale among our peers and immediate community but on a much broader cultural level. Sometimes to the point of putting on a “fake face” or intentionally keeping parts of ourselves secret. Unfortunately, this fact is often a part of what it means to be human.