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When Double Personalities Are Dangerous

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Did you know that you have more than one personality? No worries -- you're normal, unless your double personalities are dangerous.

woman dressed as angel and devil

Dr. Wendy Walsh: Let me start by assuring everyone of one thing. We all have two (at least) personalities, and that's perfectly healthy. In order to survive in our very complex social system, humans learn to put on a public personality that excels at sandbox skills. It's the face we bring to work with us. I like to call it our "performance personality."

However, at home, we are more intimate with the natives -- and our authentic self, complete with tears and tempers, is allowed to thrive. Thus, our intimate relationships are a home for the heart. It's a place where the real "us" feels safe.

But when do these dual operating systems become dysfunctional? When is being two-faced bad? Well, our two faces become dangerous when the differences are extreme -- when our morals, ethics, and boundaries completely disappear as our private personality begins to rule the roost. This can be particularly damaging to children who become very confused by witnessing two sets of values. In intimate relationships, we may have a shorter temper and more visible sadness, but we shouldn't have completely different values. If lying and cheating is something you'd never do at work, doing those things privately can be a tragic lesson for kids.

For example, you may not exactly love your boss, but at work and at public functions, you are the picture of the perfect employee -- for understandable political gain. But at home, all you do is trash your boss. What is the message to your family members? That mean gossip is okay? That your authentic feelings of hurt are less important than your desire to criticize him or her? Wouldn't it be more helpful to children to hear a more balanced view of both your boss and you?

Another time that a performance personality can be dysfunctional is when it starts to take over at home -- when some great career success comes with many accolades. Those compliments can serve to boost self-esteem -- which is good -- or they can serve to create falseness. In the entertainment world, when an actor suddenly has a hit movie and begins to live an unbridled life with a huge sense of entitlement, people whisper that "he believes his own press." So, taking in compliments for your achievements is generally good, but living a false identity to match them is not.

Finally, our private, intimate personality can be dangerous too. If your private personality is more than the odd expression of anger and sorrow, and instead one of severe pain to your family members, then it's time to get help. If your private personality is one of chronic depression, poor anger management, substance abuse, or even violence, then it's time to drag that private self to therapy. Here's a suggestion: Have your public self make the appointment and drive you there.

next: Should Toddlers Be Eating Meat?
4 comments so far | Post a comment now
jennifer ginsberg October 12, 2009, 7:30 AM

Great article! As clinician, I have never heard this concept explained quite this way. It gave me a lot to think about- specifically about the messages we send to our children when our performance and private selves collide. A very wise woman (and mentor) to me used to say “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow,” when discussing our patients in treatment. I know for myself that I must address my shadow piece or it will take over. Thanks again!

ss October 12, 2009, 8:41 AM

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What’s kind of relationship do you want?

Michelle October 24, 2009, 3:13 PM

This is a really great explanation of how people act and function around family, or significant others, and how people act around the general public. It’s a good reassurance for that, too. Thanks for the post!

Ten Tees January 9, 2011, 1:43 PM

Great post! Enjoyable and fun reading. I’ve just got one point to offer about shirts.

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