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“Actual Self” vs “Public Self”

by | May 2, 2023

Every person has a true, actual self at the core of their being. However, this version of yourself isn’t always the one that gets presented to others. Have you ever done something and then immediately thought “that was so unlike me”? If so, you’ve experienced your public self in action!


Why do people have both an actual self and a public self?

The concept of a public self explains the phenomenon of acting out of character, such as making a choice you wouldn’t normally make, when in the presence of other people. Logically, having both an actual self and a public self makes a lot of sense–when you do something out of character for your actual self, it isn’t a reflection of who you truly are, so how do you describe what just happened?

For example, pretend you’re at a work meeting. Your boss brings in a ton of doughnuts and breakfast pastries for everyone to enjoy before the meeting starts. Even though you don’t like sweet breakfast foods, you find yourself nibbling through a few different options on the table during conversation with your co-workers.

If you don’t like sweet breakfast foods, why did you eat the pastries anyway? This is an instance of the public self coming forward. You could have chosen to eat them for a variety of reasons, including:

    • Wanting to mirror your co-workers’ actions to seem more included in what the rest of the group is doing
    • Wanting to please your boss and show appreciation for the gesture
    • Focusing more on chatting and interacting with your co-workers rather than listening to your body

….while it’s a simple example, the reasons behind eating the sweets are numerous! Your true self knows you don’t like sweet breakfast foods, but your public self decided that it was more important to focus on other people’s expectations than your true self at this moment.


What are the key differences between your actual self and public self?

The differences between your actual self and public self can sometimes be hard to detect. Even when you’re wearing the mask of your public self, it’s not unusual to see bits of your actual self shining through! Since your actual self is your truest form, of course parts of your personality, values, and beliefs will come through, even when you’re presenting your public self at the forefront. There are some common differences between that distinguish the actual self and the public self:

Your actual self….

    • Has direct connections to your intuition
    • Reflects your core values
    • Feels natural, as if it the details of your actual self flow naturally from within you
    • Focuses more on yourself, your feelings, your internal conflicts, etc.
    • Views yourself through your own eyes

Your public self….

    • Is highly self aware, even to the point of sparking self-consciousness
    • Can feel forced, as if you’re having to calculate or plan your moves
    • Is more aware of your surroundings and other people’s reactions than your own comfort level
    • Focuses more on conflict with others, other people’s feelings, etc.
    • Views yourself through the eyes of others

When your actual self and public self begin intermingling, it is tough to distinguish which is which–however, even in this situation, one is usually more dominant than the other.


The Bottom Line

Having an actual self and a public self is normal. Acting differently or putting on the “mask” of your public self when you’re spending time around other people, is normal. Understanding the key differences between your actual self and your public self is key to maintaining a strong connection with your true, actual self.

Do you feel like you're living a life that's not truly your own?

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About Sarah Mitchell

Hi I'm Sarah, an Aligned Business Coach. I help women align their values, vision, and actions to achieve their goals and thrive in business through tailored coaching programs that prioritize personal & professional growth.