In my last blog I used the psychological concepts of the ego and the self as a way to describe and understand ways in which people might be interacting with social networks like Facebook and Twitter. There I described how the ego is a smaller part of the self and seeks recognition and validation through social networking in very much the same way it does in the other facets of our lives.

In this post I will be refining this understanding somewhat by looking at the nature of the ego from two different perspectives in relation to social media; Carl Jung’s concept of the ‘persona’, and British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s concept of the ‘false self.’ I will be asking how these concepts can help us to  understand why certain aspects of social networking are so difficult, and what it means for us.

These two different concepts are from divergent schools of psychology but they have a lot in common. Both ‘persona’ and ‘false self’ can be described as ego functions, as they both lie between the experience of the person as an individual and the outside world: what we call ‘society’. Both help us to interact with the world – but both require that we interact with the world in a partial way, leaving vast aspects of ourselves unrecognised.

Jung describes the persona like this:

The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society . . . a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual (Jung 1953, p. 192).

Jung sees the persona as being perfectly normal, an expected psychological development between the person and society. Trouble happens, however, if one identifies with that persona – that is, if someone comes to believe that his or her mask is the whole story.

You have a variety of personas (student, employee, son, daughter, mum, dad, mate, soldier, etc.) and they are necessary. But imagine if you found you had to choose one, and live by its rules all the time? It would be terrible! Do some forms of social networking limit the way we express different aspects of ourselves?

Winnicott has a similar theory. He talks about a ‘false self’ that protects our ‘true self’ from a very early age. From the very start we begin to realise what is “okay” and what is “not okay.” While we continue to feel stuff that’s “not okay” (like anger, rage, anxiety, unhappiness, etc.), we learn that we should hide that stuff, and behave in a way that is okay.  In Winnicott’s words:

 This false self is no doubt an aspect of the true self. It hides and protects it, and it reacts to the adaptation failures and develops a pattern corresponding to the pattern of environmental failure. In this way the true self is not involved in reacting, and so preserves a continuity of being (Winnicott 1956, p. 387).

That’s quite dense, and it’s worth reading twice if you didn’t get it the first time. To put it in other words, it means that you put the true self aside, to let the false self deal with the world for you. The false self does all the work (being nice, saying the right thing, getting on with people, doing what’s expected) while the true self gets protected from all that, still feeling the things you’re not supposed to show.

The catch here is that when the true self doesn’t get any airtime, it can feel suffocated, unrecognised, and unloved. All the attention goes to the false self, leaving the rest of you (which is probably most of you) feeling left out. Like Jung, Winnicott understood that if we learn to totally rely on our false selves, we can really let ourselves down and end up becoming really depressed!

So you can probably see what these two concepts have in common, but what do they have to do with social networking?

I am proposing that social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter call upon the persona and the false self very strongly. They are, par excellence the social world and require us to be seen wearing our social masks. This is, indeed, what makes group settings on Facebook so necessary and also so difficult to manage (is it really easier on Google Plus? I don’t know). Having your best mates on the same social network as your mother and your boss requires different personae and false selves for each – so how are you supposed to manage that?

One way, of course, is to get to know the settings on our social networks so we can show the personae we want to the right people. However these settings are clunky, and I personally find it near impossible to set them up to do this. Perhaps this isn’t down to the technology, it is rather down to the complexity of our relational lives.

The way we negotiate our social worlds is complex, subtle, and technology simply doesn’t do it like that. Just think of the way you behave with a group of friends when another friend comes along, say, a work colleague, or a friend from another social group; you subtly shift the way you behave in order to ‘fit in’ the best you can, with the new grouping of people. This process is very subtle, it’s practically automatic.

The clunkyness of the social network makes the moving between different aspects of ourselves clunky too. The concern here is not just the difficulty of managing that clunkiness, the question is whether or not this clunkiness, this lack of fluidity on the social network can makes something clunky inside us as well. Does it feedback on the development of our personae?

The aim of this post is not, however, to tell you how to fix your settings on Facebook, or Google Plus (Twitter is different for reasons I’ll go into another time). The aim is to get you to think about how you present yourself in the world, and then how you do so on social networks. To ask you to think about those dilemmas you face about who becomes a friend, or why you feel anxious or guilty after posting one thing or another as a status update. This anxious feeling is often about the boundaries of our true and false selves – or one social group seeing a part of ourselves that we only reserve for another social group.

You see, we don’t have just one false self, or one persona – we have a whole series of them for different occasions. I believe that some forms of social networking have ways of constraining these possibilities, and sometimes limiting our expression of our multiple ways of being. I would like you to be aware of when you feel constrained, to be curious about what is going on, and to give all different aspects of yourself room for manoeuvre, change, and development. It may not be possible to do that online. I want you to avoid Jung’s fear that you will identify with a single aspect of yourself – that part of yourself on Facebook or Twitter.

As usual I want to make a disclaimer that I am not promoting a sentiment that I feel social networking is bad. I use it a lot myself and get great enjoyment out of it. But I want us all to be aware of the psychological nature of our interaction with it. To use psychological insight to understand ourselves better through how we use social networking.

Jung encouraged us to “individuate” – to become bigger than our persona. Winnicott wished that we didn’t have to defend our true selves so much – that we can be more than we feel we ought to present to the world. Can social networking help us to do that? Or is it, in its current state at least, too limiting to allow the subtlety and complexity of our greater selves to burst through?

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Jung, C.G. (1953). Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Trans. R.F.C. Hull. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Winnicott, D.W. (1956). On Transference. In International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 37. Pp. 386-388