If you’ve ever seen that word before it was probably at the beginning of a cast listing for a play, which only makes sense since it’s the plural of persona, “a role or character adopted by an author or actor.” But it has also come to mean the face we show the world. Without a public persona, there would be no privacy. Everyone we know would know everything about us. My colleagues see a version of me that is completely different from the one the friends I grew up with see. And, of course there is little or no persona with family. Hard to hide anything from the people who were there to witness you develop all your flaws.
None of us ever wants to feel exposed. We build trust in those around us and slowly reveal more and more about ourselves. In the process, we decide how close a relationship we want to have with the people in our orbit. Sometimes there is little or no connection, and sometimes we decide that the person adds so much to our lives that we want to peel back another layer of our persona. In the end there are relatively few people we are comfortable showing our flaws and weaknesses to.
I was thinking about this after I wrote my post last week. Why was I so angry that I had had to expose my vulnerabilities to someone other than the person I’d planned to?
It came down to three reasons. First, the easy one. Money is always a sensitive subject no matter your situation. No one enjoys having conversations about money, especially when the context is that you are not keeping up with the Jonses.
Second, these were strangers, not even acquaintances. I couldn’t have picked them out of a crowd if I had tried. Sometimes it is actually easier to share with strangers; if you are reasonably sure you will never see them again. You show your vulnerabilities, but if they judge you or pity you, you will not be there to feel it. That changes as the likelihood of repeat contact rises. The people I talked to last week were part of a community I had been a peripheral part of for nearly two decades. It was likely I could continue to avoid them, but not certain.
Chronic and autoimmune patients have more to feel vulnerable about than most. Physical weakness is easy to attach to any chronic condition, by both the patient and the observer. It’s much rarer to perceive survival and coping as strengths.
Psychological conditions and the psychological effects of chronic conditions are even harder. Ingrained stigmas still cause many people to think that something is wrong with your character. I don’t want to reveal either physical or psychological conditions to anyone I didn’t choose, but the discussion had to involve my conditions because I had to justify my request for a discount.
That brings me to reason number three: the choice was made for me. We have enough issues with legitimacy—in our interactions with providers, with the employers legally required to provide reasonable accommodation. When the receptionist chose who I would talk to, she forced me to remove a layer of my persona when I was unprepared. She robbed me of my right to privacy.
Except for the administrator to whom I chose to reveal my financial situation, I’m sure it seemed like a nothingburger, to borrow a phrase. But now I have to figure out what to do if I ever find myself across the dinner table from one of them. Maybe one of my personae can help.