I Seem to Act Differently in Each Social Circle, So Who is the Real Me?

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Reader’s Question

Ever since I started school I’ve had a lot of friends in different social circles. Since I’m a skier, climber, runner, “smart guy,” and former football player, I have very different types of friends, each of them belonging in their own social circles. This leads to my problem.

My friends each belong mainly to only one social circle where they can act genuinely and be themselves. On the other hand, I have a foot in many different social circles, which makes me behave differently according to who I’m with. Sometimes I even feel like I’m mimicking the behavior of my friends. I’m fifteen now and I feel it’s time to find a social circle where I can be myself one hundred percent. But I’m not sure if I really know who I am. I know that I am myself when I’m with my family, so I’ve tried to act like that with my friends, but it doesn’t work.

Psychologist’s Reply

What you’ve noticed is that each one of us has different social selves. That is, we show different sides of ourselves depending on the settings we are in and the people we are around. This is entirely normal. In fact, psychologists who study personality grapple with the issue of which social self is closest to the “real” person. Each of us has different aspects to our personality, so if some are more prominent in one setting than in another, who is to say in which settings we are more truly ourselves? Of course there is also consistency in our personality and behavior across situations, so perhaps we only notice the differences among our social selves when they vary widely, as yours might at this point in your life. Perhaps later, in adulthood, when the amount of time and energy available for socializing is more limited, people tend to prune away social selves that are most different from their core personality. Or perhaps, with age and experience, people become more comfortable showing consistencies rather than feeling pressure to mimic others to ensure acceptance within the group.

As you seem to have noticed, social groups frequently form around shared interests and activities. In that way, friends made in those settings may only see a slice of us that is related to that interest or activity. From that slice, they may come to think they know us in a larger sense, and then are surprised if they see another side of us (perhaps in a different setting or around other friends).

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We may feel like our immediate family knows the “real” us, or that we are most ourselves around family. That feeling probably comes from the simple fact that we have spent the most time with family, both across years and in sheer number of hours. Still, there are aspects of ourselves that we only show friends or romantic partners. I think those sides are just as real and just as much a part of us as any; we may simply have fewer opportunities to experience them.

Rather than search for the real you, or the one circle of friends around which the real you emerges, I encourage you to continue to explore different aspects of your personality and interests that seem to come naturally. As long as you’re not suppressing who you are, or acting like someone you’re not, your various experiences help develop your personality and sense of self. Indeed, having a wide range of interests, experiences, and social circles is one definition of being a well-rounded person.

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