British actor Rowan Atkinson was born with a stutter. Shy as a child, he was constantly bullied at school because of his speech impediment. Interestingly though, whenever Atkinson went on stage, he was able to take on a new persona. He could immerse himself into the role of his character and his stuttering would magically disappear—it was his alter ego. In an interview with Time magazine, he is known to have said, “I find when I play a character other than myself, the stammering disappears. That may have been some of the inspiration for pursuing the career I did.”
Beyonce Knowles who is ladylike in her personal life wanted to showcase a different persona of herself on stage. Hence, she created Sasha Fierce who was sensual, bold, and aggressive. In an interview, Beyonce revealed that Sasha was born during the making of her hit single Crazy in Love. Strictly a stage persona, Sasha helped Knowles experience a different version of herself. However, as Beyonce herself is known to have said, “I’m not like her in real life at all. I’m not flirtatious and super-confident and fearless like her.”
Like Knowles and Atkinson, several successful people—be it in the field of entertainment or sports or business—are known to have consciously created alter egos. For instance, according to the author Walter Isaacson, the persona of Steve Jobs as Apple’s founder was nothing like the persona of Steve Jobs when around his family. And it is not just the top performers—we too have different facets to our personality. Only, we seldom take note of them and create our own alter egos. For instance, our persona when we’re alone or with family members is often different from our persona when around friends or at our workplace.
So, why create an alter ego? Why consciously magnify certain personality traits? Performance advisor Todd Herman, the author of The Alter Ego Effect, gives us a compelling reason. In his podcast, he explains: “Alter egos help us get out of our own way. Many a time, we carry within us insecurities and judgements that make us play it small in life. Most of us are born to be a superman or superwomen but we deliberately take on the role of Clark Kent so that we’d fit in with society, and not get ostracised.” So essentially, his theory is that by taking preferred traits from our own personality, creating an avatar with them, and distancing ourselves from it, we’d no longer worry about being judged or criticised. We’d thereby lose our inhibitions and come one step closer to experience our true selves.
Here’s the catch, though—often, the term alter ego is misunderstood. When we think of alter egos, we tend to think of the novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or remember the scenes from the movie Fight Club. We often confuse having an alter ego with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Incidentally, the two are very different. While DID is a medical condition wherein the person has no recollection of his multiple personalities, having an alter ego is a conscious choice. It is a mere tool to magnify one or more personality traits that are already present within us. To further clarify, as Herman insists, the alter ego we create for ourselves should bring out the core of who we are. But creating an alter ego to impress or deceive someone, can lead to our own entrapment if we create a second self that is fake and inauthentic, not in sync with who we truly want to be.