Image Management Clouds Our Identity

Ian Clawson
5 min readOct 24, 2022

by Ian Clawson and Chris Deaver

Why do people struggle to understand their identity? Instead, many people are preoccupied with image management. Not only does this tie back to our mental health and happiness, but the difference between a clear identity and image management can determine the caliber of our future.

So, let’s do a deeper dive on this.

Erving Goffman popularized the concept of impression management in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), where he argues that impression management not only influences how one is treated by other people but is an essential part of social interaction. As a social psychologist he would literally observe people for long periods of time in very public places, like a shopping mall, sporting events or at restaurants.

According to Goffman, when we are born, we are thrown onto the stage called “everyday life”, and part of our socialization is learning how to play the roles that have been assigned to us from other people. In the presence of others, we play out our parts as they play out their parts in conversation with us. He argues that social life is a “performance” carried out by “teams” of participants in three places: “front stage,” “backstage,” and “off stage.”

Front Stage — Life’s a Stage

People frequently act out multiple roles in their daily lives and behave in various ways depending on their surroundings and the time of day. Whether they are aware of it or not, most people behave somewhat differently in their personal and intimate lives than they do in their professional lives.

When people are aware that others are watching, they act in a “front stage” manner. Behavior during a front-stage performance can be highly deliberate and intentional, or it can be habitual or subconscious. Either way, front stage behavior typically follows a routinized and learned social script shaped by cultural norms. Line waiting, getting on a bus while flashing a pass, and chit-chatting with coworkers about activities on the weekend are all examples of very routine and choreographed front-stage acts.

Larger performances could be interviewing with a potential employer or conducting a meeting at work to hosting a block party with friends. Bumping into a childhood friend while you are with your spouse means you must navigate two familiar roles. It can be awkward, difficult to manage and yet it helps us understand moments where we experience anxiety.

Back Stage — When No One is Looking

People are liberated from the expectations and rules that govern behavior on stage when they act in a backstage manner. Backstage represents the more relaxed private moments of our lives when an act is over. You can be yourself. You can do what you feel makes you comfortable. Private spaces, private places. Some things in backstage maybe nobody knows about, or few people experience, like a pile of laundry on your bed, a cluttered bathroom countertop, a stack of dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, a quiet moment in the car with a friend or in a workplace office with the door closed. Backstage still features a performance by us when others are a part of it.

Why should any of this matter to us? Upon closer inspection of our daily/weekly interactions many of us are caught up in routine image management. Our socialized roles and the perception others have of us make up our reputation. An outward representation. Yet, we feel disconnected to a deeper identity which in many ways is our character. How we truly are. An inward experience.

We can build off Goffman’s framework from Presentation of Self in Everyday Life to understand our identity better in these two ways:

Instead of a balancing act, aim for a blended life.

We experience the tension and demands of a balancing act between all the responsibilities and relationships we manage. Much of our success and sanity is determined by how effectively we can toggle the various roles we play in life. Examples: As Parents, Siblings, Children, Employee, Boss, Church Member, Community Member, Teammate, Hobbyist and Friend.

Many times, we struggle to keep a proper balance of these roles and when things get “out of whack”, we question our effectiveness and even our self-worth. Our identity can get clouded by these various performances. The phrase, “you can’t be everything to everyone” comes to mind. Sometimes too late, we can get caught up in activities others have demanded from us.

The reason for this? Many of our roles have been socially constructed by different audiences over the years. Maybe you are currently plagued by a toxic boss or an unhealthy workplace? It might be time to change your audience. In terms of family ties or close relationships, better boundaries might be needed.

Instead of the constant juggling act consider a more blended approach. Being more intentional in the roles you are committed to, eliminate, or upgrade existing roles where possible. Leaning into a more authentic self. Not as a default but as a direction. Powered by principles. Being grounded in the things you care deeply about can bring out your best self with others. How do you add value in your current relationships?

Get clear about your identity.

Are you feeling stuck? Perhaps you have been trapped into a daily routine of living someone else’s dream. Somehow, you’ve let the audiences around you define your life. It’s time to flip the script. What do you want to be known for? What would you like to accomplish?

The Mirror Test is an important exercise to understand all your current roles, it can also help you shift to a place where you are more intentional.

What should you do?

Should = Value System

What do you value? This makes up your moral compass and beliefs. Why do you do what you do? What boundaries are in place? What principles guide the direction you are heading or the pursuits you have? Now shift your thinking… What should you value to progress toward the person you want to become and achieve the things you are aiming for?

What could you do?

Could = Capabilities

Start with what you can do. What are your current skills and talents? Now shift your thinking to what you could do differently. What skills or knowledge could you improve upon or add to your capabilities?

What will you do?

Would = Will Power

What have you done? What is holding you back? What will you actually do? Maybe it’s time to address your surface level excuses. Go deeper. Be brave. Now shift your thinking… What would you do to achieve different outcomes? What are you willing to sacrifice?

Ian Clawson and Chris Deaver are cofounders of BraveCore, a leadership consultancy that’s shaping the future by helping leaders be more creative and creatives be better leaders.

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Ian Clawson

Co-Founder @BraveCore | Culture Transformation | Leadership Dev | Co-Creator | Author