Most of us "perform" our happiness for others, to a certain extent, anyway—carefully curating our Instagram photos and tweets to paint a picture of our life that reflects our experiences—just not all of them.
This is pretty normal and probably predates social media. It's human nature to want to make a good impression on others. But personal branding can take this inclination to a new level—especially when you work for yourself. Independent workers don't craft online personas to make us feel good or to make others jealous, we do it so we can make a living.
A well-curated personal brand is an essential part of any solopreneur's marketing strategy. There’s a danger, though, of your personal brand becoming "identity labor," which writer and media critic Ivana McConnell defines as "performing an identity for others to consume, rather than exploring and expressing the one that reflects our beliefs and experiences."
So while there's already some pressure involved in keeping up your image, it can increase even further when your personal life diverges from your curated persona. The bigger the gap, the more you’ll feel the burden of performing the identity labor. Having to maintain a prescribed identity—even one you've crafted all by yourself—can lead to anxiety, for instance, when you're hit with challenges like a chronic-illness diagnosis or when you go through a divorce. We worry, often reasonably, that disclosing these hurdles will hurt our reputations or turn away clients.
Make no mistake: Your curated personal brand is smart business. But when it shades into identity labor, the strain can become isolating, make you feel like a phony, and lead to self-doubt. Here's how to stay vigilant and watch out for those warning signs.
Your work feels hollow, like you’re spouting platitudes. You think if people really knew you, they’d never ask you for advice. This type of self-doubt is sometimes called "imposter syndrome." But you can feel like a phony in a variety of ways—for instance, if most of your ideas come from competitors. Worried about how you measure up, you spend too much time focused on the competition rather than on taking the risk to just be yourself.
You become like a stone in a riverbed, so rounded out that you're indistinguishable from the others. You don’t know who you are anymore. For one thing, that's bad branding. But for another—and much more important—thing, feeling like you have to put on an act is a sign that something's amiss.
You start isolating yourself and stop sharing what’s happening in your personal life. If you do talk about your challenges, you tell only close confidantes, swearing them to secrecy. You speak in whispers, looking over your shoulder to see who’s listening.
More than a decade into my independent career, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness. I wasn’t sure how it would impact my brand. It was the first time I felt a disconnect between my business brand and my personal life. I wrestled with how much to share publicly. It felt like a secret I had to guard, with the stress building the longer I guarded it.
Caring about your image is natural; obsessing about it is a sign something's gone awry with your branding efforts. During her years as a marketing consultant, Erin Blakemore told me she hit a point where she began to feel like the only way to succeed was by hiding her true self. She grew uncomfortable with her business persona, feeling like she had to project a perfect image.
"I ended up spending too much on things like shoes and makeup in a bid to make myself feel more confident and relevant," she recalls. "I also found myself policing my expertise—the thing people hired me for—for the sake of a client-pleasing 'nice girl' image." Keeping up her curated public image no longer served her personal values—it had become a difficult chore.
The source of this discomfort is the cognitive dissonance that occurs when your beliefs and actions aren’t in harmony. In this case, you feel like the "real" you and your professional brand are incongruous. To be sure, they don't have to be the same, but lessening that dissonance can help reduce your anxiety.
To do that, though, you need to change certain behaviors. Blakemore eventually left marketing for journalism, an industry that she felt turned the focus more on the products of her work than on the way she looks or how much success she projects. "Now my brand is a lot closer to who I really am," she tells me. "There will always be differences between the 'persona' and the person. I will always have a filter online, both as a way to protect myself and as a way to monitor what people see or consume about me. But I've let go of a lot of the identity performance via social media."
You may be able to take the reverse approach, though. Rather than keep them separate, Jenni Prokopy aligned her brand with her personality. After starting her business writing for the construction industry, she started her passion project, ChronicBabe, to help other women like her who live with chronic illness.
Now her full-time business, the ChronicBabe brand is built on transparency and acceptance of imperfection. Prokopy struggled at times, like while facing a big chronic illness flare-up and during her divorce, occasionally fearing she was portraying a too-curated picture of herself. Ironically, it was when she got more vulnerable that she found her audience respected and trusted her more.
While you can resolve this type of inner conflict by doubling down on a core identity like Prokopy or by changing industries like Blakemore, you don’t have to pivot your business altogether. The dissonance you feel isn’t just about the gap—it’s about the perceived gap. While you have a personal brand, you are not a brand. They aren't the same thing.
This is an important distinction that many self-employed people miss, simply by assuming that they need to be one and the same. But that isn't true authenticity; you don’t need to feel guilty or like a phony because you don’t share everything.
In my case, I realized that I’m a business owner who happens to have chronic illness. I’d rather support independents to help them find autonomy and build strong businesses of their own, rather than talk about my illness. So I acknowledge my health without making it a central part of my brand. Setting this boundary—one that feels honest and comfortable to me—freed up any cognitive dissonance I'd felt between my private life and personal brand.
Whatever decision you make, maintaining your personal brand shouldn't feel like identity labor, or that you’re putting on an act. This is your business. You get to choose what’s part of your professional persona and what isn’t. You don’t have to follow someone else’s path or the expectations social media tends to set for us. And clients—the right ones, anyway—won’t judge you for your choices. They'll cheer you on and jump on board.