By day, Kevin Wisney is a mild-mannered, softly-spoken husband and father of a middle-school daughter. He spends his time shuttling his daughter between school and activities and taking care of his garden, dogs, and mother-in-law in his Northern California home as well as working part-time in estate sales.
But come nightfall, Wisney transforms into Cruzin d’Loo, a bawdy San Francisco drag queen of epic proportions. At Cruzin’s weekly Friday night show, Ain’t Your Mama’s Drag, she enters the stage of the city’s Mission District night club in a knee-length, sparking blue, sequined gown. Cruzin’s make-up is thick. Her blonde, teased wig teeters high above her head, and her language is coarse. All the while, Wisney’s body is hidden under a sea of silicone padding.
No matter what profession we work in, we all have home and work personas we must traverse between
Wisney’s Cruzin d’Loo work persona is vastly different from the one he assumes at home. But he’s not alone: psychologists say most of us adopt different personas depending on whether we’re at home or at work. Although most of us are unlikely to go as far as inventing a new character, professional and personal success still often depend on how well we are able to navigate between these two personas.
A little of both
Work and home lives offer different challenges and expectations. For many of us, it means adapting our behaviour to suit the social setting – sometimes putting us at odds with our ‘true’ sense of self.
But we may not even think about the fact that we are doing it, or even feel like we are different people at home and work. This is because “we are so used to acting out of character for the sake of professionalism,” says Sanna Balsari-Palsule, a personality scientist at Cambridge University. “As we are now working in increasingly fast-paced environments with globally dispersed teams, being flexible and adaptive is hugely important,” she says.
Many workers think acting differently from their natural selves is an intrinsic part of their work role
In her doctoral research, Balsari-Palsule found many workers think acting differently from their natural selves is an intrinsic part of their work role, and therefore, it actually feels “less burdensome.”
There’s even a name for the dance we do between the different personas we adopt inside and outside the home: free-trait behaviour. “It is a way of acting out of character,” says Brian Little, a Cambridge University research professor and fellow of the university’s Well-Being Institute.
“Free traits” go against our natural tendencies in order to advance personal projects we care about, explains Little. For example, introverts may act naturally quiet at home, but if they are engaged in work projects that call for intensely social and assertive conduct, they may act as "pseudo-extroverts," he says.
Balsari-Palsule attributes the ease with which many people are able to slip into different personas to the value Western cultures place on extroversion. “We are often encouraged to display behaviours associated with extroversion from a young age,” she says. “For example, being more sociable is often linked to being more liked, or at work, the perception of a leader is one who is dominant and assertive, which means that extroverts are often more likely to promoted or selected for leadership positions.”
Many introverts didn’t report feeling the negative effects of acting out of character at work
Because of this, introverts often tweak their behaviours to advance their projects and success in different contexts, says Balsari-Palsule. She was surprised to find in her research that many introverts didn’t report feeling the negative effects of acting out of character at work because they reaped the benefits of doing it. And, in many cases, they even reported “thriving on the sense of challenge that comes with acting out of character.”
Not everyone feels work is where they need to step away from their true self. For Emily Newman, a gourmet food store she owned in Seattle, in the US state of Washington, was where she could be a “very confident, extroverted version” of herself. “I miss the person that I was because I was so engaged all the time with everyone,” she says. “I was willing to engage and lean in and kind of dig in, and that was who I was authentically at work.” At home, she says, she is a quieter, more cautious and introverted version of herself.
At some point, everyone needs a break. Without time to refresh and to behave normally, we “may begin to experience the toll of acting out of character,” says Balsari-Palsule.
Wisney knows this too well. While he prefers to be at home alone, he is able to slip into the persona of Cruzin for work. As a professional actor, he has been inhabiting different personas for years, ever since landing a part in a play aged nine.
Making the switch comes somewhat easily for him – but performing as Cruzin saps him of all of his energy. “It’s like opening the bottom of a bathtub. All of you just goes out,” he says. By the time the weekend and performances are over, he is happy to slip back into his much more subdued and quiet life as Kevin: a father, husband and avid gardener.
To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.