I Can’t Be Your Hero, I’m Too Busy Being Super

This is guest post by Jim Stone.

In the 1930s Dorothy Lucille Tipton took up piano and saxophone, joined the high school band, and developed an aspiration to be a performing jazz musician. By 1940 Tipton began presenting as a man on stage, and adopted the name “Billy”.  Eventually he began presenting as a man in private as well, and he kept his birth-assigned gender identity and female genitalia hidden from everyone (including wives, lovers, and children) until the day he died, at age 74.

Talk about living in a closet.

If she could have advised Billy, Brené Brown might have told him “Dare to be vulnerable. Be yourself. You’ll be happier if you stop caring so much much what people think.”

Maybe. But people don’t generally take on the burdens of inauthenticity without good reason. Often it’s because they want to occupy social roles that allow them to get their physical and psychological needs met, and other people won’t let them play those roles unless they are the right kind of person. Sometimes people put on masks simply to secure the role of “community member” or “citizen” or “human being”.

We can represent Billy’s dilemma as a conflict of self-portraits like this:

If the Private Self is how we see ourselves, the Public Self is how we think others see us, and the Hero Self is how we think others expect us to be in order to fill the social roles we want to fill. We can get a sense for the dynamics involved in reputation management by thinking of the Public Self is a button on a slider that slides between the Private Self and the Hero Self.

If we move the slider toward the Hero Self by pretending to be closer to meeting public expectations than we are, we shrink the expectation gap and have less anxiety about keeping our role (at least in the short term). But we simultaneously increase the perception gap, which is the difference between the way we think others perceive us and the way we perceive ourselves. And that brings with it all the burdens of maintaining many deceptions. (In Billy’s case that meant hiding his childhood identity and genitalia for the rest of his life. In more everyday circumstances, it might mean pretending to care or pretending to agree).

And, if we slide the Public Self toward the Private Self by letting others see us how we see ourselves, we will shrink the perception gap but widen the expectation gap. And that can be a true display of “vulnerability”, because there is a chance we are putting one or more of our social roles in jeopardy.

Authenticity is easy when there’s a good fit between our Private Self and the roles we want (or need) to inhabit. But that’s not always the case.

Two-Dimensional Characters

The expectation gap and the perception gap are linked. But they are also two fundamentally different kinds of gap. The perception gap is a separation between first and third-person points of view, while the expectation gap is a gulf between is and ought.

So, rather than arrange the three portraits along a single dimension, let’s place them in the quadrants of a 2×2.

To fill out the 2×2 we must posit a fourth self portrait (in the first person ought quadrant) and two more gaps.

We’ll call the fourth portrait the “Super Self”, and the two new gaps the “aspiration gap” (between the Private Self and the Super Self) and the “values gap” (between the Super Self and the Hero Self).

Altogether we have a system of four selves and four gaps that can shrink and grow across two dimensions. And this gives us a new means of understanding the point of much of our self-conscious thought. One of the main functions of self-conscious rumination is to help us figure out how we want to manage the gaps between adjacent portraits as we take on new roles, pursue new goals, and encounter new sources of conflict in our lives.

So what makes this fourth self so super?  In applying this label, I am not suggesting that the Super Self has all the qualities of Nietzsche’s Übermensch, but only these two:

  • The Super Self is what we, as individuals, aspire to become.
  • The Super Self helps us create new personal values.

This allows us to characterize the “aspiration gap” as the gap between how we see ourselves now, and what we want to become, and the “values gap” as the gap between the values we hold, and the values other people want us to have so they can trust us to carry out the roles to which they have entrusted us.

The Aspiration Gap

When Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks’s character in Castaway) was suddenly removed from society and plopped down onto an uninhabited island with little hope for rescue, his quest for self-improvement became vastly simplified.

If we can forget his aspiration to leave the island for a moment, his other aspirations were pretty simple. He wanted to become a person who could better satisfy his base physical needs than the person who landed on the island. He wanted to become a better fisherman, a better fire-maker, a better shelter-builder, and so forth.

Without other people involved, the only obstacles he faced were those Nature presented and the obstacles that came from his own conflicting desires (“I want to fish right now and I want to take a nap right now”). And it even feels a bit grandiose to describe his goal striving in terms of managing a gap between his Private Self and his Super Self. Really he just wanted to catch more fish and build better fires. His only job was to set some goals and cross the is/ought gap over and over again. And all he needed in order to do that were some needs or desires and some organized action.

This point is not restricted to needs at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy. In Ted Chiang’s story “Understand”, the protagonist receives an experimental drug designed to regenerate neurons and finds his mental capacity expanding exponentially. He adopts “understanding” as his master value, and he sets out to build mental model after mental model of the world, apprehending more and more of reality at each iteration. For him, too, goal striving was straightforward. He was isolated from other people not by water but by intelligence. And after a certain point in his intellectual development, he might as well have been alone in the universe. He had no need for other people.

Goal striving, or crossing from is to ought, is easy when we can stay entirely within a first-person perspective. But, when we must cross the is/ought gap while also minding the difference between first person and third person perspectives, it becomes considerably more difficult.  While they might keep us from befriending volleyballs and wanting to kill ourselves, other people tend to complicate our goal striving.

Part of the problem is that we need other people. We need their protection. We need their validation. We need their touch. We need their conversation and companionship. We need their respect and admiration. And we get these things by occupying social roles.

Being President or Prime Minister of a nation is a social role. But so is being a friend. A social role can have very tightly delineated privileges and responsibilities understood and enforced by the broader culture, or flexible and evolving privileges and responsibilities determined entirely by two people in a one-on-one relationship. They can be highly generic, like the role of “citizen” or “person in good standing” or “member of the LGBTQ+ community”. And they can be highly specific, like “barista working the register at Starbucks”.

A second part of the problem is that we each have our own similar yet uniquely prioritized set of non-social needs, such as for food, sex, comfort, addicting drugs, safety, and warmth — our “id”s, if you will. And these needs can conflict with the requirements of our social roles (as well as with each other).

A third part of the problem is that our roles can be in conflict with each other. When the boss asks us to stay late the night of the school play, “loving parent” and “driven career professional” come into conflict. When the evidence for common ancestry is being presented in Biology class, the role of “intelligent college student” and “good church member” can come into conflict.

And with all that mayhem in Gotham, it’s a good thing we can call on the Bat-Man. Or so it seems to me. And I will try to explain enough so you can get a glimpse of what I have in mind and judge for yourself.

The Values Gap

I once had a discussion with some sociology grad students who argued that there is no “personal self”. According to them our self-concept, and all of our beliefs and values, are determined by our cultures.

There’s something to the second claim. If you want to predict someone’s political leanings or religious beliefs, look at the groups with which they identify. Though the correlation won’t be perfect, it will be positive and substantial.

But there are good reasons to think social influence doesn’t eliminate the need for a personal self. Most of us belong to multiple groups, and some of these groups expect us to follow norms that are in practical conflict with the norms of other groups to which we belong. And that raises the question: if we are simply products of our social influences, then which group determines our beliefs and values when there is conflict?

At this point a totalizing cultural determinist might admit that we do sometimes find ourselves confronting conflicting social norms. But they might go on to suggest that this actually provides evidence for their position, because, whenever there is normative conflict between our groups, we also typically have a corresponding inner conflict. And that’s just more evidence that our inner states mirror our external social reality.

And that would be a good point, if it weren’t for an important constraint we face when we engage in social exchange. Social exchanges often require us to state what we believe, express our values, make and keep promises, and so forth. If we don’t have a personal self, and we find ourselves holding two conflicting social roles, how do we make our words and actions consistent enough for others to trust us? If we just say whatever fits best with the most powerful social influences in a given situation, and different social influences hold sway in different circumstances, how do we keep from publicly contradicting ourselves? And how do we avoid raising suspicions that our views will generally match those of the last person in the room?

The need to be at least roughly consistent in our presentation to the world, even as we inhabit conflicting roles, seems to demand a personal self.

Plus, even if we were to belong to only one main social group, we would still have individual needs that would sometimes be frustrated by the social norms of our group, and it makes sense that we might want to develop personal norms that deviate slightly from the official social norms, so we can carve out a little space for our ids to breathe.

In summary, it’s not that our attitudes aren’t partly a function of the attitudes of the groups to which we belong. They usually are. But there are other inputs to the function, and the function is far more complicated than some might imagine. We can’t simply profile someone as transgender man and thereby predict that they have all the beliefs and values of transgender men. If they belong to a unique combination of groups (and hence, occupy a unique combination of roles), or they have an id that prioritizes their needs in a unique way, then the individual will likely have a unique “self” that must be considered in some respects sui generis and dealt with accordingly.

There is often, if not always, at least some gap between the values of an individual and the values of the groups to which they belong.

The Super Self

So one of our questions is: how are we to satisfy this demand for rough consistency in a world where we hold multiple mutually-conflicting roles, and have personal needs that conflict with these roles and with each other?

And, with that question, it’s time to venture a rough characterization of the Super Self:

The Super Self: The Super Self is our working model of a person we could plausibly become. This person occupies the social roles we need to occupy to meet our most pressing (social and non-social) needs. It has the skills and credentials needed to perform the roles well. And it it holds beliefs and values that best balance personal bernefit with the costs of role-role conflict, role-need conflict, and need-need conflict.

The Super Self has all the same attributes of the other selves. It has roles, role norms, values, beliefs, accomplishments, skills, and so forth. And there are both similarities and differences between the Super Self and its neighbors.

The difference between the Super Self and the Private Self defines the aspiration gap, and is most stark when we consider the skills, roles, and accomplishments of the two selves. The Super Self is usually more accomplished, has better roles (like so and so’s lover, or partner in the firm), has better skills, and is far better looking. And, as such, the Super Self gives us a self-improvement target.

But the Super Self will also share many attributes with the Private Self. In particular the two selves will probably hold most of their beliefs and values in common. If we can conceive of better beliefs and values, we tend to adopt them immediately, which leaves little time for a gap to form.

That said, the beliefs and values of the Super Self and the Private Self aren’t always the same, either. We might ascribe to the Super Self some unspecified aspirational values and beliefs. The Super Self, for instance, might believe more true things about Quantum Physics than our Private Self does, even if we don’t know what those are. Or the Super Self might hold values or norms that allow it to play all its current roles with less role-role, role-need, or need-need conflict, even if we don’t currently know what those values or norms might be.

The difference between the Super Self and the Hero Self defines the values gap, and is most stark when considering our roles and their attending norms. The Hero Self has many social roles and accepts all the social expectations for these roles. The Super Self has many of these same roles (though, if we aspire to lose a role or gain a new one, there will be some differences), but it does not necessarily take on all the social expectations for these roles. Instead, the Super Self makes each role fit with all of its other roles and all of its physical and psychological needs.

It is often in our interests to allow the Super Self to deviate here and there from social expectation. If we have a sense for how much we can deviate without jeopardizing a role, this gives us some degrees of freedom for juggling conflicting roles and carving out some breathing room for our ids.

But we also have some motivation to bring the Super Self and Hero Self closer together. All that juggling can become risky, tedious, or simply unworkable. In that case we might need to cut out one of our roles (so we can embrace the remaining roles more fully), re-negotiate the expectations for a role, or change our aspirations (for instance by adding new skills or making enough money that we don’t have to worry as much about losing a role).

The Super Self has the superpower of making conflicting roles and needs work together in a coherent and stable manner. And, while this super power can help us get more of what we personally want out of life, it can also help us better serve the common good. For, in order to serve others well, sometimes we have to bend their rules a bit.

Superhero is a Compound Word

If becoming super is a matter of conceiving an impressive Super Self, and then growing into it, then Batman is super. But he’s not a hero. For a hero also meets public role expectations. And, while Batman always worked for the public good, he had little concern for being judged in a positive light, leading Lt. Gordan to say:

“He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So we’ll hunt him. Because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.” (The Dark Knight 2:24)

Pre-Batman Bruce Wayne had many roles and a few goals. He was the son of parents who were murdered by a mugger before his eyes. He was a citizen of Gotham, he was a billionaire philanthropist. He was a friend to local politicians. And, of all his goals, the one with which we are most familiar was his goal to make Gotham safer.

We can imagine he tried to make Gotham safer through conventional means first. He had resources. He had connections. If anyone could make a difference playing by the rules, Bruce Wayne could. But apparently he couldn’t make the difference he wanted to make. Politics gets tricky. It’s marked by conflict of interest, inertia, and corruption. And there’s only so much he could do with his money working through official channels.

We can imagine Bruce Wayne sandboxing a bit here — engaging in a bit of daydream fantasizing. What if I could move in the shadows? What if I were immune to bullets and knives. What if I could fly? What if I had a mode of transportation that was fast and nearly undetectable? What if I could do things that were not legal — things upstanding politicians and respectable philanthropists can’t do? What kind of difference could I make then?

At that point he took steps only he (and maybe Elon Musk) could take. He started a secret R&D program and built his daydream fantasy super powers. And then he started working on the project of cleaning up Gotham from the shadows.

Batman is not completely separate from Bruce Wayne. They are both part of the same person. They share a coherent set of mutually-reinforcing goals. And they share the same values (which helps explain Batman’s “no kill” rule). Batman is not Bruce’s entire Private Self, and he was never Bruce’s entire Super Self. He is simply the latest renovation, the latest wing of Wayne Manor, the part that allows Bruce to do things he couldn’t do playing by the rules. Batman affords Bruce Wayne more degrees of freedom for pursuing his goals. And, provided he’s careful, he does this in a way that need not cost Bruce any of his pre-existing social roles.

And just as Batman was once nothing but Bruce Wayne’s daydream fantasy, Billy Tipton was originally nothing but Dorothy Tipton’s daydream fantasy. “What if I were to present as a man on stage?” led eventually to: “What if I were to present as a man all the time?” Billy Tipton was Dorothy’s way of gaining new social roles that met his needs better than the ones he had before.

Like Bruce Wayne, Dorothy Lucille Tipton conceived of a Super Self that could do things he couldn’t do within his current social constraints. And, like Bruce, Dorothy grew into that Super Self. But whereas Batman operated in the shadows, didn’t care how he was judged by the public, and integrated with his original identity. Billy Tipton operated in broad daylight, was committed to meeting and exceeding  public expectations for his roles of “jazz musician” and “father”, and let his original identity fade far into the background, leaving only a few reminders in memory and body.

Once Billy’s original identity faded as far as it could fade, the gap between Billy’s Super Self and his Hero Self narrowed. And that means Billy Tipton was not just a super persona, but also, in many ways, a superhero.

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Ribbonfarm is a longform blog featuring a variety of themes and perspectives. One-off contributions are published under this Guest Contributor account. Contributors with 2 or more posts have their own bylines, and are listed here


  1. Thought that just occurred to me: religion is mostly about shared super-selves. A consensus notion of what it means to be a better/best human being around which a culture of mutual exhortation to strive to be that “better self” evolves. This isn’t exactly a hero-self which is tied more to specific roles.

    What’s interesting with modernity is how the super selves of individuals have diverged even as the hero-selves have converged into role masks.

    A post just crossed my radar that gets at something similar re: masks

    • I’m resisting the suggestion that religions don’t make much use of hero roles. There tend to be very specific requirements for playing the role of “member in good standing” in most religions. Though I do think the hero self/super self distinction does tend to dissolve a bit when the religion is totalitarian enough.

      A religion that aims to be the top-level identity of its members at all times (more important than family identity, racial identity, class identity, sex identity, occupation identity, etc.) is a religion that elevates its own hero roles above all the other hero roles its members might aspire to. If it succeeds in this, the believer will feel more pressure to shrink the religion values gap than they will to shrink any of the other value gaps, and make the super self match as well as possible the hero roles provided by the religion. And fellow believers will be simultaneously shaping their super selves along the same lines. And that would seem to invite much mutual exhortation and encouragement.

      The observation about modernity is very interesting. It does seem that, as our Hero Self masks are changing, and becoming “less official”, there is more pressure to write our own job descriptions and make them match our super-selves (rather than having pressure to make our super-selves match predefined job descriptions).

      I just started reading the linked post, and see that it explores these thoughts in more depth. I plan to finish the post and think about this some more.