Negative histories threaten collective identity. Much research has focussed on how group members strategically defend against such threats. However, within certain groups such defence is difficult—because the group's past actions were unambiguously negative and because these were public and continue to frame relations with outgroups. We explored the consequences of this form of identity constraint on the individual's experience of the self. Two studies varied the salience of the past as German participants expressed their national identity to either an ingroup (German) or outgroup (English) audience. In both studies expressing German identity to an outgroup audience when the past was salient resulted in a more fragmented sense of self and reduced self-esteem. This effect was mediated through a perceived inability to enact the self. Results are discussed with respect to the power of context to constrain identity expression, and the consequences of this for the self. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.