The Persona: Why Growth Means Removing The Mask You Show To The World
For many, the persona is developed early in childhood.
William James, the grandfather of modern psychology, famously said: “Whenever two people meet, there are really six people present. There is each man as he sees himself, each man as the other person sees him, and each man as he really is.” James points to the fundamental nature of consciousness. The self-image is who we think we are. How we believe we’re seen by others is a projection of that self-image. And who we are at the core? That takes work to discover.
Part of the discovery process is growing in consciousness, uncovering hidden parts of the self, and adjusting our self-image along the way. The more inner discovery that takes place, the more information you have to work with, and the more your self-image updates to become a better reflection of the soul. What we call growth, or self-development, captures this process of growing the image we have of ourselves.
Any number of things might constrict growth, from the unwillingness to confront the shadow, to fixed beliefs or judgments about the type of person you are. Carl Jung, another genius of the psyche, integrates James’ wisdom into a comprehensive model of the psyche. Jung’s terminology of the ego, the persona, and the self, relate to how man sees himself, how they believe they’re seen, and how they truly are respectively.
In this article, we’ll guide you through this model to explain why working with your persona is essential for growth, as well as steps on how to utilize this awareness to further your self-development.
The Mask You Show the World
The field of depth psychology has presented numerous models to convey the challenge of mediating the self, or the inner world, with the outer world, consisting of other people and society at large. Jung’s early teacher, Sigmund Freud, calls this quality of the psyche the super-ego, the part of the mind that tampers primal desires and urges, in order to exist and build relationships with other people. Erik Erikson, another student of Freud, created an entire model of psychosocial development based upon the eternal tension between personal needs and social needs.
Clearly, this balancing act is at the core of what it means to be an evolved, civilized human. Jung explains the persona as “a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.” All of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, will be able to acknowledge the mask we often show the world — to fit in, to please, to not offend, to comply.
Persona comes from the Latin persōna, which means mask or character, and was used to describe the mask actors would wear while performing. For Jung, this social mask is developed as a way to become more palatable or likable. For many, it is developed early in childhood, where formative experiences shape our idea of which behaviors or emotions are acceptable, and which aren’t.
Identification With the Persona
Jung didn’t believe the persona in itself was bad. The ability to embody various roles in life is essential to functioning at a high level. It’s necessary to have a persona of professionalism in your work life, or a persona of respect when dealing with people close to you. If you always shared, with zero masks or filter, you’d probably find yourself without friends very quickly. Building rapport or developing positive relationships requires social skill, after all.
Jung saw the persona as a problem when it merges with the inner self, or in his words, “the danger is that they become identical with their personas – the professor with his text-book, the tenor with his voice. Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography… One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.”
When someone over-identifies with the persona, their identity becomes dependent on the external world. They have little awareness of the boundaries between the true self within, and the way they view themselves or believe they’re viewed by others. The more someone twists and contorts their behavior to suit the needs of others, which we often call people-pleasing, the further they move from knowing themselves.
The further someone identifies with the persona, the deeper their true personality becomes buried — just think of the caricature of politicians on the world’s stage who appear completely disconnected from the words they speak, and the consequences of the decisions they make, often deflecting or relying on political speech, rather than genuine or true reflection.
The Path of Authenticity
Another leading psychologist, Carl Rogers, introduced the theory of congruence to explain the bridge between how one is in the world, and one’s self-image. The path of growth and development means, in simple terms, the process of uncovering the truth of who you are within, and then working to integrate that into the world. That requires awareness of the persona and the often frightening experience of cracking the shell of the false self.
One of the functions of the persona is to create a deliberate impression, an act that has a desired outcome. The persona offers a guide by giving you a view of who you are not. In my experience, what feels true and authentic comes from a place deep within, usually an inner whisper or sense of knowing, that reminds me when I’m not acting in a way that feels true. Truth has no desired outcome, other than to be expressed.
Part of the process of letting go of the mask is simply being aware of when it surfaces, and to what degree. It takes courage to remove the mask. The process isn’t to be rushed, but explored with patience. Self-honesty is required to explore when the mask is active, and what you feel you gain by acting in a certain way. Make no mistake, unconsciously, there is a belief that you gain something by showing your mask to the world. It could be validation, status, respect, or the avoidance of rejection.
Whatever that is, know that the pain of not bringing your true self to the surface, and living in a way that feels right to you, is much greater than any goal the mask achieves. Whether you are true to yourself or not, some people will like you, others won’t. The choice is to be authentic and be liked or disliked, or inauthentic, and liked, or disliked. As cliche as it sounds, it’s better to be liked or disliked for who you truly are, than live a lie.
Keeping the mask in place takes the edge off of life, it leads to more superficial relationships, and often a deep pain at not honoring what feels true. Sometimes that pain is so unbearable, that the persona will dissolve by itself, in a form of existential crisis or mental breakdown. Other times, people will begin their exploration willingly. Either way, removing the mask is essential for growth.
Reading one article isn’t going to create radical change. Letting go of the mask is a life-long process, a journey into greater levels of authenticity. As always, the first step is awareness. See the mask for what it is, and make the commitment to living a more authentic life. Consider the cost of hiding your true self from the world, not least the suppression of your true self, the self that has many gifts to share with the world.
Other points of exploration include:
- Consider all the ways you hide your true self: be it your dreams, desires, emotions, thoughts, or perspectives, in order to achieve a certain goal. Do you avoid intimate relationships? Do you avoid sharing parts of your inner world you judge, or fear might be judged by others?
- Reflect on the times you do or say things to please others: do you say something you don’t truly stand behind, participate in an activity you don’t genuinely care for, or avoid speaking up in certain situations?
- Piece together hidden patterns: the persona develops to hide certain parts of the personality, and create an impression on others. Consequently, if you start to explore its role in your life, you’ll uncover various patterns that point back to the original source, that which you’ve suppressed.
- Process the underlying feelings: masks are glued in place by feelings you wish to avoid; shame, disappointment, anger, sadness. Delve into your emotional world and consider what feelings your persona is trying to avoid. Do you portray a certain image of happy-go-lucky to avoid showing sadness, through fear of rejection? Go to the feeling of rejection, and heal from there.
- Let go of control: trying to maintain or manipulate how you’re perceived by others is a futile attempt at control. People form their own opinions, and there’s a limited influence we can have in this way. Using energy trying to avoid unfavorable opinions, or gain favorable ones, is exhausting. Liberate yourself from the tyranny of impression management.
Time-travel to your deathbed: you know what the number one regret people have on their deathbed? I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. When I first read that, it struck me, hard. So many of us sacrifice authenticity to play a role in society. For many, it’s too late by the time that realization hits. Don’t be one of those people. Imagine yourself on your deathbed, and ask yourself, what choice do you really have, in order to live truly? The alternative isn’t worth thinking about.