The Persona – The Mask That Conceals Your True Self

“Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9. Part I: Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

The word “persona” originally refers to a theatrical mask worn by actors to depict the roles played by them. In Carl Jung’s model of the psyche, the persona lies between our ego and society.

The ego refers to our centre of consciousness which is responsible for our continuing sense of identity throughout our life and the persona is the social mask that we put on. We all embody different masks in different settings, as it is our way to adapt to the demands of society, playing an important part in shaping our social role and in how we deal with other people. But, it also has its dangers.

“The persona is 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.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

Stages of the Persona

Jung outlines two stages of the persona. The first stage is that of identification. The performance of the persona is quite alright as long as one knows that one is not identical with the way one appears, it only becomes dangerous if one is unconscious of it or overidentifies with it. In this case, one must proceed to the second stage, that of disintegration, where one’s persona is intentionally or unintentionally shattered, creating a state of chaos and disorientation.

In very rare cases, one can have two or more personalities who have their own opinions, and may contradict each other, this is known as dissociative identity disorder, a mental health condition which is usually a result of trauma.

In the disintegration process, one can choose three different approaches: negative restoration (where one pretends that he is as he was before the crucial experience, in order to adapt to the status quo), absence (where one lives without a persona and cannot possibly interact with the world) and restoration (where one develops a persona that one is conscious of and which does not hide one’s true self).

If one is either unconscious or overidentifies with his persona, the optimal choice is restoration. Negative restoration hides one’s true self and absence of a persona may not only be impossible, but also undesirable, as one must adapt himself with the external world, as much as his inner world.

The topic we will be discussing are the dangers of concealing our true self. We may use the persona to help us conceal our vulnerabilities and other parts that we do not want to reveal about ourselves, or we may excessively identify with the persona.

Being Unconscious of The Persona

When we do not want to reveal the truth about ourselves, we act as someone who we are not.

“There is always some element of pretence about the persona, for it is a kind of shop window in which we like to display our best wares.”

Anthony Stevens, Jung: A Very Short Introduction

The persona begins to form early in childhood out of a need to conform to the wishes and expectations of parents, peers and teachers. Children quickly learn that certain attitudes and behaviours are acceptable and may be rewarded with approval while others are unacceptable and may result in punishment.

The tendency is to build acceptable traits into the persona and to keep unacceptable traits hidden or repressed. Perhaps being assertive is seen as rude and socially unacceptable and one becomes passive, affecting one’s relationships and career, or one can be too agreeable because one doesn’t like conflicts, but is taken advantage of. These undesirable aspects eventually take their toll on us as we mature, forming our shadow, the dark side of our personality, whom we may be possessed by at any moment, in sudden emotional outbursts.

For Jung, the negotiation with one’s shadow is a lifelong process as part of our self-education, which  allows us to rescue the good qualities that lie dormant in our psyche and be honest about who we are, as well as knowing how much good we can do, and what crimes we are capable of. The shadow, which is usually perceived as negative, also has its positive side. It becomes hostile only when it is ignored or misunderstood.

Excessive Identification with The Persona

The other danger of the persona is an excessive identification with it. This indicates that our individuality is nothing but pure fiction. In rare cases, if the ego is completely identical with the persona, individuality is wholly repressed, representing maximum adaptation to society and minimum adaptation to one’s individuality, inhibiting psychological development. Jung writes:

“Every calling or profession has its own characteristic persona… A certain kind of behaviour is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavour to come up to these expectations. Only, 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.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol 9. Part I: Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

The Persona and The Self (Individuation)

The persona prevents us from what Jung considered the most important task in our lives, the process of individuation, bringing one closer to the Self, through having one’s unconscious contents brought into consciousness. The contents of the unconscious can be explored through dreams, reflection and active imagination. It is not possible to achieve individuation by conscious intention alone.

The Self is the totality of one’s personality which transcends the ego. The goal of the Self is wholeness, and individuation is its raison d’être. The persona hinders this process.

“One cannot individuate as long as one is playing a role to oneself; the convictions one has about oneself are the most subtle form of persona and the most subtle obstacle against any true individuation. One can admit practically anything, yet somewhere one retains the idea that one is nevertheless so-and-so, and this is always a sort of final argument which counts apparently as a plus; yet it functions as an influence against true individuation.”

Carl Jung, Visions: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1930-1934

The Persona and Bad Faith

By way of example, we can contrast French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s concept of bad faith to that of the persona. He writes:

“Let us consider this waiter in the café. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. Finally there he returns, trying to imitate in his walk the inflexible stiffness of some kind of automaton while carrying his tray with the recklessness of a tightrope walker by putting it in a perpetually unstable, perpetually broken equilibrium which he perpetually re-establishes by a light movement of the arm and hand. All his behaviour seems to us a game… He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café. There is nothing there to surprise us.”

Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness

Sartre tells us that the waiter is deceiving himself about his human reality. The persona or social role has become equivalent to his human existence, his individuality becomes objectified being equivalent to his job. If one day he happens to lose interest in his job or is fired from it, his persona shatters (the stage of disintegration) and he stares into the abyss, meeting face to face with the emptiness of his true self which he has not yet developed, and this may lead to an existential crisis.

Jung believes, on the other hand, that one falls into the power of primordial images, and without an anchor in reality, one can lose one’s wits. He writes:

“The aim of individuation is nothing less than to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona on the one hand, and of the suggestive power of primordial images on the other.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

The Persona and The Collective Unconscious

Primordial images or archetypes are collectively-inherited forms. To understand this better, one must be familiar with Jung’s model of the psyche. The Self is divided into consciousness and the unconscious, and further, the unconscious is divided into the personal unconscious (contents that are individually acquired but have been forgotten or repressed) and the collective unconscious (contents that are inherited, that is, archetypes).

Apart from the persona that we have been discussing, the mediator between ego and society, which pertains to consciousness, the persona also forms part of the collective unconscious and is sometimes referred to as a social archetype or conformity archetype.

“It is only because the persona represents a more or less arbitrary and fortuitous segment of the collective psyche that we can make the mistake of regarding it in toto as something individual. It is, as its name implies, only a mask of the collective psyche, a mask that feigns individuality, making others and oneself believe that one is individual, whereas one is simply acting a role through which the collective psyche speaks.”

Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology

When we analyse the persona we strip off the mask, and discover that what seemed to be individual is at bottom collective; in other words, that the persona is only a mask for the collective unconscious.

We all have a name, seek to earn a title, exercise a function and be this or that. This is all real, yet in relation to the essential individuality of the person concerned it is only a secondary reality. Fundamentally the persona is nothing but a compromise between individual and society as what a man should appear to be, which is not to be devalued. However, the development of individuality can never take place through personal relationships alone, since it requires a psychic relationship to the collective unconscious.

The real individuality keeps on coming to the fore and interferes with the conscious mind, as the unconscious guides us towards individuation. And with the exploration of the unconscious, we can assimilate the archetypes that influence our conscious life as autonomous personalities within the collective unconscious. These are brought to life by the particular expressions of individuals and their cultures around the world. People don’t have ideas; ideas have people.

In essence, the human psyche is both individual and collective, therefore, a balance and co-operation between two apparently contradictory sides is precisely what gives us psychic equilibrium.


The Persona – The Mask That Conceals Your True Self

The persona is one of Carl Jung’s most well-known concepts, representing the social mask that we put on. We all embody different masks in different settings, as it is our way to adapt to the demands of society, playing an important part in shaping our social role and in how we deal with other people. But, it also has its dangers.

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2 thoughts on “The Persona – The Mask That Conceals Your True Self

  1. I really like this theme. It’s so obvious it’s funny. Out of all seriousness the actors continue to put on their game faces not realizing fully that is what they are—Games

  2. Pingback: where is shadow -

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