Hiding in Plain Sight: The Persona

This is the second post in the Mythology and the Psyche series, a list of all the posts in the series can be found here.

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The next layer of the Self is the persona. This is another concept borrowed directly from Jung. He chose the term ‘persona’ because it is Latin for ‘mask,’ specifically in the context of a character played by an actor. The persona is, essentially, the ego’s public relations department. It is the aspect of ourselves that interacts with others and our society at large. Acting as a kind of filter for the Self and the ego, where the ego selects what it believes is important to you in the environment and your social interactions, what you notice in a given moment, the persona selects what about you to reveal to others. The persona is the image you project about yourself to the world. Your ego has a major influence on your persona, as your preferred self-image is based largely on the ego’s system of values: what it prioritises as acceptable, desirable, admirable, as well as what is repulsive, offensive, “bad,” or otherwise intolerable. The purpose of the persona is similar to that of the ego: on the one hand, it makes life manageable – interacting with other people requires a persona to create common, relatable ground on which relationships and rapport can be built; on the other hand, the persona is optimised to present the most admirable version of ourselves in order to avoid or minimize pain, ensuring we are accepted and supported by others in our particular society. This is not to say that your persona is exclusively made up of “positive” traits. Many people create personae who posture mistrust, anger, or victimization: not because they are jerks, but because their particular facade allows them to interact with others and still feel safe. Jung describes the persona as a “compromise between the individual and society as to what a man should appear to be” whose form “others often have a greater share [in creating] than [the individual].” Thus, maintaining the integrity of your persona can often feel like protecting the integrity of your whole world:

That others have such a considerable share of the persona’s construction is a critical point: the persona is symptom of the particular time and culture in which you live. As Joseph Campbell puts it, each society has a “wardrobe of personae for you… tasks to do.” Which personae are available, and more importantly perhaps, which are the most valued, are all highly specific to each society: for example, you can no longer, at least legitimately, be an Executioner, a Lamp Lighter, or a ‘Knocker Upper’:

Get your mind out of the gutter, they were a low-tech alarm clock.
Get your mind out of the gutter, they were a low-tech alarm clock.

Some common, current personae include: Teacher, Doctor, Mother, Politician, Lawyer, Entrepreneur, Husband, Used-Car Salesman. This is the major component of your persona, consider, for example, how quickly a new acquaintance asks “What do you do?” Depending on your answer, it may transform the tone of the conversation. This question is also a shortcut to certain assumptions about someone’s character: each persona carries specific expectations of behaviour and values. We don’t, for example, have the same expectations of conduct of a used-car salesman that we do of a teacher. And in professions like medicine and law, doctors and lawyers can be, and frequently are, striped of their licence for “unprofessional behaviour” or “ethical” violations defined by a governing body who decides what a ‘Lawyer’ or ‘Doctor’ is.

One of these two wrote a song called ‘Murder Was the Case.’ The other is a convicted felon.

One’s persona also encompasses the personality you present to others, the impression you hope to make. Something like the carefully curated Facebook and social media profiles many people keep. You may like to be seen as someone who is caring or outgoing, perhaps rebellious. This in turn affects your choice of clothing, your hair style, the car you drive, the kind of house you live in and how it’s decorated.

Hardwood floors and granite counter tops, no doubt.
Hardwood floors and granite counter tops, no doubt.

But all of this is not to say the persona is fake or inauthentic. Jung reassures that the persona “is all quite real, and quite honest.” When someone lacks a persona, Jung explains this is a source of suffering: “The man with no persona … is blind to the reality of the world … [these people are] spectral Cassandras dreaded for their tactlessness, eternally misunderstood.” In fact, developing a persona is necessary for the proper functioning of society itself. In Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious Jung suggests “the strengthening of his social personality is one of the essential conditions of man’s existence. Were it not so, humanity would cease to be.” In order to survive in harmony, every society needs to have agreed upon standards of conduct, and this is the territory of the persona. So critical to the life of a society is the persona, that society builds an enforcement system to indoctrinate its members into an appropriate mask:

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The first level is, of course, other people. As Campbell jokes, “What will the neighbours think?” He also explains this level is “the most important, really.” It’s certainly the most recognisable way the persona is imposed. Much of our lives are moulded to meet the approval of those around us, from the subtle expectation that you should be married by a “certain age,” or how many children you (better) have, to the cliché of ‘peer pressure,’ the quarterly reports on this season’s “must-have” trends, getting ‘Likes’ on Facebook, to, of course, wondering what the neighbours will think. One of the more bizarre examples I’ve come across personally was a letter to the editor in an Irish newspaper from several years ago. A concerned citizen was upset and the growing trend among Irish households to hang Christmas lights outside as is common in North America. This rigid persona (in this case, perhaps, betraying it’s an older model passed its best-before date), lamented the lights were “bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood.” I bet they’re fun at parties. It was the real-life incarnation of the episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air where Will and Ashley go a little nuts with the Christmas decorations and are then inundated with complaints because they seem “tacky” in the upscale neighbourhood:

The next layer is what Campbell describes as “the whole institutionalization of morality and social custom.” Morality is part of the persona, and is one of the major ways the persona supports the existence of society. But it’s difficult for most people to accept that, as Campbell explains, “morality is something you put on and off.” This is how the enforcement of the persona is so effective. We take for granted that our culture’s morality is something we made up, rather than some kind of pre-existing, ‘universal truth.’ This is then institutionalized in the form of our law system and the police force. Social customs, like what a culture considers good or bad ‘manners,’ what’s considered ‘politically correct’ to say or believe, all that sort of thing. This is institutionalized in forms such as the education system, the religious teachings of a society’s dominant religion, and often through the culture’s media.

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Campbell labels the final level as “the idea of nature.” This is what our culture considers to be “natural moral law.” All three levels interact, of course. A culture’s morality may be formalised in the law, enforced by police officers, as well as obeyed partially by peer-pressure or the stigma of being in trouble with “the law.” Likewise, our ideas about the “laws of nature” inform our morality. But as Campbell deftly points out, we talk about the laws of nature “as though there were any such thing.” Predatory business practises in a capitalist system are often excused as the manifestation of “survival of the fittest.” Vegans like to throw out the fact that no other animal consumes the milk of another species, and thus it must be ‘unnatural’ (even immoral) for humans to do so. Nature doesn’t follow “laws,” it follows biology which is completely devoid of morality: it just is. Morality is the construct of the ego (another way it can be “right”), and the ego imposes its matrix of logic and its obsession with righteousness on nature to validate its own attitude.

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Again, the persona – and the ego for that matter – is not an aberration in the psyche that needs to be excised. The persona is a practical tool to interact with the outside world and still be able to function, and is a valid element of the Self. The persona and the ego aren’t an enemy, but nor are they holy. Jung reiterates that “the performance of the persona is quite all right as long as you know that you are not identical with the way in which you appear.” You must be careful not to take your persona to be all that you are, as Campbell jests, “the person who identifies himself with his role we call a ‘stuffed shirt.’” This is the absurdity of someone insisting to be addressed as ‘Dr.’ outside of a professional setting, by a hair stylist, or family members. Jung reminds us, “Fundamentally, the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between the individual and society as to what a man should appear to be. He takes a name, earns a title, represents an office, he is this or that. In a certain sense all this is real, yet in relation to the essential individuality of the person concerned it is only a secondary reality … The persona is a semblance, a two-dimensional reality.” Jung continues, that because the persona is only a semblance, “the dissolution of the persona is therefore absolutely necessary” to undertake the process of Self-realisation (Jung uses the term ‘individuation’, but in the context of mythology this process is slightly different so I avoid ‘individuation’ so they aren’t confused as the same thing). It may also require you stop being a serious sports fan:

There are two ways, Campbell suggests, to transcend the persona and eventually release the ego. In the traditions of the east, one “is meant to identify with the persona. [The individual] is to live in terms of what [in India] is called the ‘dharma,’ the duty system that is put upon him … he is a warrior, he is a merchant, he isn’t playing a role, he is it.” In this way, one in this system has an incredibly fragile ego, there is very little sense of an ‘I’ with individual wants and preferences that are in any way important. There is a kind of transparency to the ego. In the west, by contrast, there is “much more respect for the individual values and individuality … you’re supposed to develop your critical faculties.” Here there is a far more fragile persona – it is something one puts on or takes off – but the ego is a rock.

Now, in mythology, the term ‘ego’ encompasses the persona, they are two sides of the same coin and whether one is more or less rigid than the other is the same problem, but it’s helpful to think of them separately because they define the difference between what Campbell calls ‘the right hand path’ and ‘the left hand path.’ On the right hand path, the individual remains inside the realm of their society, and their persona. The goal here is that by identifying so completely with the larger group, the sense of separation dissipates until the ego dissolves back into the eternal. This way, however, as many of the eastern traditions teach, takes many thousands of lives. Campbell describes the right hand path as “the mythology of the village compound that keeps you fixed in the context of your world and you grow up here, you live as expected, you live a dignified, successful, and in a rich society, a richly developed life.”

The left hand path is for those who “flip out,” who “have [feelings] of incongruities” with their society. This path emphasizes individuality, and requires the abandonment of the comforting walls and support of society. Campbell explains that on the left hand path, “You follow the way of your own bliss, and you are in a realm in which there are no rules, and since your bliss is not mine, you don’t know where you’re going. Here you will live a life of danger, creativity, perhaps not a respected life, but certainly an interesting one.” This is the hero’s journey, where the hero enters the dangerous world of the unconscious, with all of its traps and treasure, to face his Self, in order to release the ego. Often, it is only through violence and death that the hero can return to the eternal realm, for the heart of the journey’s purpose is to come to grips with your own darkness, and the suffering of life.

The journey shatters the ego and its persona, it must. For the journey leads us back into our own Selves, and the persona is, as Jung reminds us, “designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.” We don’t know ourselves, but we do sense the terrible danger lurking in the unconscious, waiting to swallow us whole. The unconscious is our next stop.

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One Response to Hiding in Plain Sight: The Persona

  1. Ms Donohoe, this series is incredible and more! I’m so amazed and impressed by your comprehensive take on the concepts of Jung and Campbell. Thank you!
    /Amanda

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About Sinéad Donohoe

A writer from London, Ontario. These are her adventures in writing, movie loving, and general mayhem.