“Be sure that whatever you are is you.”
― Theodore Roethke
While studying to get my PhD in psychology, I was particularly interested in Carl Jung and his ideas about how the human psyche operates. His concepts resonated with me and I find them very useful for the work I do in empowering others.
One term Jung coined (which is often misinterpreted) is “persona.” In The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious, he wrote:
“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.”
Jung felt that the persona had to be released in order for a patient to experience individuation or authentic self. If a person could not release his or her social mask and acknowledge what was behind it, they could never see the truth of who they really were. But Jung also felt that the persona had value and claimed that “the man with no persona… is blind to the reality of the world.”
So what is it? A mask that must be abandoned so that we become authentic in the world or a very useful tool to navigate life?
I’d say both. And I’d say that what we need to abandon is not the mask but our tight identification with a certain mask.
Our basic persona, the one we develop as children to deal with the world, is usually somewhat general. We learn to play the “shy little girl” or the “tough guy.” The problem comes in when we begin to think that’s all we are, that we can’t express the other qualities in ourselves. We become stilted and confined. When we aren’t aware that this is just a persona—not the whole of who we are—we find ourselves playing the same “character” in the same mask no matter what the circumstance. And it doesn’t work.
We all move through our days playing a variety of roles: parents, workers, friends, children, bosses, coaches, whatever. If we try to play those roles wearing with the exact same persona, it can backfire. “Tough guy” may be effective at work, but it’s not so hot in building deep personal relationships. “Shy little girl” may work in a school setting, but you’ll have a hard time competing in the corporate world.
Rather than our persona using us, I like to see us using our persona effectively—and expanding our repertoire of personas. We all have the ability to put on different personas to fit the occasion. Many of us do this unconsciously. We slip into Mommy-mode when we come home from the office or ramp up our sexy, playful persona when out on a date.
It’s not about being false or phony. It’s about bringing different aspects of ourselves to the table. We are all goofy, gentle, tough, efficient, bold, or shy— at least to some extent. Why not allow those characteristics come out when they could be helpful?
It’s like the clothes we wear. My flip flops and Tommy Bahama swim trunks are fine for the beach. But if I want to show leadership in my NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) trainings, that’s not the outfit I’d choose. By the same token, when I’m being interviewed about Huna on national TV, I wear an Aloha shirt, not a suit. Why? Because it better reflects what I’m about as a teacher of Huna.
Yet some people identify strongly even with their clothes! Have you ever seen the guy who wears ragged jeans and t-shirt to a formal wedding? Or the guy in suit and tie at a luau? Unless they’re intentionally making a protest statement, their clothes are working against them!
And so it is with bringing the wrong persona to a situation.
I walked into a business meeting for my staff a while back and one of my employees said, “How about if you start this meeting off by chanting?” I declined but he persisted. “Why not? You’re kumu (teacher). It was very powerful when you chanted this weekend.”
He had just attended one of my Huna trainings (Huna is the ancient spiritual, healing practice of the Hawaiian Islands). I had to explain to him that I’m kumu in trainings but CEO when it comes to my company. “I’m still the same me. But what I need to project and be in this context is different.”
Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor nailed the conscious use of persona when she said:
“It is very important when you judge to recognize that you have to stay impartial. That’s what the nature of my job is. I have to unhook myself from my emotional responses and try to stay within my unemotional, objective persona.”
As I always tell my students, “Whatever you think you are, you’re more than that!”
Until Next Time!