In Latin, persona originally meant a mask worn by actors to indicate the role they played. Carl Jung used the term to represent the ‘I’ that one presents to society. It is also the ‘I’ that society expects us to show.
Like the theatrical mask, the persona gives an indication of what the person/character is like. It helps define who we are which is helpful in social settings. In different situations we put on different masks such as Husband, Mother, Son, Coach, Entertainer, or Friend.
The persona is useful in that it mediates between our true self and society and acts as a protective covering. However, the persona is actually a compromise between what a person really is and what society expects the person to be.
‘True self’ and ‘false self’ are terms introduced by D. W. Winnicott in 1960. The true self describes a sense of self based on spontaneous authentic experience and a sense of “all-out personal aliveness” or “feeling real.”
When we live from the true self we work from self-acceptance, sympathy, peace, wisdom, gratefulness, altruism, simplicity, unity, friendliness and social acceptance. Our true self accepts situations, takes responsibility and is focused on the present.
The false self is an ego defense designed to protect the true self by hiding it. When we are in our false self, we often are working from pride, anger, power, intolerance, self-denial, materialism, blame, resentment and jealousy. Our false self complains, stirs up drama, and is occupied with the past or the future.
Winnicott believed that the false self allows a person to present a “polite and mannered attitude” in public – which is all well and good.
However, when we over-identify with a persona we lose sight of who we are. We take on roles with a complete set of ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ associated with each one. We begin to act in predetermined ways according to the expectations rather than how we truly want to act, or even feel.
When ego becomes too attached to the persona, a person loses sight of other aspects of their self. These neglected yet necessary traits remain further hidden or entrenched in the unconscious. Dreams or outer situations may start to present symbols of dress, armor, veils, and shields. Distinct roles such as Teacher, President, Server, or Caregiver may also become more noticeable.
Psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm distinguished between the ‘original self’ and the ‘pseudo self.’ Fromm explained, “The person who gives up his[/her] individual self and becomes an automaton, identical with millions of other automatons around him[/her], need not feel alone and anxious any more. But the price [s]he pays, however, is high; it is the loss of his[/her] self.”
It is this loss of self that eventually makes its mark. After decades of nullifying our true self, symptoms appear in order to get our attention. These include depression, malaise, lack of meaning in life, relationship issues, anxiety, chronic body symptoms with no medical diagnosis, and perhaps a voice inside shouting, “I can’t do this anymore!”
As we pause and turn inward, we ask, perhaps for the first time, “Who am I?,” and “How do I really want to live my life?” “What [role or part] is the ‘this’ psyche is done with doing?
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, the true self is the final level of psychological development – the “actualization” of one’s personal potential has taken place. In Italian per sonare means ‘to sound through.’ Perhaps this is a more soulful way of looking at persona. Instead of a mask, it’s a way of being in which the voice of our true self comes through.
Take time to note when you are living your true self and incorporate more of these activities into your life. Become aware of times when your false self appears, pondering, “Why now?” Identify what feeling or thought has been triggered which signals you cannot simply be yourself.