Carl Jung’s Persona—How to Be a Healthy Fake
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Carl Jung was a Swiss-born psychologist and psychiatrist who founded analytic psychology (1875-1961). His work remains influential in psychiatry, psychology, the study of religion, literature, art, and related fields. (britannica.com) I have read many of his books over the years and have found his ideas invaluable in my journey as a person. I heartily recommend taking up the study of Jung for anyone interested in the journey of self, of society, and of meaning. Notably, my beloved departed teacher and pastor, Reverend Peter Gomes (1942-2011) of Harvard’s Memorial Church included Jung’s Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933) as one of the most inspiring and influential books that he read.
I think the quickest way of understanding Jungian psychology is to think of a person as being a multi-dimensional being with each part playing a healthy and important role. Even our shadow self, the self that we consider evil or bad, the self that perhaps is a not so nice and sweet or who enjoys naughty things from time to time, was according to Jung a healthy part of being human. One of the aspects or parts of being was what Jung called the persona. Originally, the word persona was the word for the mask that actors wore on stage to represent their characters. It was meant to both project a character and protect the actor’s true identity from the crowd—lest they think the actor was actually an evil villain or a promiscuous wife. Likewise, Jung’s persona is the mask we wear in our public lives. “Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be.” (from Carl Jung—The Persona as a Segment of the Collective Psyche)
During our era of ‘authenticity’ and ‘keeping it real’ and ‘staying true to yourselves’ it might be a knee-jerk reaction to automatically call out the idea of the persona to be a call to be fake and that if someone does wear a mask when out in public then they are not a good person. However, in Jung’s logic, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, for people that are not able to fully develop a healthy persona, a rough road for them and everyone around them is up ahead as people who have not learned how to curb themselves according to a particular situation are often seen as oafish, rude, offensive, and delusional. Civil society requires us to all wear masks when we are at work, at a store, and with our kids (one should not totally unload one's shadow onto ones kids—I think of the many cases of wasted grownups demanding that their 9 or 10-year-old kids drive them to the liquor store only to find themselves in a car wreck). And we all know the person at work who shares way too much information about themselves and their home lives. We need polite public places filled with people who have zero bodily functions. Oh, and this new cultural obsession—Authenticity, Jung would definitely raise an eyebrow to a fad of wearing masks that express, “My persona is that I do not have a persona.”
While it is good and healthy not only for the individual but for society as a whole for people to have a well-developed persona (or maybe even multiple personas), being fake can go bad. “A man cannot get rid of himself in favor of an artificial personality without punishment. Even the attempt to do so brings on, in all ordinary cases, unconscious reactions in the form of bad moods, affects, phobias, obsessive ideas, backsliding vices, etc. The social ‘strong man’ is in his private life often a mere child where his own states of feeling are concerned.” (--Carl Jung Anima and Animus) Essentially, while it is good and healthy to be very polite and gentle in the company of an elderly relative (healthy persona), it can eat you alive if you start to believe that is who you are by constantly repressing your more complex and wild human nature. “Without a well-developed shadow side, a person can easily become shallow and extremely preoccupied with the opinions of others, a walking Persona.” (The Jungian Model of the Psyche, journalpsyche.org) Other classic cases of losing yourself to the persona happens through one’s career: “Those who identify too strongly with their personas, however, can run into problems—think of the celebrity who becomes too involved with his or herself as the ‘star,’ the person who cannot leave work at work, or the academic who seems condescending to everyone.” (The Jungian Model of the Psyche, journalpsyche.org) What is important to understand though, is that according to Jung, a person never really loses oneself to the persona. Instead, they will often act out unconsciously or project their shadow selves onto others. It can create a dire situation for a person who represses themselves in favor of their personas, and often Jung found that behind many mental illnesses, relationship woes, professional struggles, and substance abuse was an unhealthy relationship with the different aspects of ourselves including our saintly, sunny personas and naughty, dark shadows.
I think one of the most compassionate and genius insights from Jung is that we need to accept our devil and our angel to be healthy, happy, and sound.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.