The persona, for Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, was the social face the individual presented to the world—”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”.
Defining the Persona
The persona is the public image of someone. The original word persona means mask, so the mask we wear in public in order to impose a certain image about us: father, mother, chief, artist, official, president of republic, etc. Persona is therefore a result of social adaptation that plays an important role in dealing with peers.
This archetype may be excessive, that is, it may suggest a personality that has nothing natural but it is pure fiction. This is usually the case with politicians, mass-media stars, anyone who claims to have a special role to play in social life.
If this image is excessive, then our authentic personality evanesces until it becomes practically unrecognizable.
Jung’s individuation process starts from this level, of the persona, of the social mask, trying to break the artificial convention through awareness of its presence and function, and the attenuation of its often oppressive-imperative character.
Development of Persona
The development of a viable social mask is a vital part of adapting to, and preparing for, adult life in the external social world. “
A strong ego relates to the outside world through a flexible persona; identifications with a specific persona (doctor, scholar, artist, etc.) inhibits psychological development. Thus for Jung “the danger is that [people] become identical with their personas—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice.” The result could be “the shallow, brittle, conformist kind of personality which is ‘all persona’, with its excessive concern for ‘what people think'”—an unreflecting state of mind ‘in which people are utterly unconscious of any distinction between themselves and the world in which they live. They have little or no concept of themselves as beings distinct from what society expects of them’.
The stage was set thereby for what Jung termed enantiodromia—the emergence of the repressed individuality from beneath the social mask later in life: ‘the individual will either be completely smothered under an empty persona or an enantiodromia into the buried opposites will occur’.
The breakdown of the persona constitutes the typically Jungian moment both in therapy and in development — the “moment” when “that excessive commitment to collective ideals masking deeper individuality—the persona—breaks down… disintegrates.”
Given Jung’s view that “the persona is a semblance… the dissolution of the persona is therefore absolutely necessary for individuation.” Nevertheless, its disintegration may well lead initially to a state of chaos in the individual: “one result of the dissolution of the persona is the release of fantasy… disorientation.” As the individuation process gets under way, “the situation has thrown off the conventional husk and developed into a stark encounter with reality, with no false veils or adornments of any kind.”
One possible reaction to the resulting experience of archetypal chaos was what Jung (buy his books from Amazon) called the regressive restoration of the persona, whereby the protagonist “laboriously tries to patch up his social reputation within the confines of a much more limited personality… pretending that he is as he was before the crucial experience.” Similarly in treatment there can be “the persona-restoring phase, which is an effort to maintain superficiality”; or even a longer phase designed not to promote individuation but to bring about what Jung caricatured as “the negative restoration of the persona”—that is to say, a reversion to the status quo.
The alternative is to endure living with the absence of the archetype—and for Jung “the man with no persona… is blind to the reality of the world, which for him has merely the value of an amusing or fantastic playground.” Inevitably, the result of “the streaming in of the unconscious into the conscious realm, simultaneously with the dissolution of the ‘persona’ and the reduction of the directive force of consciousness, is a state of disturbed psychic equilibrium.”
Those trapped at such a stage remain “blind to the world, hopeless dreamers… spectral Cassandras dreaded for their tactlessness, eternally misunderstood.”
Persona in Individuation
Recovery, the aim of individuation, “is not only achieved by work on the inside figures but also, as conditio sine qua non, by a readaptation in outer life”—including the recreation of a new and more viable persona. To “develop a stronger persona… might feel inauthentic, like learning to “play a role”… but if one cannot perform a social role then one will suffer”. Thus one goal for individuation is for people to “develop a more realistic, flexible persona that helps them navigate in society but does not collide with nor hide their true self”. Eventually, “in the best case, the persona is appropriate and tasteful, a true reflection of our inner individuality and our outward sense of self.”