mask08 by you.Once the ego has emerged in early childhood, we begin to decide what parts of ourselves—what traits—we’ll let people see and what parts we’ll conceal or withhold. We tend to cover up reactions others don’t like and choose actions to please them and bring us the rewards we want. A small child, for example, learns to use his instinctive crying to get what he wants, or learns to control his crying if he is punished for it. We begin to form a mask to express or to hide who we are inside.

Jung called this mask the Persona. If our parents communicated love, support, and acceptance for us, we probably originally formed our persona to please them. We might also have formed it to please them if we feared them and were afraid of displeasing them. If we didn’t feel acceptance from them, we may have reversed the persona and perversely tried to displease them, getting rid of those qualities that might have pleased them. In any case, we kept some of our natural qualities and shut away others. The Persona is the necessary adaptation that allows human beings to live together. A raw, unmediated personality would be more than we or others could bear.

As we in our wisdom grow, we can use the Persona to bring whatever parts of us are appropriate to a given situation. The Persona is only a problem when it hides too much or too little. Giving our selves free reign to do or say or react however we want in a situation is just as destructive as keeping it all locked up.

mask05 by you.The process of civilizing a human being leads to a compromise between oneself and society as to how one should be and appear. The Persona is a mask of sorts that shows the role a person is playing. It is necessary to develop and display a Persona in order to succeed at a role. A businessman must appear forceful and energetic, an academic intelligent, a civil servant correct, a professional woman must be intelligent and well-dressed; a wife is a hostess, a partner, a mother, or whatever her role demands.

As we consider the different roles we play and expect others to play, we can see that the Persona is a collective phenomenon, a facet of the personality that might also equally belong to somebody else. It is often mistaken for individuality, though. The actor or artist with long hair and casual clothes appears to be an individual, but is merely wearing the style of all his other peers playing the actor or artist role. To some extent, people do choose the roles to which they feel best fitted, and to this degree the persona may express some individuality. But it is never the whole man or woman.

Human nature is not consistent, yet in filling a role it must appear so, and the Persona is therefore inevitably falsified. The Persona, however, is a necessity. Through it we relate to our world. It simplifies our contacts by communicating what we may expect from others and what they can expect from us. People who neglect the development of a Persona tend to be gauche, to offend others, and to have difficulty in establishing themselves in the world or in a family. They are often hard to get along with and can be prone to various kinds of outbursts or behaviors that confuse or offend others.

There is always the danger, however, of identifying oneself with the role one fills, a danger that is not obvious when the role one fills is a good one and fits the person well. Yet we often say with some concern, “He plays a part,” or “She is not really like that at all,” when others are not being true to their own natures. Another danger is that too rigid a Persona means too complete a denial of the rest of the personality in all those aspects which relate to the personal or belong to the collective unconscious. If we choose to stay in touch with those qualities not incorporated into the Persona, if we know they are ours but feel they are not appropriate in the outer world, then our persona is apt to be a healthy one. It expresses our reality in what we deem to be in proper measure. But it does not hide us from ourselves.

But if we push this reality of ourselves away from us, then our Persona becomes a mask which obscures our reality from ourselves and others. Most of us do both of these things.  As we become adults, our health depends on rediscovering those lost qualities which belong to us.

mask07 by you.

11 responses to “Masks”

  1. Irene Avatar

    I’m probably a bit too late to comment here, but never mind. I think often about this role-playing, and in one area, my painting, it has an effect on my career. I tend not to make compromises in the sort of work I do, and often get told my work is ‘too strong’ and changes all the time (not good for one’s marketability). I call this my ‘mutability’. Or, like Ingres, I have many different paint brushes! I think a long time ago I developed far too much flexibility so as to be pleasing, and am aware I can be a chameleon according to who I am with. With the painting, I think this impacts my work by being able to shift style with each new body of work. Good or Bad? Depends on who you talk to. And I guess, more importantly for me, depends on my motivation for the change too. Am I trying to please what I perceive is acceptable to the Art Academia, or am I just an avid explorer? Or somewhere in between? Mostly I feel I am still just searching for the ‘perfect’ painting, and my pleasure in paint takes me all over the place.
    Then I am often asked why I can’t just tone down and make paintings that sell, and do my other stuff ‘in-between’. HA. At this point I become incredibly inflexible. Stubborn. Angry. That says a lot, eh?

    Eve, I really loved your description of costumes – it got me thinking about an interesting version of a self-portrait, masks and clothes! I often dress according to how I am feeling, giving outward expression to the resident persona to some degree – arty, feminine, couldn’t-care-less (That one is because I can hide in my studio)! Sometimes, even the colours I put on link in with colours I am using in the studio, quite unconsciously. Curiously, this was a common phenomenon in art school when I was there.

  2. Lee Avatar

    Fascinating post and as the mom of an Aspergers person, I can see that my Chet isn’t able to wear masks. Chet is just Chet. That is both a celebration and a sorrow. There are times, darn it, when a mask is not a bad thing. But he doesn’t get social nuances, can’t read body language, doesn’t understand that a sarcastic comment is not true humor etc.

    I spend a lot of time trying to give him more clothes in his emotional closet to choose from!

  3. henitsirk Avatar

    I think there’s a flip side, so to speak, of the persona. I think we don’t just choose which mask to wear based on our internal state but also in relation to others and the world around. I play Dutiful Mom when I volunteer in my son’s classroom, because I respect the teacher and her authority there. She and the children don’t need Bitchy Hormonal Mom or Disorganized Crafty Woman or Nitpicking Editor Lady.

  4. Eve Avatar

    David, David, David!!! You make me laugh out loud so often. I just love you and your wittiness. The reality TV show is sure to be a hit. Ha ha HA!!

    Jung wrote a lot about dialogues and guided imagery with one’s different archetypal parts. I think this is useful. Sticking with the metaphor of the closet and the clothing, maybe sometimes it’s right to fling open the doors or take the doors off altogether and do a spring cleaning. I did this last year during my bout with What Not to Wear, and it was so useful. Some of the items I tried on horrified me. I had actually bought and worn them!

    I find that the various personas I use or must use feel the same way sometimes. For example, I had a Soccer Mom persona who actually went to soccer games and was in the PTO. The problem now is that I don’t do soccer games and I don’t want to join the PTO. In fact, I pretty much despise going to my kids’ school events. I’ve learned why not to substitute teach; I’ve learned not to volunteer, and my kids have only been in school since August.

    So, what persona do I get for the New Eve? Obviously, the Soccer Mom persona of the 1990s is not going to work for me any more. That persona needs to be donated to charity so that someone who fits it can use it. This leaves me without an appropriate persona to wear, so I find myself bumbling along instead, trying to throw together an outfit that is no more appropriate than you wearing a pajama top under your button-down collar dress shirt.

    But at least I know what’s in the closet, how it got there, why it’s there, and that it doesn’t fit any more or that I’m not very well dressed. It will be interesting to see how you get to the part where you know all these things and don’t see your fractured selves as parts of someone else, or as someone else’s children (so to speak). I wonder how you will get there, or if it is even necessary to get there? I know, not spoken as a Responsible Psychologist (oh, now there’s a snappy persona I like to take to cocktail parties!).

    Perhaps I’ll keep track of my personas this week and see how many different outfits I actually have. I have already used Dutiful Mom at the dental office, when I took my daughter to have a cavity filled. She is very polite.

    Dutiful Mom, not my daughter. My daughter still needs to develop some persona, bless her.

  5. Scott Erb Avatar

    Very interesting post (and actually relates to a lot of research on foreign policy decision making). I agree with your point. I think the key is to know oneself. One should be cognizant of the roles one plays and what one is really thinking. That requires self-honesty (and to avoid fearing self-judgment) If someone is really introspective, they’ll recognize the roles and scripts as what they are, and enjoy introspection when ‘released’ from those roles/scripts, and be better able to know when and how much to ‘let down ones’ guard’ in social situation. The key: know thyself!

  6. Eve Avatar

    Deb, interesting comment. Perhaps you had to have so much persona created while growing up that you grew tired of her, and once you grew up, you grew up with a vengeance, so to speak? It’s almost as if one says, “I gave up my real self long enough, dammit, and I’m not going to do it any more!”

    I’m reminded in a small way of the resigned type of idealized person Freudian Karen Horney wrote about, who has resolved her problem of an unacceptable real self by making a psychological move “away from” others (the other options being moving against others in an expansive way, and moving toward others in a self-effacing way).

    I would rather be a WYSIWYG person than don a constricting, false persona. But by its very definition, the persona is just a mask anyway. We see what happens when we take off our masks before imebciles. Jesus said “don’t cast your pearls before swine,” and Buddha said to travel with your equals or better. I think there is something to be said for a protective persona.

    However, I am still thinking about this and how it works in real life, with a conscious person, and with people wanting to become self-actualized or whatever one wants to call it. In other words, I too am still in negotiations with my persona.

  7. David Avatar

    I like the idea of a persona-wardrobe; that’s a useful image for me, in thinking about what it might be like to have a more integrated concept that my various personas actually belong to me and are in my wardrobe, rather than belonging to other people who have no apparent connection to my life except when they decide to show up.

    I think I need some kind of internal personal shopper/fashion consultant, who can help me to organize the closet better, or at least take down the steel walls that separate my double-breasted blazers from my polo shirts. Half the time I don’t know what the heck goes on in there, or how I ended up still wearing a pajama top under my button-down dress shirt, nor why I am compelled to take the shirt off at the worst possible moment.

    I believe I may have a concept for a reality show, here: “Integrated Eye for the Comparmentalized Guy.”

  8. deb Avatar

    I think I tend to be more like an autistic person, I am not good at dissembling and I am the same person wherever you meet me. There are slight tweeks but mostly, what you see is what you get. That being said, I withhold much of myself around my siblings and mother. Have to think about this more.

  9. Eve Avatar

    Crazymumma and Henitsirk, your comments one on top of another are interesting, for they point out both ends of the relational spectrum. My own ideas about the persona have changed over the years to rest in a place where I consider the persona to be a necessary costume. As long as I remember it’s a collective costume and understood only by collectives, and am not fooled into thinking that it’s real or actually me, I’m fine.

    Developmentally, it appears to me that people go through phases with their personas. We work hard to develop one during childhood and young adulthood, and then spend middle age and older divesting ourselves of the persona. There seems to come a time during middle age when we possibly throw the persona out with the bath water, and “let it all hang out,” and become insufferable. I’ve seen many people do this and have done it myself. It’s not a pretty picture! Crazymumma points out the ugly side of the real self.

    On the other hand, we have what happens when we do what Heni points out, which is to use the persona so masterfully that we share nothing real. We’re like cocktail party attendees, going through life with polite smiles pasted on our faces.

    Sometimes I think the best use of the persona is to use it like clothing. “Hmm, which outfit will I wear today?” I ask as I stand in my closet, looking at my clothing options. “Too cold for this; and I’m not feeling as casual as all that. But if I wear that, I’ll feel over-dressed. I think I’ll wear this.” And the choice is made.

    I think if I put on my persona for each occasion in the same way I put on my clothes or my makeup, I would probably be a much more pleasant person more often, and would at least feel that my real self was still in the front seat with my ego, collaborating, rather than being the petulant child she sometimes is, pouting in the back seat because Mommy won’t let Real Me sit up front with her.

    Ha ha ha! Yes, sometimes I do feel that way.

  10. henitsirk Avatar

    It occurred to me reading this that perhaps people diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism, who just don’t understand how to relate to people or see the subtle social cues that most of us are unaware of but work with somewhat instinctively, were not able to create a persona.

    What irony — to facilitate social interaction we hide parts of ourselves, which means we never truly share ourselves with each other, which is actually anti-social.

  11. crazymumma Avatar

    exactly the perfect thing to read after reading your comment over my way.

    some of what is inside is so terribly ugly. Thank goodness it can be written.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: