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.
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.