Carl Jung's Persona: Behind the Mask
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Carl Jung ; Henri Cartier-Bresson (1959)
"There is an unconscious propriety in the way in which, in all European languages, the word "person" is commonly used to denote a human being. The real meaning of persona is a "mask", such as actors were accustomed to wear on the ancient stage ; and it is quite true that no one shows himself as he is, but wears his mask and plays his part. Indeed, the whole of our social arrangements may be likened to a perpetual comedy."
Studies in Pessimism
"One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is." Carl Gustav Jung
The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious
Jung's Map of the Soul : An Introduction
by Murray Stein
"Today the term persona has been somewhat accepted into the vocabulary of psychology and contemporary culture. It is used frequently in popular parlance, in newspapers, and in literary theory. It means the person-as-presented, not the person-as-real. The persona is a psychological and social construct adopted for a specific purpose.
Jung chose it for his psychological theory because it has to do with playing roles in society. He was interested in how people come to play particular roles, adopt a conventional collective attitude, and represent social and cultural stereotypes rather than assuming and living their own uniqueness. Certainly this is a well-known human trait. It is a kind of mimicry. Jung gave it a name and worked it into his theory of the psyche.
Jung begins his definition of the persona by making the point that many psychiatric and psychological studies have shown that the human personality is not simple but complex, that it can be shown to split and to fragment under certain conditions, and that there are many subpersonalities within the normal human psyche. However,
“It is at once evident that such a plurality of personalities can never appear in a normal individual.”
In other words, while we are not all “multiple personalities” in a clinical sense, everyone does manifest “traces of character splitting.” The normal individual is simply a less exaggerated version of what is found in pathology.
“One has only to observe a man rather closely, under varying conditions, to see that a change from one milieu to another brings about a striking alteration of personality ... ‘angel abroad, devil at home’.”
In public such an individual is all smiles, backslapping, gladhanding, extroverted, easygoing, happy-go-lucky, joking; at home, on the other hand, he is sour and grumpy, doesn’t talk to his kids, sulks and hides behind the newspaper, and can be verbally or otherwise abusive. Character is situational. The story of Jekyll and Hyde represents an extreme form of this.
Another novel with the same theme is The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the main character keeps a picture of himself in the attic. As he grows older, the portrait ages, revealing his true nature and character; yet he continues to go out in public without wrinkles — youthful, sophisticated, and cheerful.
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde, 1931
(Three Sirens Press/WikiCommons)
Jung goes on to discuss the fascinating subject of human sensitivity to milieus, to social environments. People are usually sensitive to other people’s expectations. Jung points out that particular milieus such as families, schools, and workplaces require one to assume specific attitudes. By “attitude” Jung means“an a priori orientation to a definite thing, no matter whether this be represented in consciousness or not.” An attitude can be latent and unconscious, but it is constantly operating to orient a person to a situation or a milieu.
Further, an attitude is “a combination of psychic factors or contents which will ... determine action in this or that definite direction.” An attitude is a feature of character, therefore. The longer an attitude persists and the more frequently it is called upon to meet the demands of a milieu, the more habitual it becomes.
As behaviorism would express it, the more frequently a behavior or attitude is reinforced by the environment, the stronger and the more entrenched it becomes. People can be trained to develop specific attitudes to certain milieus and thus to respond in particular ways, reacting to signals or cues as they have been trained to do. Once an attitude has been fully developed, all that is required to activate behavior is the appropriate cue or trigger.
Jung observed this in 1920, about the time that behaviorism was gaining ground in North America, led by John Broadus Watson, whose first major publication appeared in 1913. In contrast to people living and working in rural or natural areas, which are relatively unified environments, many educated urban dwellers move in two totally different milieus: the domestic circle and the public world.
This was more true of men than of women in the Europe of Jung’s day. Men of Jung’s time and culture worked in one environment and lived domestically in another, and they had to respond to two distinctly different milieus, each of which provided a different set of cues.
"These two totally different environments demand two totally different attitudes, which, depending on the degree of the ego’s identification with the attitude of the moment, produce a duplication of character.”
A friend of mine has a midlevel managerial job in a government agency, and so he must set the tone for employees in his group regarding values and behavioral patterns in the public sector. The agency is a milieu, and he finds out from other sources what the correct values are and then informs the workers under him that, for example, they must be sensitive to such issues as nondiscrimination, sexism, and affirmative action.
My friend told me that he plays that role easily and well in the workplace, but when he watches TV in the privacy of his own home he has very different reactions. There he is ultraconservative. In the workplace he is a liberal and enlightened modern man. His ego is not, however, strongly identified with the attitude of that milieu. He has a functional persona: one that he puts on and takes off easily without identifying with it. My friend is very clear in his own mind that he does not identify with that workplace persona.
Frequently, however, the ego does identify with the persona. The psychological term identification points to the ego’s ability to absorb and unite with external objects, attitudes, and persons. This is a more or less unconscious process. One simply finds oneself unintentionally imitating another person. Perhaps one does not even notice it oneself, but other people see the mimicry. In principle, one can say that the ego is quite separate from the persona, but in actual life this is often not the case, because the ego tends to identify with the roles it plays in life.
The domestic character is, as a rule, molded by emotional demands and an easygoing acquiescence for the sake of comfort and convenience; whence it frequently happens that men who in public life are extremely energetic, spirited, obstinate, willful and ruthless appear good-natured, mild, compliant, even weak, when at home and in the bosom of the family. Which is the true character, the real personality ? This question is often impossible to answer.
The Two Sources of the Persona
Jung found two sources of the persona:
“In accordance with social conditions and requirements, the social character is oriented on the one hand by the expectations and demands of society, and on the other by the social aims and aspirations of the individual.”
The first, the expectations and demands of the milieu, includes such requirements as being a certain kind of person, behaving appropriately according to the social mores of the group, and often believing in certain propositions about the nature of reality (such as consenting to religious teachings).
The second source includes the individual’s social ambitions. In order for society to be able to influence one’s attitudes and behavior, one must want to belong to society. The ego must be motivated to accept the persona features and the roles that society requires and offers, or else they will simply be avoided. There will be no identification at all. An agreement must be struck between the individual and society in order for persona formation to take hold.
Otherwise the individual lives an isolated life on the margins of culture, forever a sort of uneasy adolescent in an adult world. This is different from the heroic rebel who goes his own way and ignores social norms. That is another kind of persona, and one that is offered by all societies and groups. There are many roles to play.
Generally speaking, the more prestigious the role, the stronger is the tendency to identify with it. People do not usually identify with lower-class persona roles like garbage collector or janitor, or even middleclass roles like manager or superintendent. If they do, they often do so humorously. These jobs have their own value and dignity but they do not imply roles to wear proudly in society, and the temptation to identify strongly with them is minimal.
Role identification is generally motivated by ambition and social aspiration. For example, a person who is elected to the United States Senate acquires a role with high collective value and enormous prestige. With it come fame, honor, and high social visibility, and the person who is a senator tends to fuse with this role, even to the extent of wishing to be treated by close friends with conspicuous respect. It has been reported that after John F. Kennedy’s election as president of the United States even his close family members called him Mr. President.
In Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical film Fanny and Alexander, a little boy is sent to live with a horrible, abusive bishop who is emotionally remote and cold and deeply identified with a religious persona. In one scene of the film, the bishop is shown dreaming. In the dream, he is struggling to tear off a mask, which he cannot detach, and he ends up pulling his face off along with the mask.
The bishop’s ego is utterly fused with the bishop persona because that role has guaranteed his personal aspirations in life. A bishop is without doubt a highranking person in society. Similarly physicians, military men, and royalty are granted personas that attract strong identification. And yet the bishop, in his nightmare, tries to remove the mask from his face. Why ?
The relation between ego and persona is not simple because of the contradictory aims of these two functional complexes. The ego moves in a fundamental way toward separation and individuation, toward consolidating a position first of all outside of the unconscious, and then also somewhat outside of the family milieu.
There is in the ego a strong movement toward autonomy, toward an “I-ness” that can function independently. At the same time, another part of the ego, which is where the persona takes root, is moving in the opposite direction, toward relating and adapting to the object world.
These are two contrary tendencies within the ego — a need for separation and independence on the one hand, and a need for relationship and belonging on the other. The ego’s radical desire for separation/individuation is often rooted in the shadow because it is so threatening both to group life and to the individual’s well-being. Objectively, we all need other people in order to survive physically and psychologically.
The ego’s movement toward relationship and adaptation to the present milieu, which seeks to insure survival, provides the opportunity for the persona to take hold. And this then becomes a person’s self-presentation to the world.
This conflict in the ego between individuation/separation and social conformity generates a good deal of the ego’s basic anxiety.
How can one be free, unique, and individual while also being accepted and liked by others and accommodating to their needs and wishes ? Clearly a source of fundamental conflict exists between ego and persona development. By early adulthood, one hopes that sufficient development has taken place in both ego and persona so that the ego’s dual needs for independence and relationship are satisfied, while at the same time the persona has made a suitable enough adaptation so that the ego can live in the real world.
Famous geniuses like Wagner, Beethoven, and Picasso seem to be exceptions to this rule in that their gifts grant them license to be themselves as individuals to an extraordinary degree. They are forgiven their excesses because of what they offer the world in compensation."
Pablo Picasso, 1918, "Pierrot"
(Museum of Modern Art, New York)