Today is Halloween, a day when children of all ages put on a costume, go out into the world, and answer the inevitable question:
Who are you?
The only differences between today and every other day is that the costumes tend to be a bit more out of the ordinary.
We predominantly define ourselves by the roles we play in life. Each of these roles comes with its dress code — a costume — and a set of prescribed actions, mindsets, and behaviors.
From an early age, we learn what is expected in each of these roles. We have rules for what people in these roles should look like, what they should wear, how they should act, what they should say or not say.
These roles are our personas.
The Safety of Personas
Persona is one of the four major archetypes described by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung. The term refers to a person’s public image.
The origins of persona are from Latin, meaning mask. The persona represents the various masks we wear in public to convey a certain image about who we are.
Persona … is the individual’s system of adaptation to, or the manner he assumes in dealing with, the world. Every calling of profession, for example, has its own characteristic persona… A certain kind of behavior is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavor to come up to these expectations….
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.
The masks we wear are our most basic safety device. The persona archetype allows us to adapt to the world around us so that we can fit in. And fitting in is essential, because in evolutionary terms if you didn’t fit in with the tribe you would die.
The problem is that the more we identify with our persona, the more we distance from our true selves.
The Path of Unmasking
We often talk about the path of personal development and actualization as one of “becoming” who you are. Common advice to a person seeking to reach a certain position is to “act as if” — assume you have the role; wear the mask of what you want until you become it.
What if we have it backward?
It strikes me that the true path of actualization is about unbecoming.
Unloading the expectations that saddle us.
Unlearning our engrained behaviors.
Undoing habitual patterns of thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
Unloading the burdens we carry from our past.
Unshackling the chains that keep us enslaved to cultural and personal expectations.
Undressing ourselves from the costumes we wear for each role.
Unmasking the layers that keep us separate from ourselves and others.
Through this undoing, unmasking, and unbecoming, we can arrive at a place where we feel free to unleash the truth and power of who we are.
To be sure, roles and personas provide us with some guidance. Social order may get disrupted if you spoke with your boss the way you spoke to your spouse.
Then again, maybe not. The only way to know is to test it.
We cannot live without roles. But we cannot allow ourselves to be oppressed by them, either. — Dr. Humphry Osmond
The Freedom to Be Yourself
What would it be like if we could be who we are without masks and costumes? There are many people who do this already and they would tell you that this is true freedom.
We live in a time when, in many parts of the world, we have an expanding array of roles available to us. In a society that gives us freedom to choose any role we want, perhaps the greatest expression of that freedom is to refuse to define ourselves by a role at all — to shed the rules of what it is supposed to look or sound like.
In a world where we can be free to be anything we want, the greatest freedom is to be who you truly are, without a mask.
- Carl Jung, The Aechetypes and the Collective Unconscious, Volume 9, part 1 of The Collected Works, Princeton University PRess, 1990, p. 123 as quoted at Carl-Jung.net (accessed on 10/31/2018). ↩
- Quote taken from An Expert on the Roles People Play in Life, published in The New York Times, February 23, 1981 (accessed on 10/31/2018). ↩