• Matthew Emerson

Peeling Back the Mask: What do Your Personas say About you?

"It is a common thing to be overly impressed by and attached to masks..." ~ Joseph Campbell

Bruce or the Bat? Which is the mask? A common them in Batman comics (and even the movies) centers around this question. Who is the real Bruce? The billionaire playboy or the caped crusader? Which is the true self, and which is the persona? One reason this theme, though told over countless of comics, never gets old is that it is an important consideration for each of us. In my previous article, I offered a reflection on how this time in isolation has provided us a mirror to investigate ourselves. I wish to deepen that examination and open it up further as to what the “self” may even mean and how often we try to hide it.

In order to begin this discussion, certain definitions must be presented. In the Jungian sense, the self is the holistic “you”. Everything you were, what you are, and your ideal (what you can be). The ego is who you are right now. Your present thoughts, opinions about the word, etc. The ego is protected by a persona or mask, as often times the self contains things the current ego may find embarrassing. Perhaps when you were a child you wanted to be a ballet dancer but your father made fun of you for it. So you repress that into your shadow, which is essentially where all repressed parts of yourself, bad experiences, and more are hidden. It is part of the self, it’s just stuff that is not recalled by the present ego.

This structure can also be seen in real time, not just in long-term repression. We change depending on our social contexts. Carl Jung was even so bold to declare that we all had a mask, how we present our current ego, for every single person that we know.

Now, in most discussions of personas, you’ll often hear talk about how to remove the mask. How to take it all off and find your “true self.” I don’t intend to do that. Instead, I would like to reverse that order. Let’s look at our personas and see what they can tell us about ourselves.

Personas could be likened to some kind of a fantasy, an escape from reality. As C.S. Lewis once said, no one would critique the prisoner for dreaming about what it is like outside the jail cell. In the same way, I do not think it is necessarily wrong for us to put on a persona, or create one for a fictional narrative. All of us put on roles in the great theater act of life.

So, what are our masks? And even further, how are they expressed? During this quarantine I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic. If you’re a writer, role-player, or someone who enjoys Dungeons & Dragons, I think this is one area where our Persona types are naturally expressed.

My friends and I have a joke that “there is a piece of you in every character that you play.”

I think in these fantasies can reveal a lot about our interior desires. Do you always play the hero that is uncompromising in virtue? Or perhaps the devilishly handsome rogue that swoons women and bends the rules. I’m not Dr. Freud, so I will not try and offer any rule of thumb on interpreting this. Instead, like Dr. Jung, I just want to point you to this reality, and allow you to sit it in it and think on it.

In all social environments we have roles to play. In business settings you are the loyal, always-ready-to help-staff-member, while perhaps with your friends you’re the edgy comedian. We change as our social context demands, so which of these masks do we feel is most authentically us, and why? What is it in that role that provides us some relief?

Do we prefer a particular mask because we feel like it is most genuinely an expression of ourselves? Or does that mask perhaps provide us an escape from ourselves?

That’s the heart of the “persona” that I really think needs more exploration from all of us. What are we escaping from through it? It doesn’t necessarily be anything bad. Maybe we’re just escaping from a boring day, or a boring life. Maybe we just want to live in a reality where we are a certain way and other people truly perceive us to be that way. Even if you’re the smiley funny guy at the bar, maybe you return home to brood in your recliner. Maybe you even feel like you can’t be yourself when you’re alone?

People think that you can only live in a fantasy world if you're watching a lot of Star Trek or The Witcher or something. That’s far from the truth. I think most people live in fantasies most of the time. That "escapism" might be an attempt to spice up reality, that much is certainly possible.

But maybe the case is that reality could be just as exciting as our fantasies, but it would be too much work to make it so.

When we peel back the mask, do we feel vulnerable and exposed or like we can truly breathe again? Are you Bruce or the Bat? Our masks/personas are not black and white issues. They aren’t good or bad. Plenty are made or used for very good reasons, others maybe not so much. What I do know is that they can be great tools for self-insight.

So often we run to the MBTI, the Enneagram, or the latest Buzzfeed quiz to try and discern something about the nature of ourselves. Although, we don’t need internet quizzes to reveal anything about our nature, we just have to look at ourselves with open eyes.

In the Christian Gospels, Jesus Christ said that we must not let our left hand know what our right hand is doing. Now, he used that in the context of doing acts of charity in secrecy. Yet, I think it is also a good parable for how we often act. Many times, our left hand is doing something and the right hand has no idea what or why. Our behavior is often automatic. When we write characters or go to the club or whatever we immediately fall into certain behaviors or tropes without even thinking. In this case, what I am challenging all of us to do is bring right and left hand into the light together. What are our escapisms telling us about ourselves?

How can we make the reality we’re trying to escape from something fantastical?

After all, it would be a beautiful, beautiful, thing to know that (like our favorite heroes) we too could make the world a better place.

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