Jungian Psychology Series: The Persona

The first article in this series examined the ego, Carl Jung’s term for the conscious mind. The ego gives us our subjective sense of identity, and is typically symbolized in dreams by the dreamer or by a vehicle that the dreamer is in. In this article we explore a component of the psyche closely associated with the ego which Jung called the persona.

“Persona” is derived from the Latin word for mask. In the theater of ancient Greece and Rome actors would wear a mask to signify their character (e.g., parent, child, warrior, etc.). In Jungian psychology, persona refers to the role that people play in social settings and society at large. The persona is closely connected to the ego because the role that we play in any social situation tends to structure our conscious identity within that setting. For example, your behavior and demeanor during a formal meeting with your boss may be quite different from what you would display at a restaurant with your friends later that day.

Like the skin, which functions as a protective boundary between the body’s internal organs and the outer world, the persona serves a similar function between our inner self (thoughts, emotions, instinctual impulses, etc.) and our outer relationships. Because we don’t want to be an “open book” to everyone we encounter, we wear a “cover,” our public face. In daily life our persona is reflected in our choice of clothing, makeup or hairstyle, the way we speak, our posture and general demeanor. Even the type of car we drive, where we live, and our community and organizational affiliations are aspects of our persona. In dreams, the persona is most often symbolized by the clothes we are wearing.

A woman dreams: “My sister is looking very thin and designed this outfit–all white. She’s wearing several different layers, and it looks more ridiculous than fashionable. Since she gets defensive easily, I don’t know how to tell her that maybe she shouldn’t wear that.” Although the main character of this dream is the dreamer’s sister, the dream is commenting on the dreamer’s persona for, as a general rule, the other people in our dreams symbolize some aspect of our own personality. The focus of the dream is the woman’s multi-layered, white outfit. There is something about the outfit that makes her look ridiculous. The dream is not necessarily referring to her actual wardrobe–she probably doesn’t even own such an outfit–but it is giving her information about the way she presents herself to others. The dreamer’s own association to the dream was that it referred to her tendency to play the role of a “good girl.” This association fits with the color of the outfit, for white is a common symbol for purity and innocence. While the role/persona of a good girl may have been appropriate for the dreamer when she was six years old, it is a poor fit for her as an adult. The multi-layered aspect of the outfit may reflect the fact that rather than discarding this outgrown persona when she was no longer a child, the dreamer has instead added to or embellished it over the years.

No persona can do justice to the individuality of the person behind it. The persona is first and foremost a means of adaptation to social life, and because of this is shaped as much by collective social forces (peers, family, the media, etc.) as by the demands of the unfolding personality. The best that any person can hope to achieve is a conscious and reasonable harmony between the two. The healthy persona must be flexible and adaptable to the different roles we play in the course of a day, and the course of a lifetime.  For example, the tough persona of a drill sergeant may be very effective in the training of soldiers, but highly ineffective if carried over to his relationships with his wife and children. The persona that is flexible and appropriately matched to a person’s unique gifts, abilities, interests, and phase of life becomes an invaluable instrument of that individual’s ministry and vocation in life.

A woman dreams: “I am in a used clothing store, sorting through the dresses to find one I like. I’m not having much luck.” Finding our place and role in life can be a difficult process. Following the path of our own destiny is sometimes challenging when social, familial, economic and other pressures come to bear. It can also be challenged by our own attachment to the status quo, a reluctance to take a risk, or an unwillingness to expend the effort. The roles that we assume in each phase of our life represent not only our individual contributions to society, but also important steps in the development of our personality. The woman in the dream above may need to ask herself in what way she may be trying to “live life on the cheap.” There is nothing wrong with buying and wearing used clothing; this is not the message of the dream. The problem is in trying to fit into a role, or maintain an established role, simply because it’s the easiest thing to do. The Self (the Jungian term for the center, or core, of the psyche) seeks the fullest development of the individual personality, and holds little regard for our protestations regarding personal cost/effort. This psychological truth is symbolized in dreams where we are given the opportunity to buy a certain outfit, but its price seems exorbitant. The difference between the asking price and what we think is an appropriate price is symbolic of the difference between the value placed on personal growth by the Self, and the value placed on it by the ego. Too often we pad the wallet of our ego and short-change our soul. The next time you dream of an outfit that is quite pricey but unique or special in some way, do yourself a favor, buy the outfit! Then, when you wake up, reflect on the outfit. What kind of person would wear that outfit? Explore what it would be like to be that person. This can be a transforming process.

On some occasions our persona is revealed less by the clothes we are wearing as by the clothes we aren’t wearing. Dreams of being naked–wholly or in part–are fairly common. They typically occur when we find ourselves in a role that we are not familiar with, such as when we must give a presentation to strangers, meet our new in-laws, or navigate our way through a new relationship. Such dreams reflect our struggle to find the proper balance between self-disclosure and self-protection. If you dream of being naked the night after you had too much to drink at the office Christmas party, the interpretation might be obvious. However, if you dream of being naked in front of a new person you are getting to know and like, the proper interpretation might be that you need to be more emotionally–not necessarily physically–intimate, or revealing, with that person. Paying attention to the life context within which your dreams occur can assist you in deciphering their message.

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