Social Self, Jungian Persona and Our Lives Now
The social self and the Jungian persona are subjects that I’ve written about before. Yet given the nature of the world we live in, this remains a very relevant subject that is worthy of our further exploration.
Social Self, Persona, Social Masks
Photo by Llanydd Lloyd
Recently I had the privilege of attending a performance of the Jonathan Larsen musical “Rent” presented by the Stratford Festival Theatre. Overall, it was an impressive theatrical experience. If you don’t know the musical, I can best describe it as a remarkable story told from the perspective of individuals who were very marginalized in our society in the 1990s. One of many details that particularly struck me was the chorus of a song late in the performance called “What You Own”:
When you’re living in America /
near the end of the millenium /
you’re what you own [italics mine].
That last phrase is arresting: “you’re what you own.” The singers may have been singing about life in the 90s, but, when it comes to this issue, perhaps very little has changed. If we live in a society where “you are what you own”, what feelings does that bring up for us?.
Jungian Persona and Identity
On one level, of course, “you are what you own” is a patent absurdity. I know very well that I am not my car, my house and my clothes! They are possessions! I am something else, something quite different!
Yet, there is something very important about our possessions. A car, a house, a cottage perhaps, and the clothes we wear—all these are things we own, and yet they are all part of the way that we present ourselves to the world. They show something of ourselves to the world.
Similarly, they also serve to hide or keep private certain aspects of who we are. Neighbours may see and comment on my house and its gardens, but they are likely shielded from the intimate details of emotional life that occur within the house.
So my house and other things I own may function like a mask: they present an attactive image to the world that might be quite charming, respectable, status-oriented etc., but they also may serve to hide my “real face” — all the details of who I really am — from the eyes of the world.
In this way our possessions form part of what we can call the Jungian persona. Jung developed the idea of persona to describe the elaborate system individuals develop to relate to other people and the social world. As he puts it,
The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.
Photo by Debby Ledet
Identification with the Persona
It’s not just our possessions that form our persona; it can also include our various social roles. The way we perform our work or professional role is an expression of that persona. We all have a pretty good idea of the social roles of teachers, doctors, police officers, and how we expect these professions to behave. This is all part of the manifestation of Jungian persona: these roles both reveal aspects of the individuals personality, while simultaneously hiding other aspects.
Yet, what happens if an individual—or a society—gets so caught up with social self, with the Jungian persona, that it starts to act as if that’s all there is to persons? So that, yes, it could be that an individual regarding themselves, or a society, regarding everyone, feels that “you’re what you own”, or that there is nothing more to the person than the individual’s house, car, investments, bank account and other possessions?
This is a phenomenon that Jung describes as identification with the persona, and he regards it as quite common. Jung held the view that many of us go through life and feel that we are nothing more than the social self that they present to other people. He sees this as an attitude that society often reinforces. I would suggest that, as a society, we are no less prone to reducing a person’s identity down to what that individual possesses or to the job they do, than was the social environment portrayed in Rent.
For the individual, the consequences of this kind of identity with the persona can be enormous, and often very harmful. To see ourselves in terms that reduce us to our possessions, or to our occupational role, is to completely lose connection with our own inner uniqueness and our true identity, which are the things that life calls us to live out.
Living Out of Our Real Identity
Discovering who we really are, as individuals, is a very important piece of psychological work, and may well be part of a major life transition. It is often absolutely vital for the individual to get past messaging he or she may have received all through the course of life about who he or she really is, what really has value in life, and what the individual’s intrinsic value is. It is essential for the individual to get to what has genuine meaning, for her of himself.
In addition, it will be important for the individual to explore what is emerging from the unconscious, as it reveals to him or her hitherto undiscovered parts of the personality, the various dimensions of what Jung frequently called the undiscovered self. Often dreams, fantasies and the situations that cause strong emotional reactions in individuals can be highly important in revealing where the true self of the individual is appearing.
This work can be absolutely essential in find a sense of meaning in an individual’s life journey, and a sense that the individual is living out who they most fundamentally are.
The assistance of a supportive, attuned and insightful depth psychotherapist can be of immense help in this work of separating the social self or persona from the personality as a whole, and living out of who we really are.
I wish you every good thing as you travel on your vital and unique personal journey,
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist and
Certified Jungian Analyst (IAAP)
Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional
© Brian Collinson, 2023