The Difference Between a Persona and a Person

A persona doesn’t seek therapy. A person does. And yet often when I begin a new therapy relationship, I find myself sitting across from a persona. Early in my training it was quite confusing for me. I’d wonder why the hell this person was seeking help. She’s so together, successful, confident. She seems… perfect.

Of course, that’s exactly what she would want me to think. The word persona has its roots in the Etruscan word phersu, which means, literally, “mask.” We all have all kinds of masks we wear for the world – different ones for our work environments, for our various personal relationships, for the corner deli. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with this; the wheels of society depend upon our successfully employing the right mask at the right time. When I’m checking out at the QFC and the clerk asks me how I’m doing, he sure doesn’t want me to really tell him. If a prospective employer inquires about my passion for selling his widgets, if I want that job I better find the right mask quick.

The problem seems to come when we’re so accustomed to wearing the mask all the time that we forget or have never known or have come to despise the real person that lies beneath. The truth is that the person beneath the persona is a far more complicated character; he’s often less secure, more neurotic, less cheerful, more fearful. She’s likely more judgmental and more coveting. Likely at times he has primitive or animalistic impulses he doesn’t want and doesn’t want others to know about. Maybe she has cravings. In short, he has a shadow, the term that Carl Jung used to capture the darker – perhaps unconscious – side of a person’s being.

Because we typically go around rubbing masks with each other, many people come to therapy confusing other people’s personas for their true selves, which makes their own true selves all the more troubling.

“Everyone else seems so confident.”

“No one else seems to be so lustful.”

“I feel like I’m the only one on the outside all the time, like I’m always faking it.”

All of this contributes to a great shame that I encounter so frequently in the people I work with. I’ve come to see shame as rooted in the space between our persona and our person: that is, in the knowledge and judgment of the difference between the image of ourselves we present to the world and the three-dimensional person we know ourselves to truly be. This difference for so many of us is a great secret that no one knows about, a secret that must be protected at all costs.

The common solution to this problem is for people to strive to become more perfect: that is, to make the person more like his persona, to make his inner experience more like his Facebook profile. Often people come to therapy for precisely this purpose, as though the right therapeutic experience can make them less lustful or perfectly secure or happy at all times. Many people want to actually feel how everyone else seems. I often wish that my patients could know each other and see immediately how much common ground they have; how they all feel what they imagine to be a singular vulnerability. The truth is that the vast majority of us have a more complicated experience of the world and ourselves than we let on.

So much of the power of the therapeutic or any other healthy relationship is rooted not in its capacity to help someone become more perfect, but in its power to help someone shift their relationship to the truth of who they are, to put their imperfection into a wiser context of the full human experience. Truly understanding the ubiquity of vulnerability frees us from the self-judgment and shame that is often the deepest source of our suffering.

Healthy healing relationships invariably are built upon intimacy. Intimacy gently demands that we drop the mask, and it provides safe ground to know the truth of oneself and meet it with kindness, with understanding, with dignity. Unfortunately, many of us have not ever experienced truly intimate relationships, or at least many of us were not born into families where true intimacy was available, and we learned to hide our more complicated aspects behind a thin facade of charm, or stoicism, or some other flavor of okay-ness. Often such people reach adulthood and have not ever allowed their larger, deeper selves to find a place to land in the world, even within their closest relationships and romantic partnerships, even within their own understanding of themselves. Despite perhaps being surrounded by many others, such people often feel a great alienation and solitude, as though they are never really in contact with anyone or anything.

We need both the ability to wear the right mask at the right time and the ability to drop these masks when it is safe and nourishing to do so. Mental and spiritual health is so much rooted in our capacity to know the more complicated aspects of the person we truly are, to work through our judgments of this person, and to find places in the world where the person – not the persona – may be known.