Personas: The Masks We Wear
“Don’t you know who I think I am?”
Carl Jung described personas as "a kind of mask” designed to make an impression on others, and “conceal the true nature of the individual”.
Jung said personas are functional when we can switch between them as required by different situations. For example, a doctor may put on a serious, professional face at work, but would behave differently in the role of a parent at home.
The problem arises when people over-identify with their personas. They become so consumed by fulfilling the expectations of others that they are no longer aware they are wearing a mask. They lose touch with who they truly are.
Personas and Addiction
Personas are particularly important in understanding addiction. Shame, stigma and feelings of worthlessness lead addicts to wear masks to conceal their inner turmoil. People might cultivate a party animal persona, tricking themselves and others into believing they are having so much fun they couldn’t possibly have a problem. The masks people wear in addiction are often about deceiving oneself as much as deceiving others.
Personas are often defense mechanisms. Through no fault of their own, someone may have grown up in an environment where they often felt threatened, and wearing a hardman mask was the only way they could feel safe. People may have been forced to care for addicted or vulnerable parents from a young age, adopting a caretaker mask that conceals their own inner struggles.
In difficult, threatening environments, these personas are a survival strategy. But over time people may lose touch with any sense of an authentic self that exists beneath the mask.
The Addiction Personas
In the early days of recovery, it can be hard to take off the masks that you’ve been wearing for so long. Identifying the masks you wear is the first step. Here are a few examples of the types of personas commonly adopted by people struggling with addiction. The Hope Rehab Workbook has some great exercises to help you reflect on these here.
Addiction often goes hand in hand with rejecting social norms and conformity. The rebel persona helps people protect their self-worth when they feel alienated by society, because they can say they never wanted to be part of it anyway.
Rebellion is a normal part of development during adolescence. However, as time goes on it means people miss out on the benefits of cooperating with others and feeling a part of things. This can be problematic in early recovery, when community and learning from others is so important.
Humor can help to lighten the mood and connect with others. However, people who identify with the clown persona use humor to deflect from engaging with difficult emotions. They might enjoy making others laugh and being the center of attention. But if they can’t take that mask off, they never develop an awareness of what has happened and what is truly going on inside.
The Chameleon is everything to everybody. They change their tune to please the people around them. They are highly adaptable, but they lose touch with any sense of authentic self. Underlying this persona may be a fear of rejection or being unloved.
Special and Different
The “special and different” persona helps people maintain a sense of grandiosity by believing that whatever applies to others does not apply to them. They may believe that “nobody understands me” because my problems or personality are too complex and unique. Wearing this mask pushes others away, and protects people from acknowledging their inner pain and vulnerability.
When people take this mask off, they are pleasantly surprised that they share many similarities with others. By looking for the similarities, not the differences, they are able to truly connect with others and tap into the social support that is so vital in recovery.
For some people, sexuality is a way to get what they want and to maintain their fragile self-esteem. The “flirt” persona may be adaptive in addiction, but in recovery it prevents them developing authentic relationships. When their self-worth is tied up in that persona, it can be frightening to let go. But the rewards of seeing they are so much more than their sex appeal is liberating and vitalising. Working on healthy boundaries, both for yourself, and for others, is crucial in letting go of this persona.
Unhealthy perfectionism is associated with a range of addictive behaviors, including addiction to work, exercise, alcohol, and eating disorders. Perfectionists set ever higher standards for themselves. When they meet these standards, they feel relieved, but when they inevitably fall short, they are confronted with their underlying sense of inadequacy. Fear of letting this mask slip drives perfectionists to extremes, and may alienate them from other people. When they let go of the perfectionist persona, they can start to build a sense of self-worth that is not dependent on attaining ever higher standards.
The hardman mask is a defense mechanism that may have helped people to cope in threatening environments. Intimidating others may seem like the only way to earn respect and stay safe. It keeps people at arm’s length by instilling fear and making the hardman unapproachable. It helps people to hide the emotional vulnerability inside. However, in recovery, this aggressive, plastic gangster persona leaves people isolated. Dropping the mask and letting people in may feel dangerous. But once someone is able to do this, they start to see there is nothing to fear, and that connection is less dangerous than isolation.
Many addicts have had a hard life. People often use addictive behaviors to cope with trauma and horrendous experiences. Through no fault of their own, they may have come to see the world as a cruel, dangerous place that they have no power to influence.
However, when people remain trapped in the victim persona, they are unable to move past their feelings of helplessness. It can be a defense mechanism that helps people avoid confronting the frightening prospect of change. Yet when people let go of this persona, they start to see they have more agency than they realized. They are empowered to make positive changes in their life.
Removing The Mask
According to Jung, there comes a moment of “disintegration”, when someone’s fusion with their persona breaks down. They experience “a stark encounter with reality, with no false veils or adornments of any kind”. This can be a terrifying and chaotic experience. With their trusty defense mechanisms gone, people may feel naked and vulnerable.
Jung suggested three possible reactions to this. Some people may fight to restore their persona, recoiling from reality and self-awareness and trying to put that mask back on. Others may struggle to relate to the world without their persona. Instead, they retreat into a fantasy world.
But for some the disintegration of the persona is the start of something new. They are finally able to look inside and truly get in touch with themselves. They are also able to develop a flexible, realistic persona, which allows them to function in society and connect with others, without hiding their true self.
How Do We Do This?
Dropping our masks in early recovery can be frightening. We may be unsure how to relate to others without resorting to our old personas. But it can also be an exciting space of possibility that allows us to ask ourselves some of life’s biggest questions. Who am I? What are my values? What do I stand for? How do I want to live?
Embrace Sober House is an ideal place to confront this challenge. Several key pillars of our programme can help you drop your mask and embrace authenticity.
Being around others who are also on a journey of self discovery is invaluable. Being surrounded by nurturing support can help you let go of your old defense mechanisms and take a step into the unknown. You will be supported by our empathetic staff who have also walked that journey. Sometimes others see things in us that we don’t see in ourselves. Receiving honest, caring feedback from your peers can help you build your self-awareness.
Embrace Sober House gives you a space to experiment. When we’re letting go of our old masks, we don’t get it right every time. We provide a compassionate environment where everyone understands how challenging early recovery can be.
Our programme puts self-discovery front and center.
Working with our CBT therapists, you can identify the underlying beliefs that your masks were protecting you from. When we are aware of these beliefs, we can start to change them and develop new, healthier beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. We can experiment with new behaviors that help strengthen these beliefs.
Meditation helps us to let go of the old stories we have been telling ourselves. Sometimes we become stuck in these stories about who we are or what people think of us. Through meditation, we can see these stories for the fiction they are. This liberates us and helps us to engage with the present and move forwards with clarity, rather than being tangled up in outdated narratives.
Meditation also helps us become more aware of our feelings. We no longer need to protect ourselves from emotions or hide from them by wearing masks. We learn to sit with them, and as their power diminishes, we have the freedom to act in new ways.
At Embrace Sober House, you will have the time to explore your new self. You may discover new passions in the vibrant city of Chiang Mai, or rediscover old ones. Some people fall in love with outdoor activities like hiking or kayaking. Others try things like pottery or painting and discover an artistic side they never knew they had.
When we take our masks off, we are no longer constricted by our old ideas of who we are or how we think we should behave. The world becomes a place of exciting possibilities. Recovery is only the start.