I have never contacted an author for any reason. Never because I’ve liked their material. Never to complain. Never because I was fan-girling over their latest novel or having a fit over how they wrote a character out of a storyline. I am an introvert and, admittedly, a lurker. Lurkers skulk around on the Internet. I don’t contact authors. Ever. That changed for me recently, however, when I was reading the material of a certain writer. He’s a non-fiction writer and speaker. I’ve heard him speak numerous times. I really like his material. I’ve recommended it to many people who are looking for a different take on God, faith, and the problem of suffering. His material is very empowering. I recall sitting at my dining room table reading one of his shorter books. I came across a statement that confused me. I reread it. It was still confusing. I read it yet again. Nope. It made no sense to me. It made no sense because of a certain word. The word was ‘persona’. The author said that God will only interact with our persona. Huh. I stopped and thought about it. That didn’t make any sense to me. That couldn’t be correct.
I have to explain something about myself. I’m a word nerd. I’ve always been like this. I studied Latin for four years. I went on to study Russian in college. I grew bored with it so I decided to study French. I devoted eight years of my life to that language and even moved to France to attend university there. I got sick of French whilst living there so I started studying German just to shake things up a bit. I can only order a beer and a piece of cake in German now, but my French really improved thanks to attempting to learn German while only speaking French. On top of it, I’m a synesthete. Certain spoken words cause me to feel a physical sensation. Synesthesia is actually a sign of faulty wiring in the brain. I know someone who tastes ear wax when she hears a certain word spoken aloud. My primary form of synesthesia is seeing words as they are spoken. When people speak, I see a stream of words pass before my eyes much like an LED stock ticker displaying the latest stock information. My synesthesia combined with my logophilia are probably what contributed to my stumbling over the improper use of the word ‘persona’ in the book I was reading. I can be quite rigid about words and their use. I know this about myself. I work hard to be flexible and non-judgmental when it comes to others and their journey with grammar, language, and writing. This author and his use of the word ‘persona’ in his chosen context, however, got under my skin! So, I emailed his publishing house. I really respect this author so I felt some fear in doing this, but I wanted some clarification. My logophilia and need for clarification in his writing overrode my need to be liked. I never thought I would get a response, but I did.
The author himself emailed me and explained his word choice. He stood his ground, linguistically speaking, and he was very kind and gracious about it. I was surprised and grateful for the response although I stubbornly held my own view. I still disagree with him. ‘Persona’ is the wrong word. I have to stop here and explain what a persona is. The word ‘persona’ comes from the Latin for ‘theatre mask’. In fact, the word itself has not evolved at all. ‘Persona’ is itself a Latin word. In Latin, ‘persona’ means ‘mask’ or ‘character played by an actor’. We derive the word ‘personality’ from it. Why does this matter? It matters because of this author’s statement that God only interacts with our persona. What he intended to say, I think, is that God only interacts with our identity. NOT our many personae. BIG DIFFERENCE.
What happened next is altogether strange and wonderful. For three days after I received his email response, I saw my life pass before me as if I were watching a movie. It was as if all the events and experiences both inner and outer were reorganizing according to a new paradigm–persona vs. identity. This is something I’ve been exploring for years except that I never called it a persona. I always called it a ‘false self’. M. Basil Pennington, a Trappist monk, wrote a book called True Self/False Self: Unmasking The Spirit Within, and I read that book cover to cover years ago hoping to make some connections I intuitively knew existed.. What are these so-called connections?
I’ll explain it by asking another question. Why do we go to therapy? Why do we read self-help books? Why do we seek out the truth regarding our life experiences? We do these things because we are looking to define ourselves in terms of what is really true about us vs. what is not true. Let me break it down into something very familiar–social roles.
When I go to book club, I behave differently amongst the women there than I would were I going to see my gynecologist. When I am spending time with my husband I behave differently with him than I do when I’m with him at one of his work functions. I speak to my cousins differently than I speak to a close friend. We all wear masks that serve us because we have to move along a social register. It’s an expectation. What’s more, we’ve probably all encountered someone who doesn’t know that they are required to wear a mask, or persona, that suits the occasion. I’ve been at social functions wherein a man has spoken to me in an overly familiar manner that caused me to feel very uncomfortable. He crossed boundaries through physical touch and language. He spoke to me as if I were his girlfriend when, in fact, I was a complete stranger to him! We had only just met. In part, I could explain this by saying that he was not wearing an appropriate persona. He was disinhibited most likely due to alcohol consumption. People take off their masks for all sorts of reasons, but alcohol is often a primary reason.
Our many personae, however, do not necessarily define us in whole or even in part. Sometimes we put on a persona that feels like it isn’t us at all. It’s just habitual because it’s expected. We put on the persona to get through an experience. When we leave the experience we feel exhausted, drained, and almost confused. We ask ourselves why we even bother getting together with those individuals if we always leave feeling so psychically exsanguinated. In my opinion, these are all rather normal experiences. As we grow, we find that we’ve outgrown certain roles. We outgrow certain relationships and can’t be ourselves within certain groups. The more exhausted we are when we leave a gathering, the more we realize that there is a lack of congruency between our persona and our identity within that group. Are we free to be ourselves? Are we spending more time hiding our true selves and overcompensating? Why? To me, this is all very fascinating and even healthy. This, however, is not the most interesting part of what I saw during the three days of watching my life experiences play before me.
There are personae that we carry and choose to put on and take off. We go to work, parent, have friendships and romantic attachments. We don’t make love wearing a parent persona. That would never work unless you have a certain fetish, but I’m going to stay within the bell curve for the sake of discussion. There are, however, many personae, I would argue, that we carry that we did not choose. They are applied to us by others, and we wear them perhaps often or even all the time–maybe even unknowingly. These applied personae affect everything that we do and even how we think about ourselves. The tragic consequence about these outwardly applied personae is that we often internalized these personae as our identities, and, when we do this, our lives change.
Why? Our behavior and choices follow what we believe about ourselves. It’s really that simple. If you believe yourself to be completely worthwhile, intelligent, capable, and lovable, then you will make good decisions. You will choose healthy people as friends and potential mates. You will have good boundaries. You will have a sense that you have a good future ahead of you so you will make plans. You will not fear failure so you will learn from your mistakes rather than practice avoidance behavior. What if you don’t value yourself? What if you are functioning in life with toxic internalized personae that are masquerading as identity statements? How did they get there, and what might that look like?
Frankly, I could write a novel about this, but here is an example. I’ve written about the No-Good Child in another post. The No-Good Child is a term given to children raised by a caregiver with Borderline Personality Disorder. The child is personified in the family as 100% evil. No matter what the child does to earn the parent’s love, affection, and acceptance, they are rejected, abused, and typically outcast because the parent only perceives them as bad. This is the definition of a persona. A borderline parent perceives a child through a filter. This filter causes the parent to see a particular child as bad in every way. Due to this perception, the borderline parent then feels justified in their abusive behavior. The child has two choices before them. They can reject the beliefs of the borderline parent; this belief that they are all bad is the applied persona. Or, they can believe that they are, in fact, all bad and, thusly, deserving of all the abuse. Why would their own parent abuse and hate them if they didn’t deserve it? This belief that they are all bad is the internalizing of the applied persona. Essentially, they are exchanging their own identity for their parent’s belief.
They are making a persona their identity.
They are taking on their parent’s hatred and making it their own. Their identity becomes one founded upon self-loathing which was originally the loathing of a parent, and a new borderline is created. It all began with an exchange. The child gave up their identity, which was still forming, for a persona that didn’t even belong to them. It was a persona that was forced upon them by a very influential adult.
I have come to believe that this is often what happens to us in life as we are developing and growing into adulthood. It’s usually not as extreme as the aforementioned situation, but it’s common nonetheless. What are the roles of our mothers and fathers? They are present in our lives for so many obvious reasons. One role that they play is in the area of self-actualization. Parents see who we are and who we are becoming. They are there to call forth the beauty, strength, and gifts that are merely kernels within us when we are children. They are there to connect us with resources and mentors so that these kernels are fertilized and cultivated. They are also there to protect us from those that would seek to cut us off from experiences that would expand us. Parents are in our lives to help us make sense of the experiences we go through as we grow up so that we do not internalize any falsely applied personae.
Think about things that were said to you in middle school and high school? Those statements that you just can’t forget? For example, I’m 6 feet tall. I was teased relentlessly for years. My mother commented on my height. My father teased me. I left high school feeling like an unfeminine oaf due to all the comments I heard. It took me over ten years to be comfortable in my own skin, and there are days I still remember the words of my best friend in ninth grade–“Who would ever want to date a string bean?” I went home and cried. “I’m a string bean.” That persona statement became my identity. “I’m too tall. I’m unattractive. No one would ever want to date me.” But, those were not my words. Those were the words of other people, and no one ever told me that I didn’t have to accept them. I just did.
What about the words of abusive parents or even cruel teachers who were using shame to force compliance? What about religious teachers or pastors who were trying to motivate congregants?
Many people grow up in environments, familial, educational, and religious, wherein statements like these are declared. Individuals with more resiliency tend to fare better than those who lack resiliency. Studies have shown that resiliency originates in a conviction that one is lovable, worthy of love, or already loved. If an individual has experienced love from just one person, then they will be more resilient even if they are subjected to long-term abuse. So, what kind of persona might be formed from statements such as this?
“I am a lazy, worthless person. God will not help me if I’m not productive all the time. No one is interested in my feelings. Never show anyone weakness. They will leave you. I’m an object. Needing anything means that I’m selfish. Being tired and needing to rest means that I’m lazy and slothful. Never ask for help. I can’t ever need help.”
This statement used to be a part of my identity statement, and I know many people who have tied their identity and worth to a persona that was applied to them through a religious organization, an academic institution, or their family of origin. They change their behavior like a chameleon by wearing different personae depending upon the context. If you were to ask them who they really are, they don’t know. What they do know for certain is that they hate who they are when they are with certain people. They do know that it’s just not them. They know that, for example, their family is wrong about them, but they don’t know another way to behave. It’s been this way for too long. How do they break out of the mold?
In my experience, the best way to begin separating personae from identity is by building a true identity. Some false persona statements are so integrated and internalized that they honestly feel like truth. Life experiences have only ratified and reinforced what has been declared by influential people. When a person is abused as a child and then raped as an adolescent only to be assaulted in a relationship later on, for example, the thought that one truly is worthless feels absolutely true. Hasn’t life experience proved that?
What are our options then? After reorganizing my life experiences according to this paradigm, I think that no matter who you are or what you’ve been through, we have a lot of options. Stepping back and looking at this from a persona paradigm is one way to untangle this.