Shakespeare famously claimed that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” and this theatrical quality of life is nowhere more evident than in the social world. For the social world is not, and never will be, a world in which we reveal our true selves. Our total character is the product of our genes, our environment, and the interaction of the two, but who we are in public is only a slice of this totality. From very early in life, we learn to magnify the traits of our character most likely to produce social acceptance, while diminishing and hiding those traits which garner rejection or ridicule. This process leads to the creation of our social mask, or what can be called our persona, and as Carl Jung explains, the persona:
“…is a compromise between the individual and society as to what a man should appear to be. He takes a name, earns a title, represents an office, he is this or that. In a certain sense all this is real, yet in relation to the essential individuality of the person concerned it is only a secondary reality, a product of compromise, in making which others often have a greater share than he.”
Carl Jung, Collected Works Volume 7: Two Essays in Analytical Psychology
In this compromise with society, some fare better than others. For what a society favors even in ideal conditions, is good for most, but never for all. If our values and the strengths of our character do not align with the trends of conformity, then a persona built on these trends will always feel awkward. We may try to solve this conflict through superior acting skills, learning to play our role well despite our distaste for it, but this never proves to be a real solution:
“I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away…and I wanted to shoot myself.”
Kierkegaard, Journals and Papers
What are we to do if our persona is not serving us well? Must we resign ourselves to this fact, withdraw evermore into the inner realm of our psyche, and shun the social world along with all the opportunities it has to offer? Or can we re-construct our persona into one that accommodates our individuality and allows us to navigate the social world with more success?
While the passive stance we take in the initial construction of our persona can make it feel like a permanent part of our being, we do have the ability to re-sculpt the masks we wear in public. Rather than being the man or woman who others want us to be, we can heed the ancient wisdom to “become who we are” and we can construct a persona more aligned with our values and the strengths of our character. For as Jung points out, in the construction of one’s persona there are two sources around which to orient it. It can be oriented around “the expectations and demands of society”, which is the path of the conformist, or it can be oriented around “the social aims and aspirations of the individual”, which is the path we must take if we are dissatisfied with our role on the stage of life.
Constructing a persona built on the foundations of one’s individuality is a task few dare to take. Most people believe that only through conformity will others accept them. Being different, however, is not the death knell to social success that some imagine it to be. Many of us feel the chains of conformity to be suffocating and so the man or woman who is able to loosen these chains can be a refreshing sight. For as long as what makes us unique does not instill fear or disgust in other people, it can be the raw material upon which to construct a powerful persona.
To achieve social success while spurning the chains of conformity requires that we cultivate a genuine pride in who we are. We must accept what makes us unique if we are to have any hope of others doing the same. For if we are different, but insecure about our differences, then we will forever remain a social outcast. Therefore, if we choose to re-sculpt our persona in a manner that reflects our individuality, we need to first develop a solid foundation upon which to build. We should strive to live with purpose, to adopt ambitious goals which align with our values, and to take the consistent action required to move us in this direction. By doing this we will develop a justified pride in who we are, and this will be reflected through whatever social masks we choose to wear.
The reconstruction of our persona will only be effective if we couple this process with a devotion to strengthening our social skills. For social skills do not magically appear with the choice to adopt a new persona and they can be sorely lacking if we have spent years hiding behind a mask we could never fully embrace. To overcome this deficit, we need to put ourselves into situations we fear and to be willing to experience the blunders and failures that accompany the mastery of any skill. For only frequent practice will engender the boldness, spontaneity and confidence that produces social success.
This process can be made easier when we recognize that the social world is not full of individuals examining our every move. Instead it is populated by men and women full of their own doubts, fears and insecurities. Most people are more likely to be stuck in their own heads, than thinking about how others are behaving. Our blunders are never as dire as we make them out to be and recognizing this can grant us a little extra freedom as we begin experimenting with our new role.
One of the easiest ways to improve our social skills is to recognize the benefits of using words sparingly. We should not strive to dominate all conversations, for as Robert Greene points out in his book The Art of Seduction “talking endlessly about [ourselves] is eminently anti-seductive, revealing not self-sufficiency but insecurity.” (Robert Greene, The Art of Seduction) Rather than worrying too much about what we are going to say in social interactions, our focus should be on our body language. For if our words are accompanied by fearful or anxious body language, it won’t really matter what we say anyway. Learning to enter social situations with a clear mind and body language that reflects a calm and confident character is a valuable skill to master, or as Greene explains:
“It has been demonstrated how much people tend to judge based on first impressions and the difficulties they have in reassessing these judgments. Knowing this, you must give extra attention to your first appearance before an individual or group. In general it is best to tone down your nonverbal cues and present a more neutral front. Too much excitement will signal insecurity and might make people suspicious. A relaxed smile, however, and looking people in the eye in these first encounters can do wonders for lowering their natural resistance.”
Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature
Greene goes as far as to suggest that observing individuals who navigate the social world with power and grace, and trying to mimic their body language, can be an effective means to elevate our own social skills.
“Keep in mind that the feeling of being in a superior social position gives people a confidence that will radiate outward in their body language. Some feel this confidence before they attain a position of power, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as others are drawn to them. Some who are ambitious might try to simulate these cues. . .”
Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature
Even with improved social skills, however, we need to recognize that our choice to adopt a persona more aligned with our individuality means that we will not be accepted by everyone. But universal acceptance should never be our goal. In a world of such diversity, and with so many individuals who harbor their own insecurities, rejection and ridicule are inevitable no matter who we are. Such experiences, however, should not be used as excuses to retreat back into our shells. Instead we may be wise to adopt the attitude that Goethe held toward social interaction. For Goethe was a man who spent his life cultivating his individuality and shunning the pressures of conformity, but he was also a man who attained great social success. One of his tricks was to approach each interaction free of any expectations as to how the other person would respond to his social character.
“It is a great folly to hope that other men will harmonize with us; I have never hoped this. I have always regarded each man as an independent individual, whom I endeavored to understand with all his peculiarities, but from whom I desired no further sympathy. In this way have I been enabled to converse with every man, and thus alone is produced the knowledge of various characters and the dexterity necessary for the conduct of life.”
Goethe, Conversations with Goethe
This task of remaking our persona and establishing a more effective role on the stage of life can seem daunting, especially if we have spent years or decades, wearing the mask of an outcast. Some of us may look to our past, and all the disappointments we have experienced, and wonder if it is worth the effort. But remaining a social outcast is in itself a daunting task. The more we fear social interaction, the more we will avoid it, and the more we avoid it, the larger its absence looms over our life. Therefore, rather than looking at this task as a burden, we should see it for what it is, one of those rare challenges that is worthy of all the risks it entails, for as Greene writes in The 48 Laws of Power:
“The character you seem to have been born with is not necessarily who you are; beyond the characteristics you have inherited, your parents, your friends, and your peers have helped to shape your personality. The Promethean task of the powerful is to take control of the process, to stop allowing others that ability to limit and mold them. Remake yourself into a character of power. Working on yourself like clay should be one of your greatest and most pleasurable life tasks. It makes you in essence an artist – an artist creating yourself.”
Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power
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