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Persona, more formally

I recently applied to the masters in counseling psychology program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. It was hard to imagine applying elsewhere, since the work of Carl Jung factors little, if at all, in similar programs at other institutions. I don't know of anyone who has fallen out of love with Jung. Today I'm posting the academic writing sample that the application wrung out of me. It picks up more formally on what I wrote about anecdotally yesterday. I called the piece The Somatics of Persona Pathology.


Elaborating on Jung’s position that the psyche and body are truly one and the same, this paper focuses on the somatics of the persona complex, especially in women. Persona development is seen as analogous to the fawn function of the social engagement system, which polyvagal theory shows is a mammalian adaptation of the autonomic nervous system. To better address this persona pathology, somatic nervous system therapies should be joined with more traditional Jungian approaches of increasing consciousness. The nervous system repair required in the persona healing process is analogous to strengthening relationship with the inner animus.


Jung (1988) saw the psyche and body as inseparable and ultimately indistinguishable. Perhaps his first observation of this was through his word association experiments, in which he used somatic data such as breathing patterns to demonstrate the constellation of a psychological complex (Sassenfeld, 2008). Indeed, a feeling of being taken over is a common way to articulate the meaning and experience of complexes to the public or to patients in analysis (Stein, 1998). Complex constellation is just as somatic as it is psychological, and every complex has a distinct somatic presentation or architecture (Sassenfeld, 2008). Furthermore, unconscious and repressed contents may be expressed primarily by the body, especially in cases of early attachment difficulty or developmental trauma (Heller & LaPierre, 2021). Often preverbally learned relational understandings are acted on through habitual somatic patterns, such as an inability to maintain eye contact (Heller & LaPierre, 2021; Sassenfeld, 2008), or smiling when actually harboring feelings of anger (Johnson, 2021). Typically the earlier the complex is formed and the more unconscious it is, the more thoroughly somatic its expression (Heller & LaPierre, 2021), as the complex is so deeply unconscious as to approach the terrain of instinct.

Through the insights of somatic and attachment trauma healing we have the opportunity to understand Jung’s concepts through a more embodied perspective, further articulating his consistent stance that soma and psyche move together. Beyond conceptual possibilities, the merging of Jungian approaches with somatic practices broadens our capacity to steward healing and individuation. I will approach this synergy by taking up one of Jung’s concepts–the persona– and beginning to understand it in light of current nervous system and attachment science, followed by briefly elaborating on the clinical implications of those connections. However, although a depth psychologist, I am not yet a clinician. I am drawn to this topic through the unfolding of my own individuation, the landscape of my dreams, and the need for somatic healing in my personal process as a woman with a history of developmental trauma.

The Somatics of Persona Pathology:

Development and Healing

The persona is among the complexes that Jung called functional (Jung, 1921/1971). It is with the help of the persona that we are able to show up in social situations and work environments in a way that is acceptable in that milieu (Stein, 1998). Persona is the show we put on to win the approval of others, the mask we wear to play the role each situation requires, how we save face. Jung (1921/1971) described the complex as “exclusively concerned with relation to objects” (p. 465). The persona is completely oriented toward other people and the social environment, rather than on connection with the Self (Jung, 1921/1971). Because of this, I would say the work of the persona dominates the first half of life.

In many references to the persona, both in Jung and in other writers in his tradition (e.g. Hopcke, 1995; Stein, 1998), persona is loosely associated with career. The common example is those who are overly identified with their persona understand themselves to be entirely encompassed by their professional identity or title. Jung described those adults lacking a strong persona as childlike (Hopcke, 1995), suggesting that the persona develops later in life. However, I argue that the most important time for adaptation to the outer world is when we are young and therefore most vulnerable to it. The first job of our persona is to win us safety and belonging in our family of origin. It is the structure of that adaptation that then shapes how we later relate to our work life (Leonard, 1982). With the help of polyvagal theory, I will argue that the persona first develops as a function of the nervous system in order to maintain safety between infant and caregiver.

The site where the human nervous system begins to negotiate safety is in the face. Stephen Porges’ (2018) polyvagal theory explains the evolution of our nervous system and the development of what he calls the social engagement system (SES). The SES is a nervous system adaptation in mammals that down regulates fight or flight responses to encourage sociality and cooperation (Porges, 2018). This adaptation innervates the face and throat and controls functions such as eye contact, facial expression, and voice tone, all of which are crucially important in the development of attachment and coregulation in infants (Heller & LaPierre, 2021). If the SES is in a state of safety, human connection and bonding is possible, along with collaboration and intimacy (Johnson, 2021).

Given the SES is a part of the autonomic nervous system, it automatically responds to detected danger. In infancy danger looks like inadequate or absent mirroring, the caregiver not responding to distress, or meeting the infant with dysregulation or hostility. While the more ancient sympathetic branch of the nervous system goes into fight or flight in the presence of danger, the SES turns to fawning, conforming the facial expression and voice to appease the social environment (Johnson, 2021). In adults, fawning can look like laughing or smiling when expressing or harboring feelings of anger in an unconscious attempt to negotiate safety, since anger can endanger social connection (Johnson, 2021). Here we find a function of the nervous system distinctly similar to the function of the persona: compliance with the social situation. I see fawning as an instinctive response analogous to a deeply unconscious persona developed at a very early age.

Especially if fawning is established as a default nervous system pattern to survive inadequate or abusive parenting, a codependent persona-lity type is likely to constellate (Heller & LaPierre, 2021). Therapist Pete Walker (2013), who coined the term “fawn” describes, “As a toddler, the codependent learns quickly that protesting abuse leads to even more frightening parental retaliation. Thus she responds by relinquishing her fight response, deleting ‘no’ from her vocabulary and never developing the language skills of healthy assertiveness (130).” Analyst Linda Schierse Leonard (1982) calls this persona adaptation the Darling Doll archetype, the woman who lives for her husband and family, constantly conforming to the desires and needs of others while denying her own preferences, requirements, opinions and boundaries.

We can see why Jung (1928/1966) called the development of a persona a “genuine self-sacrifice” (p. 193). Of course the initial importance of the persona was self-protection, earning the child safety and belonging in their family system. This personal dream describes the importance and the tragedy of this survival strategy.

I’m watching as a girl constructs and lays down on a section of a play train. All the other sections are uniform and closed, but hers is something like an open box with a big pillow that she is on top of. Her parents and family are outraged. They call what she is doing art, which is the ultimate insult. I feel I know what they’ll do. They’re going to beat her into submission so she’ll never do this again. But she gets taken in instead by a couple of old witchy women, down into a sort of underground kitchen. They’ve made a mask for her - a full bust to totally hide her identity. She is nervous about this. Scared that she’ll be discovered even with the full on mask and embarrassed to wear the bust, which is foreign and plastic and has bigger breasts than she does. Finally she agrees to it and it’s her first day of school. She is nervous and anxious and scared. She doesn’t want to be found out, but also feels awkward in the bust. I’m helping her navigate her schedule. She’s confused. She thinks she’ll go to an advanced seminar but she hasn’t taken the prerequisites. She doesn’t know where she is going. Eventually I realize that she’s been looking at the wrong day on her schedule. It is Thursday and she doesn’t have class until the evening. I suggest she take this spacious time to find all the other classrooms she’ll be in, to walk that course, so she is prepared when those classes take place.

The dream pictures the persona hiding the girl away, tucking her true self under the plastic of the mask. She is at once afraid her true self will be revealed, and also afraid of hiding behind the bust. There is a fundamental experience of unsafety, in her own body and in her auxiliary body, but for different reasons. She both wants to hide behind the mask, to fit in, and to be free of it, to be herself. Not surprisingly, this is deeply disorienting and confusing, and she has trouble finding her way. The fear of abuse in this dream draws a clear line between the development of the persona and a need for safety.

I had this dream during an incredibly challenging time. I had just left my marriage, followed by several months living with my childhood abuser, which brought my traumatic history out of the unconscious. Suffering with profound insomnia and without a home, I was staying with a friend whose mother was dying. I instinctively devoted all my care and attention to this friend instead of honoring my own need for support, drawing a healthy boundary, and finding another place to sleep. This type of response is deeply rooted in a disposition to fawn within my nervous system, developed in response to inadequate attachment as an infant, physical abuse, and punishing parenting throughout my childhood.

It is no surprise that fawning is particularly common among women, and that my dream involves the girl becoming awkwardly more feminine with bigger breasts. The SES is more heavily relied upon by women because of the importance of bonding with our babies and the prosocial effect of estrogen, in addition to the social conditioning that encourages women to be yielding and passive (Johnson, 2021). The persona is the site of our gender expression, leading to an equally gendered aspect in the unconscious, what Jung called the anima or animus. Healing a persona pathology requires that the adaptation first come to consciousness, and then be replaced by an authentic and more conscious persona, a process that requires coming into relationship with the animus (Hopcke, 1995). To recover from a fawning persona adaptation, one must claim her needs and preferences with protective assertiveness, attributes of the masculine animus.

This is as much a somatic effort as it is a psychological one. A nervous system that has habituated to fawn bypasses the fight response, whence healthy assertiveness spawns (Johnson, 2021). Somatic therapies such as Peter Levine’s (1997) Somatic Experiencing work to broaden sympathetic arousal capacity, so that the nervous system can tolerate the fight response that went into hiding in early childhood. Without gaining this capacity, individuals will continue to fawn automatically, letting the persona lead her life in both subtle and profound ways. In addition to bringing to consciousness the developmental difficulties and adaptations that fed the persona’s development, the nervous system itself must be repatterned, breaking the well-worn fawn strategy and activating a sympathetic fight response (Heller & LaPierre, 2021; Johnson, 2021).


I’ve briefly explored analogous concepts in our understanding of the psyche and the nervous system, connecting the persona with the fawn response of the SES, as well as animus with a sympathetic fight response. Studying the connections between nervous system science and healing and Jungian ideas and approaches can not only deepen our understanding of the human psyche and its development, but can point us toward more profound therapeutic interventions.


Heller, L., & LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing developmental trauma: How early trauma affects self-regulation, self-image, and the capacity for relationship. North Atlantic Books. Hopcke, R. H. (1995). Persona: Where sacred meets profane. Shambhala. Johnson, K. A. (2021). Call of the wild: How we heal trauma, awaken our own power, and

use it for good. Harper Wave. Jung, C. G. (1966). The relations between the ego and the unconscious (R. F. C. Hull,

Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung: Vol. 7. Two essays

on analytical psychology (2nd ed., pp. 121–241). Princeton University Press.

(Original work published 1928). Jung, C. G. (1971). Definitions: Soul [Psyche, personality, persona, anima] (R. F. C. Hull, Trans.). In H. Read et al. (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung: Vol. 6.Psychological Types (pp. 463–470). Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1921). Jung, C. G. (1988). Nietzsche’s “Zarathustra”: Notes of the Seminar given in 1934-1939.

Two Volumes (J. L. JARRETT, Ed.). Princeton University Press. Leonard, L. S. (1982). Wounded woman: Healing the father-daughter relationship. Swallow Press. Levine, P. A. (1997). Waking the tiger: Healing trauma: The innate capacity to transform overwhelming experiences. North Atlantic Books.

Porges, S. (2018). Polyvagal Theory: A Primer. In Porges, S. & Dana D. (Eds.),

Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed

Therapies (pp. 50-69).WW Norton.

Sassenfeld, A. (2008). The Body in Jung’s Work. The Journal of Jungian Theory and

Practice, 10(1), 1-13.

Stein, M. (1998). Jung's map of the soul: An introduction. Open Court.

Walker, P. (2013). Complex Ptsd: From surviving to thriving: A guide and map for

recovering from childhood trauma. Azure Coyote.

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