A Coaching Power Tool created by Marius Sirbu
(Executive Coach, ROMANIA)
People [become] utterly unconscious of any distinction between themselves and the world in which they live. They have little or no concept of themselves as beings distinct from what society expects of them.
Human beings live in social environments. From our childhood, our dynamic environment nurtures us, shapes us, socializes us. We start learning what is agreed upon, what behavioural patterns are allowed and desirable, and which ones would be sanctioned by the society.
Persona is the Latin word for mask. It was used in Greek drama to express the fact that the actor was heard and his identity recognized by others through the sounds issued from the open mask mouth.
Person is a word that derived from it, expressing at the beginning the idea of a human being who means something, and seems to have some defined connectedness with others by action or affects. For the purpose of this tool, the person encompasses the mind, the body, the feelings in their whole and true nature, integrating all aspects and facets of an individual’s personality.
Adulthood is considered the commitment to the carriage of socially sanctioned roles. As we grow and develop, society aligns us in defined positions. Each relationship that we have or develop brings in expectations, and these expectations imply playing a role, a social role. We are husbands, brothers, sisters, children, friends, partners, lawyers, housewives, hipsters, businessmen etc. A person makes itself known, felt, taken in by others, through his/her particular roles and their functions.
On the other hand, in search for social recognition, connectedness and love, individuals feel the need of being accepted, recognized as member of society, and therefore wish to have a function, a role within the society. Social masks play an important role in our life and are useful for us in order to achieve our objectives. It is necessary to know the appropriate behaviour in society, in different contexts, to understand various expectations of the ones around us and to connect with them.
We learn to be polite, not to harm others etc and this is helpful and brings us the support of others and helps us achieve our objectives. However, it is important to note that ‘appropriate’ and ‘normal’ attitudes and behaviours are understood differently by different persons and parts of society. We are all different, and while someone might like the way I act, some others will not. My persona cannot meet the expectations of everyone around me.
While society manages to make known its expectations through a complex system of labelling, conditioning, gratifications and rewards, it remains up to each individual to decide whether the roles, functions, behavioural patterns and attitudes are in congruence with one’s self.
Coaching can help us find out more about ourselves and about whether the adopted personas are congruent or in conflict with our “true self”. One way is by becoming aware of the tensions – a sign that we have focused so much on being integrated and validated that we might have ignored our self. Our mind and body send us signals when we have made personas more important than the person, thus harming ourselves. Incongruence between acting as the persona one adopted and his/her own values and wishes are often signalled by tensions and uncomfortable feelings.
Having simultaneously two conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, or emotional reactions, suppressing your own desires leads to cognitive dissonance. Furthermore, adopting a persona that is not congruent with one’s self takes effort and can lead to exhaustion.
Often, one’s self is like an unexplored, virgin territory. We learn to know how the society wants us to be, but we do not have much knowledge about how we want to be or who we really are. Throughout our development, there is less opportunity dedicated to explore what is behind the mask, what feelings, emotions, thoughts and wishes hide behind the persona. As a result, we learn to play our personas, but we do not know how to take the mask of and examine what is behind it.
We start to develop personas in childhood, than in school, and continue acting according to our persona throughout our lives. We start living our lives by to the expectations of parents and teachers. In school, teachers or parents might expect from us to be the best in your class, to write the best papers etc. There is a time when this behaviour can be acknowledged, and if tensions occur, they ask for a change, for the transformation.
During the coaching process, the client will make steps to discovering himself, first by becoming aware of social masks, of his personas. This will continue with a process of analysis.
Identifying the personas played by the client in society and the signals of incongruence offered at different levels of his/her being is critical for coaching relationships. What social masks is the client wearing in his/her life? Is the client aware of them? Can tensions be identified? Tensions can come to expression at any of the three levels: body, mind or emotions. What is the focal point of these tensions?
The coaching process will reveal what has generated the tension by examining how client’s values, wishes and dreams relate to his/her personas. This exploration will guide the client in becoming aware of what is behind the mask, and support him/her to make a change and integrate more of the knowledge about his/her self into his/her life: expressing his feelings and desires, and developing his/her potential.
John is a mid-life career executive, and since over 1 year and a half, has become CEO at an important company. Although it is not longer necessary, he acts just like at the beginning of his career: working very hard, making a lot of efforts. Ever since he was an adolescent, he has been taught that this is the way of going up on the social ladder, the path to self-realisation and financial security for his family. He was taught that this way, he will have everything he wants. After one year and a half in this position, he realises that this important role that he plays in society brings tensions to his life and that he wants to discover more about what he wants and who he really is.
In the discussion with Ben, his coach, John realises that he has been stuck in this behavioural pattern following the strategy that he has developed at the start of his career. Ben also offers to John the metaphor of a piece of land that has been cropped too much over a long period of time. Pieces of land are meant to be having crops only once a year, if cultivated 2-5 times a year they will lose their ability of sustaining crops and vegetation.
He realises that his life has been a continuous marathon up to this point. Over the years, he has completely ignored other activities than the ones dedicated to his work and doesn’t know much about his true self.
What we can learn from this is that through a continuous marathon we do not give ourselves the time to connect with our true self and, as Karl Jung has put it,
The danger is that [people] become identical with their personas—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice.
Pay attention to your feelings and emotions. Identify tensions. Uncover your true self!
- Think about the personas you adopt in your social life. What uses of adopting personas do you identify?
- Think about one situation in which you have acted according to your persona but against your real will. How did tensions express and at what level (bodily, mental, emotional)?
- How can you support your clients in becoming aware of the personas they adopt?
- As a coach, how can you support the client examine how his various personas relate to each other and to his self?
- What tools can you use if you identify incongruence between one of client’s personas and his values or dreams?
Helen Harris Perlman, “Persona: Social Role and Personality”, Midway Reprint
i Terence Dawson, in P. Young-Eisendrath and T. Dawson ed., The Cambridge Companion to Jung (Cambridge 1977), page 267
ii C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (London 1983) p. 416