Midlife’s Main Confrontation: Persona vs. Shadow

by Peter Milhado PHD on October 25, 2018

All of us wear masks at different times.  For example, we are one way at work, different with our friends, still different with our lovers, children, mothers in law, etc… Our masks, or in modern parlance our Personas, are usually developed to gain affirmation and acceptance in the outside world i.e. ‘Nice Guy’, ‘Good Girl’, ‘Loyal Employee’, ‘Humanitarian Boss’, ‘Compassionate Therapist’, ‘Super Mom’ etc.  Even those who are oppositional by disposition and wear the Personas of ‘Rebel’, ‘Loner’, “Macho Individualist’, ‘I don’t need anybody Career Woman’ are only wearing reactive personalities not yet healed from brutal, early authority conflicts.  I’m especially leery of those who boisterously announce, “I’m up front, I tell it like it is!” “I don’t pull any punches.” “I am always honest.”  Their claim to ‘candor’ is often a disguise for rage, cruelty and a need for control over others.  Despotic control is always a compensation for tremendous feelings of inferiority, unworthiness and often feeling unlovable.

Profiles for Personas are formed early in life, primarily to manage fear and anxiety and often are reactions to early trauma, including responses to childhood authoritative figures (parents, religious institutions, teachers…). There are three unconscious responses to early overwhelming authority figures: (1) obedience (2) defiance (3) passive- aggressiveness± i.e. “I will do the dishes at three o’clock”(fearful obedience).  At three o’clock “Oh I forgot”  (cowardly defiance).  Personas only fake individuality – they’re a compromise between our individual needs and the demands of society and authority figures.

I don’t mean to trash Personas per se, because they are a reality of life for all of us.  I certainly behaved differently at a seminar with colleagues last Saturday morning, than I did with my comrades around the campfire that same night.  As always, the critical point is consciousness.  Once we reach mid-life we are strongly requested to become fully aware what Personas we are wearing and especially what our motivation is for wearing them.  Overall, the need for wearing Personas lessens and lessens as we get older, there is something bigger going on in our psyches than our Personas.  If we’re unconscious of our Personas we become neurotic like the 24 hours a day ‘dutiful daughter’ ‘misunderstood artist’ ‘compliant city council member’ ‘selfless minister’…


When we hit 40, the capacity for self-deception is exhausted.  If self-deception continues, there is hell to pay!  In midlife a radical change needs to take place, because the depressions, anxieties and general suffering are a summons to move from the Persona to authenticity.  Nobody but ourselves can save us from ourselves – the main enemy is always WITHIN. The answer is simple – take a long, deep and genuine look in the mirror… again and again and again and again.  Of course this whole initiation ritual is advisable only for those who have some inner authority already.  The company of a fellow pilgrim, who knows about the ‘night sea journey’, is strongly recommended.

This pilgrimage is hard and painful, but if you hang in there…keep on looking…there is soul there.  If we can eventually cop to our own weaknesses, fears, dependencies, manipulation, power plays, cruel streaks etc. something incredible happens.  Many of our psychological symptoms like depression, anxiety, somatic complaints lessen or vanish.  Our ‘Shadow’ is not something we can choose to have; it’s there just like our noses and feet.

Persona vs. Shadow Confrontation

Look at it from an energy viewpoint.  The amount of energy we put into our Personas looking industrious, entertaining, responsible, good or oppositional, macho, non-needy, and rebellious, is absolutely awesome.  Doing ‘Inner Shadow Work’ liberates all of this energy to live a much more soulful and creative life.  We become free to live according to our natural self, no longer living up to or impetuously opposing the demands and expectations of others, or how we ought to live.

As I am writing this I just remembered criticisms from two old friends of mine, Mountain Man Leo and Seminary James ( AKA Los Cabos Jaime).  According to them, my recent articles have been “too heady” and “ too intellectual”.  “You’re losing touch with the people, brother, who I thought you were writing it for to begin with.”  “Keep it simple, amigo!”  I believe they were gentle with me this time (which is not always the case).   In reality they probably felt I was on my soapbox, a bit arrogant, yet affirmation seeking, self-serving and ego strutting.  Of course, all of these traits are in my personal Shadow’s agenda. The Shadow is both powerful and tricky and even though I’ve been doing this work for many moons, I still get overrun more times than I like to admit.  Shadow work is a lifelong commitment; like the poet said, “Imagine Sisyphus happy!”… Here we go again.


When we run with our Personas in the first half of life to meet the demands of our parents, culture and religious institutions, we’ve pushed away and repressed large portions of our personalities.  To make it in the outer world, we neglect our inner world and in midlife we pay the price, as our suffering becomes acute.  The neglected parts of our souls (Levinson calls them ‘other voices in other rooms’) start screaming, if we can only hear!

When we repress sensitivity it shows up as sugarcoated sentimentality  or numbness; when we repress anger it shows up as passive- aggressiveness, cruelty and/or depression; when we repress spontaneity it shows up as boredom; when we repress creativity it shows up as inertia and resentment.

The shadow not only includes our unacknowledged negative characteristics; it also includes our repressed positive traits and creativity.  The shadow embodies all which has not been allowed expression.  Here is a major point in mid-life psychology!  The negative shadow has to be owned first, before our positive shadow and creativity can show up.  This appears in nighttime dreams when the threatening, power driven, ruthless characters are slowly replaced by strong, humanitarian, creative and helpful characters.  When we own our darkest impulses we gain new energy and get our creativity back!  Bingo!  That’s it – no mas!  Only when we begin to tap our repressed potential do we free ourselves from  the agenda of others!  The more we know  ourselves, our masks and our dark side, including scars, blemishes and warts, the richer our life will be.  It’s about wholeness, not about perfection!

One for all and all for one. Love to Mother Meera

Peter Milhado © 2018


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