How do we choose which persona to project onto the world? Some of us choose to be people pleasers, while others choose to be tough guys. As we know, our projected persona is but one aspect of our authentic selves (and often it is a minor aspect rather than a major player). So how do we settle on it in our own minds? What do our choices say about us? I’m reading book three in the Dragon Kin series. This one is about Dagmar Reinholdt, otherwise known as “The Beast” and Gwenvael the Handsome, a total tomcat of a dragon. I think their nicknames say it all about their choices—although some might argue that nicknames are often conferred, not selected. Sometimes nicknames are meant to be insulting (I was called four-eyes and Pinocchio in grade school, which was devastating at the time, but then I got contacts and a nose job and had my own swan moment, so it was all good).
So, how do we choose a persona? For some, our parents choose for us, encouraging us to be kind and unselfish and ambitious. Or maybe to be athletic or intellectual. Then there are those exceptional parents, who may actually wait to see which character traits and preferences a child comes to inherently, but those parents are few and far between—especially if the child is “exuberant” (read: wild and out-of-control) or “confident” (read: stubborn and willful). Oftentimes it seems, as parents, we don’t get the children we were hoping for—and yes, I know that every expectant parent ostensibly hopes for a healthy child, but once that is accomplished, the wish list tends to grow exponentially to include intelligence, beauty, poise, popularity, and a winning personality. In other words, most of us want attractive, athletic, smart, and (ultimately) non-celibate versions of the Dalai Lama and/or Mother Theresa. Don’t lie—you know you are resonating with that!
So, as parents (or as sons and daughters, as the case may be), we project our fantasies of the ideal child (or have them projected all over us) and we are then imprinted at an early age with an image of the ideal, or at least someone else’s version. At that point, we can go in one of two ways—we can try to adopt the projection as our own, if it fits at all well, and sometimes even if it doesn’t—or we can reject that image and go in another, usually opposite, direction.
My mother wanted me to be a lady and a shining example of 1950s womanhood (think Mrs. Beaver of Cleaver fame). She tried hard to pound me into that mold. Unfortunately, there was absolutely no way to square that circle, and as early as kindergarten I had teachers intervening between me and my mother to help negotiate a dress code we could both live with (suffice it to say that my mother wanted a little princess and I was only interested in the attitude, not the clothes). What an ongoing mess all of that was—with one of the last things my mother ever saying to me was that in her mind, I was a failure as a woman. Because I work outside the home and avoid cooking and cleaning like the plague. Her definition was fairly limited, for sure.
Nothing I did pleased my mother—so I stopped trying at an early age. And the persona I chose to present to the world included a big chip on my shoulder and a confrontational, take-no-prisoners attitude that screamed, “I do what I want and I don’t give a rat’s ass about what you think!” Charming, I know. But, for my persona, I needed to let you know that your opinions couldn’t touch me or make me do anything I didn’t want to do (clearly, the military was not an option for me). Others with a less traumatic upbringing adopt other kinds of personas—but most of our choices are straight out of central casting: the Good Wife; the Loving Mother; the Bad Boy; the Tough Guy; the Nice Girl; the Queen Bee; the Man; you get the picture.
If an author of one of my beloved books wrote a character like that (and sometimes they do, although they probably won’t make my top ten list if that is the case), we’d call the writing flat and predictable and give it two thumbs down.
But we give ourselves a free pass when we do that exact same thing. We project a comfortable (yes, even when it’s ridiculously uncomfortable), predictable (another word for controllable) image on the screen of others’ personalities and then we follow the script accordingly—even when the inner monologue in our brains is completely divergent with the BS coming out of our mouths. “No problem” could mean “NFW,” but we are too scared to say so. “I’d love to” could be “I’d rather chew glass,” and “I don’t mind at all,” usually signifies that we are thinking murderous thoughts behind the façade of a simpering smile.
So, why do we do this and how can we stop? We do it because it’s what we know and therefore it defines our comfort zones. And it’s really hard to venture out of the boxes we create for ourselves, so we tend not to do it. Sometimes, we aren’t even aware that we’ve boxed ourselves into our projected personas, so ingrained in our make-believe identities are we. We need to reflect, contemplate our navels a bit and look inward, Grasshopper. There are usually clues—like the fact that we don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, or we have IBS, or migraines or chronic fatigue—or some other disorder that may indicate that we aren’t who we want to be. This is tough stuff. In case you were wondering, and without giving away too much, I can say that Dagmar the Beast and Gwenvael the Handsome end up being much more than just formidable or gorgeous, although they are that, too (our personas usually reflect at least one aspect of our true selves). And in unveiling their whole selves, to each other and eventually to the world, they spring off the pages in all three dimensions. Because who wants to be Flat Stanley?