We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin. Andre Berthiaume
We all wear masks, although the extent to which we layer ourselves varies greatly.
Masks are the personality layer, or persona, that we put on top of the ‘real thing’ (caveats assumed).
They are the edited and decorated versions we prefer to show the world, shielding what we don’t like or accept or that others ask (typically without words) us to hide. They’re a protective barrier.
At the extreme con wo/men construct a palatable false self to divert people from darker intentions. The compulsive liar who says they hate lies, the wo/maniser who prides themselves on fidelity.
With these types charm is a decoy. These mask-makers have no desire to lift the mask, they know very well why it is there. Seeing through them can be difficult, in particular when they are well practiced.
Masks exist on a continuum from the passive-aggressive friend to the sociopath. However for the most part, we don’t realise the masks are there.
The reasons we develop masks are complex but character, parenting, culture and experiences contribute to early moulding.
Although what is un/acceptable differs depending on the context, the end-game of mask-making is the same – to spit out a self that largely satisfies collective expectations.
This can be useful. Socialisation is necessary. We are pack animals who need to know and fit in with rules.
But it turns on us when these behaviours interfere with living well. The skills we need to survive in one environment, say as a child, can stop us from having real needs met in another place and time.
Say you’re brought up where self-control is valued and emotion scorned. You might construct a tough, nothing-can-touch-me persona that dismisses difficulties and looks down on those who show flaws.
But apart from sociopaths, all humans are flawed and vulnerable, although to different degrees. The inability to show real feeling prevents us from experiencing real intimacy in relationships. There’s a cost.
Even at work where we must behave professionally, there’s a gap between authentic colleagues and shapeshifters who become what others want them to be. Who are you, we think as they are speaking, what do you really want? We don’t take them face value because we don’t know which face they have on. On the flip side, we offer what-you-see-is-what-you-get types something invaluable: our trust.
If you project a persona then you limit how you can behave. Always having to be up, or in control, or confined to a limiting role (such as with gender stereotypes) is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy to keep a mask in place. Inevitably, they give way.
Sometimes we confuse our masks with who we are. Separating who we think we should be from who we want to be is difficult. We become attached to projections.
People worry that dropping a mask will lead to sameness, that they may lose their personality and become bland. But it’s the opposite. Drop the stoicism and you might be shocked to discover how passionate you are, perhaps in ways you find threatening. Drop the need to be perfect and you may discover how much more you get done, or that you’re quirky, or not as patient as you once thought. Taking off the mask makes us more of who we are, not less.
This doesn’t mean we should arrive at work in a sarong or crazy it up. These are ideas about what it means to be real, not the real thing. Mindless rebellion is conformity.
We must learn to live on our own terms while taking others and the broader environment into consideration.
Because we defend most vigorously the areas in which we feel most exposed, an exercise in opposites can be very revealing.
- Write down quickly and without over-thinking it 5 qualities you believe define you – for example: strong, open, tolerant, respectful, demanding.
- For each – even if it’s untrue – write down an opposite – for example: vulnerable, closed, intolerant, disrespectful, casual.
- Try on a new idea for size. At first just combine a word from the first row with one from the second, even if you can’t see how it applies: I am strong, I am also vulnerable. And so forth.
- Now find one example in your life that demonstrates this is true. It might come as a surprise to discover that you are all these things already and able to live with the contradictory parts quite well.
Look at your masks. You might want to hold onto some and let others go. Look gently and with no fixed agenda. Who do you think you are? Lift the mask. Who do you think you are now? Look underneath that as well.