What are the risks and rewards of hiding behind a mask?
Have you ever been in a job or a relationship where you felt that you were not being yourself? That by wearing a mask, you would fit in and make that job or relationship work somehow. Perhaps you really needed the job or felt like it was the job you “should” go for. Or maybe you didn’t want to be alone, so you were prepared to enter a relationship and hide parts of yourself or put on a show, so that you would feel loved?
Some might say this is putting your best foot forward. That you are making the effort to give a good impression. If that is what you are doing, then it ought to mean that further down the line, it’s still going to be a good fit. You were not wearing a mask to hide anything. The openness and authenticity were still there.
Hiding behind a Mask
But what if you were hiding something. Putting on a mask and not showing your real self. Creating a façade that you think the other person wants to see, which is not like you in some way. To have this prospective partner, colleague or client like you, be impressed by you even though what you are showing them is not the real you.
This mask wearing covers a deeper concern. That, “I am not good enough” or, “I am not worthy”. It stops the real me from showing itself because I think the real me will not be liked, loved, appreciated, accepted, respected or cared for.
Sometimes the thinking is, “Better that they reject the mask, than they reject me”. It acts as a protection. “If they are going to reject me anyway, better they reject something that is false, or not completely true, than reject who I really am. It’s far less painful that way and easier to manage.” This survivalist or protectionist strategy makes sense, but it does not work, long term. I have employed this method for years.
The Energy a Mask Requires
But, it is not sustainable in any meaningful way. Because, once people buy into the mask you’ve created, you have to sustain the mask. And because the mask is a fiction, several exhausting things happen:
- It is draining to keep this false façade up for so long. Feeding that mask to sustain it requires a lot of energy.
- You are on guard all the time, to make sure that you don’t mess up, make a mistake, let the mask slip.
- You feel inauthentic. Which leads to not feeling seen or known, because you are not letting people see and know you.
- It’s lonely behind that mask.
A part of you longs to be your authentic self. But fear gets in the way and the inner critic steps in to hold you back and keep that mask firmly in place.
Creating your Mask
You might have started that process as far back as a child in the family. If you did not fit in at home, you might well have felt the need to put a mask on as a protection or defence. You might have been disruptive to keep people at a distance. Or perhaps you became compliant to avoid conflict and confrontation. I was a compliant child, finding it easier to be quiet and fit in to be accepted and included.
And it can happen at school. You either conform to fit in or rebel to push against the establishment. These patterns can become habits which you take into adult life. As you can probably imagine, I conformed throughout my schooling and into adulthood. These habits become your mask, or default behaviour, and you find it difficult to change them and be your authentic self. Of course, it can happen at any time in your adult life as well. When you do not feel accepted for who you truly are, you can hide behind a mask as a form of protection and defence.
Removing the Mask
There can come a time when it feels like these habits are not working for you anymore. You may feel lost. As if anything and everything that you do is not genuine or authentic. Like you are working to a script of your own creation. And it is then that you might start to realise you do not know yourself. Or that you are a stranger to yourself. As if you are looking at yourself in the mirror and you think when you see the mask you are wearing, you are seeing yourself. Like you’ve bought into the mask as well. It is then that you acknowledge to yourself that you do not know what you truly want, hope and dream.
So, how do you get that authenticity back? How can you remove the mask?
There are undoubtedly moments in life when the mask gets ripped off. This can be abrupt and painful as well as liberating. Relationship break-ups, redundancy, financial ruin, reaching crisis point on an addiction journey, health issues and even global pandemics can be catalysts to radical acceptance and a desire for change and authenticity.
And there can be the longer, more gentle and perhaps less painful options by taking small steps over time to build your capacity to live independent of the mask you wear. You can build the muscle of authentically knowing what you want and allowing yourself to have it.
The Crumbling Mask
One Saturday morning on a quiet weekend, my partner asked me what I would like to do. In that moment, I froze in fear as I realised I had no idea what I wanted. I had been so focused on what I should do, what I ought to do, what had to be done, what was right to do, that I had lost any sense of what I actually wanted. I drew a blank and stared into a void. It scared me.
In that moment, I realised I had been wearing the mask of conformity for decades. That I had come to believe I was the mask. I had lost contact with the person behind the mask, which explained why I walked through life without sustained passion, authenticity, energy and focus.
So, I began the process of looking behind the mask. By starting small and building up. In this way, the mask began to crumble.
Looking behind the Mask
I created this exercise, the point of which is to know what you want. It does not mean you have to do it. It is literally an opportunity to explore the question “What do I, the person behind the mask, want?”
I would ask myself, “What do I want for breakfast?” Not to be swayed by what is already in the larder or convenient or healthy, or what someone else wants. Or “Who do I want to see today?” Not the people I have to see or who had asked to see me, or my partner wanted to see. It’s a practice. And it takes practice, to learn what you want again and then to follow through and allow that to happen. As you get more confident with it, you can build up to asking about the work you do, or where you live, the holidays you take and the car you drive.
Be gentle, have fun with it if you can and know that this is a journey of many steps that includes growing awareness and confidence. And, if you feel you would like support on that journey, allow me to gift you a discovery session where we can begin the exploration together.