By Elizabeth Aylott Pope.
Halloween is right around the corner, filled with pumpkins, black cats with arched backs, candy and creatures! As you prepare your child’s costume (or your own!), pause for a moment. Take a look at the plastic masks on display – whether skeletons or superheroes, monsters or fair maidens – and consider for a moment:
We all wear masks
Whether it’s 31 October or not. Some of these masks are more useful than others. You might wear a protective mask of Avoidance, or a Functional mask to help you navigate a tricky situation in your life. The Happy Mask lets you project outward contentment and ease when you’re having a tough day. The People Pleaser Mask can be insidious, and the Anger Mask prickly, but both accomplish the same thing – guarding your vulnerability and helping you feel that you’re getting through your day a little easier.
Putting on a mask is natural; we all do it. It’s part of living in a society and managing complicated human emotions. In Japanese, the concept of social masks is handled particularly eloquently. Honne and Tataemae describe the contrast between how someone truly feels and what they want, and the public façade created through behavior and manners.
The difficulty is that masks preclude intimacy.
Feeling connected is a basic human need, but we can’t achieve that while wearing a mask. You may be not want anyone to know that you are having a hard day, but by covering it up, you miss the opportunity to feel better by sharing how you feel. You also may miss the chance to discover that the person next to you is feeling the exact same way, and help each other.
Perhaps even worse is the fact that you may wear so many masks for so long that you lose touch with who you authentically are and what you feel. That’s an incredible loss: to yourself, those who love you, and, frankly, the world.
The first step forward is to acknowledge that we all wear these masks, and be willing to learn what’s going on behind it, for yourself and those around you.
Be aware when you are covering up how you actually feel or what you truly think, and ask whether you really need to. There’s a huge difference between being polite to strangers despite feeling tired, and denying that you’re tired to your friends in favour of wearing the Super Mum mask.
It’s okay that you’ve been acting happy when you’re not. It’s even more okay for you to say that you’re upset. Accepting your internal experience and sharing it with others brings you face-to-authentic-face with whatever you’ve been avoiding. This can be terrifying, but it will also help you develop coping skills, ask for support from others, and give support to those around you who probably feel the exact same way!
Validating how we feel to ourselves and receiving validation from others is incredibly powerful. You get to choose when a mask serves you, and when it keeps you from connecting with others and with yourself. Intimacy is an act of courage: Let yourself be seen.
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