To Be or Not to Be (our Masks)
"Inevitably we construct ourselves. Let me explain. I enter this house and immediately I become what I have to become, what I can become: I construct myself. That is, I present myself to you in a form suitable to the relationship I wish to achieve with you. And, of course, you do the same with me.”
Luigi Pirandello, One, No One and One Hundred Thousand.
What Pirandello is referring to is something that in Psychology is called the Mask. I decided to start with this quote because, as we explore deeper the subject of Mask and Self, I want to make it clear that, contrary to other opinions, I do not consider the Mask as something negative in itself. By the contrary, as Pirandello so beautiful states, we have masks to interact and fit in this world. The masks that we wear in different contexts have an adaptive role that enable us to adjust to the situations and the people we interact with. In my work related relationships, I present myself in a certain way which is different than how present and relate to my long term friends. Which, in turn, is different to how I relate to my family members or when I interact with my friends children. These different roles stimulate and develop our personality if – and I emphasize if – we stay connected with our authentic self.
However, the issue arises in those cases where we disconnect from our inner truth and betray who we really are. As C. G. Jung puts it, the problem is not you wearing a mask, the problem is when the mask starts wearing you. In a very demanding society, with high expectations and competitive environments, we often tend to construct a self-image that we consider to be what is expected from us. This idealized construct of ourselves not only hides us behind an impenetrable defensive wall but also prevents our actual innate qualities to be fully expressed and seen by others. We try to adjust to others expectations or, even more confusing, to what we expect that others expect from us.
These self-demands and judgements are, of course, a cause of pain and isolation. Ironically, the reason why we started to identify with these masks in the first place was exactly to avoid the pain of rejection that we at some point felt in our lives - more precisely, during our first years of life. At the time, we felt that if we would become a more ideal version of ourselves we could be more accepted. So, in order to avoid more rejection, we end up by rejecting ourselves. The essence and uniqueness of our being needed to be sacrificed in order for us to be loved. This is the unconscious belief that rooted itself deep within us and - in many cases - stays away from our awareness throughout our lifetime.
There are as many masks as there are situations and relationships, but right now I would like to focus on three very powerful ones. The author Susan Thesenga explores this subject in her book The Undefended Self, where she mentions the mask of Love, Serenity and Power. We all have these three masks and wear them in different moments and with different people but, maybe, there is one that speaks more closely to you.
Perhaps, you can see how you try to always show how much you love everyone and every aspect of life. To always be in contact with the beautiful aspects of life, welcoming everyone and everything that comes in your way no matter how threatening or disrespectful that might be to your person. I’m not saying that it’s not great to feel and express your love towards others and to be connected to the miracle of life. What I am saying is that sometimes what you are truly feeling is something totally opposite to a loving and all accepting feeling but, instead, you choose (consciously and/or unconsciously) to express love and acceptance.
Similarly, the mask of Serenity tries to convey an undisturbed personality, always acting calm and peaceful. Nothing can affect you because you are above such feelings as anger, hate or revenge. A perfectly undisturbed human being.
The mask of Power, as you can imagine, shows an unbreakable strength and an inflated self-confidence. To have power isn’t enough, we need to overpower others at whatever cost.
I am, of course, exaggerating and stereotyping but I risk to say that we all identify to a certain degree to what I have just described. It is a normal human behavior to experience these different masks. What causes unbalance and disconnection is when the masks crystalize in our personality and overtake control of how we relate with the world. One of the fundamental steps of a therapeutic process is to become aware of the masks that take control over us. To perceive how they affect the relationship with ourselves and consequently, with others. Because the masks hide the pain of rejection that we experienced earlier in our lives, it is hard to trust that we can let go of them. They have been with us for so long and, in some way, served us so efficiently, that our unconscious mind will resist to change.
However, once we start to realize how much of our true being is kept hidden underneath the surface, the impulse for change will become stronger. First in the therapeutic relationship and, later on, with the world in general, you will start sharing from a more authentic place. To remain connected to your essence in every moment, even though you still adapt and adjust to the context and people you are relating to at any given moment. It’s exactly this feeling of flow and integrated “changeness” that provides personal growth and well-being.