Behind the mask

Masks have been used throughout history to hide the person behind them – movies have been made about them and it was highly fashionable from Elizabethan times for ladies, and sometimes men, to hide their appearance at balls and social functions to insert an air of mystery and intrigue. 

I’m no authority on ‘masking’ so I’d like to start off by sharing the experience of a previous client using this tool as a way of hiding.

As a teenager, and growing up, he wasn’t a confident person. He was painfully shy, no self-esteem and with not many friends. He felt lonely, left out, unhappy and felt as if he didn’t fit in with all the other pupils. There was a lot of peer pressure – to follow the latest football team, to have a girlfriend, to go to parties, be good at sports. He gradually noticed that all the popular boys were loud, always laughing, making jokes. They all seemed to be involved in sports, be popular with girls. So, over a period of time, in order to be ‘liked’ by these other boys, he became more and more like them. He was loud, laughed too much, he ‘made up’ stories of football accomplishments, and several girlfriends; He made jokes at his own expense – better to be laughed at than to be ignored. This was his mask and it worked. He developed ‘friends’ that he thought were like him; he became more popular and he wasn’t the last boy to be picked for sports. But it was all a mask. Only he knew that inside he was cringing at his loud laughter, it hurt when other boys laughed at him and it was a struggle to keep up this pretense all of the time. In fact it was exhausting. But for him, as a teenager, it carried him through those difficult years until he could find a space and a time to be himself again. For him the mask was a positive experience that worked.

We all do it – people ask “how are you” and we reply “fine”. Nobody knows someone so well all of the time, often because at some stage we either put on a mask or use the mask in an unconscious way, in a way which we have been using for so long that we no longer know we are using it.

And we use the mask for several reasons. Maybe because we are fine, maybe because these people are just acquaintances and need not know your true feelings, maybe because we don’t want to lose contact with people that may be put off by knowing the truth. Maybe because if we let them see the real person they wouldn’t like what they saw and maybe because to drop the mask would be to let someone else into our world – and that’s scary! Why else would people wear a mask if not to keep others for seeing who they see as themselves? Letting someone get to know them the way they see themselves is dangerous.

It did for my client. That, shy teenager really did manage to make proper friends without shouting, acting up, or pretending. At some point in his growing up he was confident to let other people in to see the real him – it was safe to come out from behind the mask. But that took many years to develop and was a useful mask which he outgrew but which became automatic and helped him to make sense of the world.

We act differently in different situations. We act differently as adolescents around our parents than around our own circle of friends. We all conform to certain expectations in certain situations. Young children who are very gifted often wear the mask. They are so desperate to make friends, and those friends are maybe not as gifted, that they wear a mask – “which makes them the same as everyone else!”  

I guess one of the reasons I became a counsellor was my interest in people and what makes them tick – commonly known as being nosey. I’m interested in what’s going on for them, how they are feeling, what drives them and what being them is like. I’m asking them not to put on a mask, but to let me inside their world. Of course, this doesn’t happen – certainly not at first. I believed, when I first started counselling training that if clients are able to let go of that mask it will help reveal their true selves and allows them to live happier and more fulfilling lives. I don’t believe that is true for all clients. Sometimes they feel as if the mask is protecting them and unless they know what they need protection from, sitting behind the mask is the safest place. It would take a lot of work and a lot of therapy to convince some clients that it’s safe to ‘come out from behind the mask’. It’s like a comfort blanket – a place to go when everything feels shaking and unstable. The relationship between the client and the counsellor/support worker would have to be one built on complete trust – and this takes time. So, I’d never advocate a client be pushed to either admit that they are living their lives behind a mask, or to set aside that mask until they know that they no longer need it.

I believe we use a mask to hide. We hide from lots of things. I have used three kinds of mask here, but there will be others.

The cheerful mask – used by someone who feels negative emotions. They don’t want anyone else to see the hurt, fear, depression and anger that live inside them. To protect themselves from these feelings they act like everything is fine. They appear to be bright and bubbly. They smile a lot – they are approachable. They may be outgoing, cheerful and friendly. To everyone outside the mask that is the person she is. This is a difficult mask to recognise to the outsider.

The neutral mask – this shows no emotion at all. People appear neither happy nor sad and so they are not well known by others. They don’t attract attention, they blend in quietly. They appear invisible to others and other people usually leave them alone. The people behind this mask don’t have a good perception of themselves. If they are told they are liked or loved they don’t believe it. They feel unworthy, insignificant. These people are hard to reach because they can’t get close enough to anyone.

The angry, defiant mask – worn by people who act out the hurt they are feeling inside. Anger can be kept behind the mask or it can be the mask that hides the hurt. Anger comes from being hurt, but anger can take up a lot of energy. These people may be loving and compassionate people who don’t know how to handle difficult and controversial situations. They feel so horrible and angry inside they don’t believe that they deserve love and so they act in a way that drives people away. These people are equally hard to reach – their anger has the desired effect and people avoid them.

People can consciously use a mask because it works for them. To help them avoid intimacy for instance – they have a perception that if they show their need of another person it will scare them away. People can unconsciously use a mask - it gives them a shield to deal with their world and becomes a way of life. It helps them to cover their feelings. They laugh, make a joke, put on a face of bravado and use it every time they feel uncomfortable, judged or criticised. After a while the mask becomes the person.

Embarrassment – about how they live, who they are, where they are from, how they think they look, feelings they may have.

Shame – about events that have happened, or are happening, about their own feelings, or their situation, denial about their situation.

Fear – that someone will find out what they are scared of, they will be found out.

Loss and despair – linked with depression and anger. It could be loss of a job, loss of self worth, loss of love, loss of a home.

Addictions – denial is part of the mask, also linked with depression, anger, shame.

Hurt – will make a person feel pain so deeply that they want to hide.

Anger – this can be the mask that hides the hurt.

Depression – the mask keeps others from knowing and keeps the person behind the mask from having to deal with their feelings.

Help, hope and recovery.

People’s masks can be very thick and strong and confusing, both for them and for the people around them. It is easier to hide behind the mask than it is to try and break through it. If someone wants to tell you about the real them they are often lost for words – they have hidden for so long that they don’t have the words and often say nothing because it’s easier for them. It takes a combination of trust, asking the right questions and understanding when listening to the answer – something we try to do all the time. Just being there for someone is helpful, but to the person wearing the mask it isn’t enough to help them change and come out from behind the mask. 

Maybe we can only come out from behind the mask when we can accept ourselves for who we are and are able to take that leap. Acceptance also means letting go – letting go of the person we used to be and the mask we wore. Not easy! But anything we learn to do has to be practiced – recovery from using the mask works in the same way. A person has to keep working on it, even after they have learned the skills. It will be about confidence, awareness of ourselves and learning to think a new way. Asking for help from a trusted person is one way but will this make us vulnerable and exposed? 

To maintain recovery there has to be strong motivation. That motivation can only come from the person wearing the mask. Small steps towards a goal, having a plan, structure and balance. Wanting there to be a different ending – looking to the future, wanting to make changes for ourselves.

I read a book recently, “Behind the Mask” – it’s about adolescents in hiding and is written by Dennis Rozema, an American adolescent therapist and crisis counsellor. He writes that living with the mask and never dealing with it is one option. And it is! Some people make that work. He writes that most are not happy and don’t live very fulfilling lives. He also writes that “Choosing a mask free, healthy life is another option. When someone expects to live a better life and believes that they can, they have a different attitude that allows for hope rather than despair”

One of his quotes is:

“With knowledge comes understanding,

With understanding comes truth,

With truth comes love and forgiveness,

With love and forgiveness,

There is a light that erases the mask”  

I think the knowledge, understanding, truth, love and forgiveness has to come from us and that we alone can erase the mask. But we have to do it when we’re ready, when we feel safe, when we are prepared to take the risk. If we can find someone else to listen to us, not to judge us, encourage and support us, believe in us and stick with us the journey can be a less daunting one.

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