In ancient Greece, theatrical performances were carried out with masks since these allowed the actor to transform into the character he had to embody. In fact, the term personality comes from the Latin word persona, which originally referred to the mask worn by actors in the theater.
However, the masks are not exclusive to the theater. In a certain way, we all use a mask – or several – in our day to day. This social disguise allows us to face a wide range of situations, but in the long run, pretending to be who we are not, trying to adapt to the others, satisfying social demands at any cost and pursuing success feeds a state of internal tension that ends up affecting our mental health.
An old Chinese proverb said: “Tension is what you think you should be, relaxation is what you are.” It refers to all those masks that we use in society to maintain a character and that ends up exhausting us physically and mentally.
The social masks we use every day
“There are many people in the world, but there are still more faces, since each one has several,” wrote the poet Rainer Maria Rilker. The faces or social masks that Rilker was referring to are all those roles we play, the different person we become every day at work, at home, with our children, partner, parents or friends…
The mask, in the words of Murray Stein, is “The face with which we present ourselves to the social world around us.” It is the image that we project through which we want to be perceived and recognized. Therefore, it is “The individual as he presents himself, but not the individual as he is”, according to Stein, “It is a psychological and social construct adopted with a specific purpose.”
In fact, the Japanese think that we normally wear at least three masks:
1. The first mask is the one we show to the world
2. The second mask is the one we show to our family and close friends
3. The third mask is almost never shown to anyone, despite being our truest reflection
Actually, throughout a day we can use several masks because we play many roles in different circumstances. There is the “self” that bows down to social or family pressures and expectations for fear of being judged. And there is the “self” who wears a mask to survive in a hostile environment in which it does not feel safe.
In fact, the reasons for wearing masks can be both positive and negative. We wear a mask to hide our feelings whenever we’re asked how we’re doing, and we answer “I’m fine” when we’re not. We also use masks to hide our fears and vulnerability, when we want to convey an image of strength and confidence. We wear a mask to hide sadness, but also to hide anger when we’re not supposed to show it. We wear a mask when we want to be accepted and validated. Or when we want to like a person…
The problem with masks is when they become the norm, they can cause us to lose our identity in the process of trying to please others and adapt to societal demands. In addition, wearing a mask continuously is an exhausting process because it forces us to be permanently careful not to reveal certain emotions, beliefs, or ideas.
For this reason, social masks end up generating internal tension. Pretending is exhausting because it condemns us to live in a parallel reality that is out of step with our authentic “self.” Obviously, at a certain point we should ask ourselves: Whose life we are living if we’re not ourselves?
Rediscovering authenticity to relieve inner tension
We were not born with masks. That means that just as we put them on, we can take them off. In fact, there are at least three good reasons to get rid of the masks we use every day:
1. Take advantage of our potential. Living with masks not only creates tension, but ends up limiting our potential. If we continually submit to the expectations and demands of the others, it is difficult for our potential to come to light since it generally comes from our uniqueness, which is precisely what we are masking.
2. Relieve tension. Living in a poor authentic way is exhausting. Plain and simple. We put on one or two masks and take off one only to put on another, depending on the circumstances. Not only is it exhausting, but we can even end up forgetting who we are. Removing our masks will allow us to relieve that tension.
3. Healing. Using masks implies, in a certain way, censoring a part of ourselves. Deep down, we consider that those parts that we hide are not worthy of coming to light. On many occasions that implies a lack of acceptance and rejection of our own shadows. Maybe we think that we’re not only good enough, bright enough, interesting enough… Perhaps we fear that the others will reject us if they knew our authentic “self”. Abandoning the masks is looking at those shadows, incorporating them into our identity and healing the wounds they were causing.
In the children’s book “The Velveteen Rabbit,” Margery Williams tells the adorable story of a rabbit made real through the love of a small child. It is a beautiful metaphor for the value of authenticity and vulnerability. She conveys to us the idea that we become real when we open ourselves to the world.
The main risk we face is social reaction. Opening up and being authentic often threatens the others because it “forces” them to reevaluate their own lives. Many times, it makes them realize that they, too, have the power to change, but they don’t want to, perhaps because they are too afraid or so used to their masks that they have lost touch with their “self”.
However, there is no greater freedom than being ourselves. There is no greater happiness than recognizing ourselves as we are. There’s no greater relaxation than the one that comes from authenticity, without masks, without appearances, without useless egos… It’s never too late to become more real, like the rabbit in the story, through self-love and self-acceptance.