“The greatest battle we face as human beings is the battle to protect our true selves from the self the world wants us to become.” poet E. E. Cummings
During my early days of therapy training we were asked to draw our masks. These being the masks we show to the world. The masks we wear to protect/hide ourselves. Once drawn, we then held our masks over our faces and wandered around the room greeting fellow classmates. The room was full of “let me tell you a joke”, “like me, like me, like me”, “enough about me, let’s talk about you”, “I’ve got it sorted” and “I’m fine, everything’s fine”. After a few early embarrassed giggles, it became clear how disconnected we were from each other. Our masks were blocking any genuine relating. The physical quality of the paper which concealed our faces only enhanced the disconnection.
Where do our masks come from? A little bit of theory….
Donald Winnicott (1896-1971) was the first male child analyst in Britain. He developed a concept called active adaption to describe when a mother places herself in the position of her child to understand what he or she is feeling thereby allowing the baby to feel human. The mother’s face acts as a mirror for the baby. As the baby looks to mother, they experience themselves being reflected back to them, thereby helping the baby’s sense of self to develop. Winnicott believed that if the mother fails to meet the baby’s spontaneous gestures, the child creates a false self to conceal and protect their true self. This false self is the baby’s way of accommodating mother and what is deemed as acceptable. So a classic mask could be the good child, who grows into the compliant adult. The false self may also be described as our persona (a term coined by Jung) to describe the mask we present to the world whilst hiding our true nature.
Wear with caution
We all wear masks in some form or other. It’s our way of getting through the day. A way of protecting ourselves. Not everyone we encounter needs to meet our true selves; the bus driver, our local barista etc. Wearing a mask allows us to place a boundary between our true vulnerable selves and the outside world. A mask can be a mechanism of safety. But when we wear these masks as a permanent fixture, things can start to go awry. As Canadian writer, André Berthiaume says “We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.”
To live in permanent falsehood is not only exhausting but in the long term it can gradually erode our soul. We start to decay from the inside out. We begin to feel detached from reality and we loose all sense of our true selves. We start to feel lost and alone. This kind of isolation from ourselves can be devastating.
Our true self
Therapy, as well as some meditations or creative pursuits, can help us begin a dialogue between these parts of ourselves. In a safe space, we can explore our true soul nature (unique to each of us), as well as the origins and qualities of our false self. This exploration can lead to a more authentic way of being. We establish a more solid sense of our self, and in turn feel less need to hide behind our persona.
A first step could be to create your own visual mask, (paper and colouring pens at the ready)! Start to ponder who is it you present to the World? When meeting someone for the first time, what is it you’re trying to convey? Maybe think about your external image, the job you have, the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the photos you share on social media etc. This paper mask can act as a physical motif of your false self. Seeing it can remind you of its existence and that it’s only a part of you, not the whole of you.
It’s really important to keep our persona in check, and get to understand both our inner and outer selves. It’s ok to return to our false self from time to time, as long as our true self is in the driving seat and has full control of the sat nav!
Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash