The masks we wear – the sequel

Back in September 2018, I wrote a blog entitled “The masks we wear” focusing on the psychological concepts of the false self and the persona. Little did I know that just over two years later, the masks we wear (literally) would be of a very different kind. 

I was recently in a local café (getting my daily caffeine fix) when I noticed that out of the four customers, only half were wearing masks. This realisation brought up a range of emotions in me. As a compliant mask wearer, I felt great confusion and some unease towards my fellow rebellious customers (it was unclear to me whether either of them had exemptions). It got me thinking about the concept of wearing these physical masks and why some might choose not to. 

Rebellion around masks is in fact nothing new. An anti-mask league was established in San Francisco back in 1919 during the Spanish flu pandemic. It turns out that the US public took against being told to wear masks far more than other restrictive measures. So, what is it about wearing masks that is so controversial?

To mask up or not?

So, let’s get one thing very straight. The World Health Organisation advises that anyone in a crowded, enclosed space, such as a supermarket or a train carriage, should wear a mask to reduce the transmission of the virus.  Research clearly supports the use of masks to help curb the spread of Covid-19. So, on the medical side, the evidence is stacked. But when it comes to humans and our behaviour things may not seem so clear. 

Denial, fear and vulnerability

One common defence to when we find things overwhelming is denial. We pretend it’s not happening. We put our heads in the sand, hoping our wilful blindness will make it all go away. Of course, anyone who has ever experienced denial (I include myself here) will know this strategy is doomed to fail. Denial only makes things worse. Eventually we have to come out of hiding and face our reality. 

Not wearing a mask contributes to the denial. If I don’t wear a mask, then this isn’t really happening.  False beliefs can accompany the denial. If I wear a mask, then I am saying I’m scared. If I wear a mask, I am admitting I am weak or vulnerable and not the strong, robust person I want to be. Such beliefs originate from an unstable sense of self and insecurity, where we feel the need to demonstrate publicly to counteract what might be going on internally. 

All of our lives have changed this year, whether we like it or not. Pretending otherwise isn’t helpful to us. It only delays us from processing what has happened. Some people want to things to return to how things were. Alas that time has passed. We can’t go back. I joked earlier this year to someone that maybe we can pretend 2020 didn’t happen. But the wise response I got was “but this is happening, this is 2020” and of course they were absolutely right. I was trying to escape the situation through denial and their reality check snapped me straight out of it.  Things have changed. We need now to adjust to our new way of living. 

Authority and control

A major cause it seems to mask related opposition is our relationship towards authority. Being told me what to do potentially mimics our childhood with the Government, in place of our parents providing the rules and instructions. Being told to wear masks can trigger the child within and depending on how we feel about authority we may comply, or we may rebel.

David Abrams, professor at New York University, explains that our behaviour and actions are trying to make us feel safe whilst living in such unfamiliar and uncertain Covid related times. We are living in trauma like conditions, causing us to potentially fight, flight or freeze.  Opposition to masks is part of that fight response.  Abrams explains “In moments like this, people become hyper-vigilant and super-sensitive to any threat…As their adrenal pumps, they respond with massive posturing of anger and a readiness for fight. It is like the rug has been pulled out from under them and the usual world order is gone.”

These uncertain times has made us feel like parts of our lives are out of control. Wearing masks can, for some, help us feel more in control of this invisible monster. There is at least something we can do to help. But conversely for some not complying with mask wearing can feel like they are gaining personal control and not letting the virus win. So ironically there’s a commonality between the two opposing camps, both maybe trying to get control in an ever changing and chaotic world (one through compliance and one through rebellion). Our common baseline is fear, it’s our way of managing our fear which is different.  At last something that connects us!

Photo by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash

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