Discerning what is real and what-is-not is increasingly difficult as imaginary and reality blur around the edges. Take for example our magazines social media. Celebrity photos that have not been edited, are few and far between. Virtually all of these photos have been air-brushed, de-blemished and often ever-so-slightly slimmed down or made more curvaceous. Photos of events or products are cropped to emphasise the story they are telling. Body doubles are sometimes used in intimate, naked scenes in films. TV ads also manipulate reality. Those advertising cars are a prime example. If I drove my car in pouring rain or created clouds of dust by cornering too fast on a sandy road, my car would not be immaculately clean when I stopped and stepped out of it, but magically it’s spotless when driven like this in the ads.
In some sophisticated online games, you can create an animated version of yourself, and give it characteristics and a cultural identity which may or may not be similar to your own. With such an avatar, you can play at being someone you’re not: or perhaps the person you really want to be—and are not. Even if you feel certain that you can see between the virtual and reality, are you showing up as the real you in your world? Are you brave enough to show the world your true self? Do you reveal the inner ‘you’ that has amazing dreams and ideas? Or admit your fears and vulnerability? Society norms, the media and our culture paint a picture that is often not real, and yet we still feel the need to conform. To fit in, we wear a mask to hide away the parts we don’t wish for others to see. This Tip takes a look at masks and how to be the real you in an increasingly unreal world.
What exactly is a mask?
I’m not talking about fancy-dress masks – although there is a connection. When we don a fancy-dress mask we are pretending to be someone else. When we wear our masks in everyday life, we are also being someone we are not. Our mask is the face of the person we show to the outside world. It is our protective armour. And so often it is a far cry from who we know ourselves to be on the inside.
Why do we do wear masks?
Mostly it’s because we’re scared. Our parents, teachers, culture, society and the media provide us with a narrow band of ‘acceptable’ ways of being. When we feel who we are on the inside – this less-than-perfect self – doesn’t match-up to this ideal, we believe we need to conform. We put on a mask to be the person we think we should be. Showing-up in the world with all of our flaws on show is a terrifying thought. We believe that if we came out as our true self we may no longer be liked, loved, or well-thought-of, or in some cases, feel safe. The idea of losing these precious things is what keeps our masks firmly in place. Let me give you a few examples. Divorcees asked why they are looking for a new partner, will give a whole host of reasons, but it takes a very brave person to say that they feel lonely which is the truth for most singletons. A sales rep rarely tells his or her boss that they are fearful of missing their targets because what of what it will do to their standard of living. And some people let others steal their limelight because they are afraid of the consequences of standing up for what is rightfully theirs.
How much does wearing a mask cost you?
The energy in keeping up the charade is huge. We have to be ever mindful of what is on show to the world – woe betide anyone who dares to show they are not the ideal person they are portraying! Yet, we can’t keep up this pretence all of the time. It’s just too draining. When we take off our mask to the people we trust, they may accept us for who we are, or recoil on seeing the truth. If they recoil, it’s often a reaction that stems from their own mask. They are not able (or perhaps ready) to take off their own mask. Instinctively we know this, so taking off your mask is a risk because rejection is not something that most people are comfortable with. There is another cost to wearing our masks. If we conform to the way we think should be, our natural diversity is stifled. Our creativity and wonderful different solutions to life stay hidden behind our masks. This cost is one I feel is the biggest shame. How amazing it would to live in a world where diversity, flaws, creativity, strength and vulnerability were not only accepted, but truly welcomed for it would change our world.
Taking off your mask
In my work people often come to me because they can no longer portray this false identity they have created. In particular people often get themselves into tangled knots in relationships because they are trying so hard to be someone they are not. Often people see what they are portraying, but they often don’t know how to let go of the illusion. For most people taking off their mask is not easy–in fact it’s often really scary. But when you weigh up how much it’s costing you, wouldn’t it be great not to have worry about being this alter ego and instead just be you? All that is wonderful. Even the stuff that is not so good feels better when it’s out in the open, because if you wish, you can now choose to change it. So how do you begin? First of all know you don’t have to go from fully masked, to totally demasked you in one fell swoop. Taking off your mask layer-by-layer is more manageable–for both you and for the people close to you. Know too that far more of the real you is on show than you think. Consider this. When you look at the people in your life, do you see their masks? Do you see the gap between what they are telling you about themselves and what you instinctively know about them? I’m sure you do. They see your gaps too. Many years ago, as a new single mum with 2 young children and an absent father, I started a graphic design business. I also found time to be on the PTA and I was a swimming coach to at the local swimming club. My house was always clean and the garden well-kept. Back then I worked hard at keeping every hair in place, because I didn’t know how else to cope. I had what I now call “Super Woman Mask” firmly clamped on. I used this mask to keep going: to get through what was a tough time for me. Several people saw and shared with me that they saw my stress and sadness. Interestingly though it was people on the fringes of my life who told me this. If these people saw it, for sure people closer to me saw it too. Know you can fool people closer to you: and equally when you don’t it’s harder them to tell you what they can see because they don’t wish to hurt you. My own journey of de-masking is still a work in progress, but these days I know I show up if not totally demasked, then far more the real me than ever before, and that makes my life simpler and more joyous. If you are in a place where your mask is slowly killing the real you, then I really want to help you get to a better place too.
Stages to becoming the real you
is awareness. Start being aware of when you are not being yourself – what is the mask you are wearing? What fear is stopping you being your real self? The loss of a relationship, job, money or security? Give this mask a name. How often do you wear it? Are there times when it’s OK to not wear it? If you have moments when you don’t wear it, what does that feel like? The awareness stage can take from minutes to years. Being aware and being ready to take action rarely occur at the same time. But for any change to take place you have to be aware of what is no longer desirable: you have to see and know what it is you want to change.
is what I call the New Years Resolution Stage. I’ve given it this name because like so many resolutions, they don’t succeed. No!! I’m not saying you won’t succeed!! Rather it’s REALLY important to understand that when you attempt to be the real you with friends, family and colleagues it may, initially, go pear-shaped. This is NOT failing: rather it’s learning how to get it right. Typically it takes 3–5 attempts to consistently do things in a new way. Remember to be kind to yourself. Showing up without your old mask on will feel alien. It is so much easier to revert back to your old ways. Please don’t beat yourself up if you do: we are all creatures of habit and very few people are truly comfortable with change. Putting your old mask on will undoubtedly happen, so when it does, simply acknowledge it. Forgive yourself and then have another bash at living your life without it. Perseverance is the key to getting through to stage three.
is joyous because you begin to see the benefits of being more real. You’ll begin to see how much easier life is without having to pretend to be someone that you’re not. Know that you can still slip back when you get to stage three – but you’re less likely to do so, because there is growing evidence of the new and better way for you to lean on.
is called being unconsciously competent: the transformation is complete. This new way of being is akin to driving your car. You don’t consciously think about all of the things you do, it’s automatic. It’s now the way you behave and show up in the world. You have successfully let go of your old mask and the real you is now showing up more and more easily and naturally without conscious thought. If I were to end this tip on a mischievous note, I would add that when you get to stage four, it’s time to go back to stage one! For like an onion we have many layers (masks) and what we thought was the end point is often just the beginning. Please don’t be disheartened though – every layer of your mask that you remove takes you closer to a simpler, more harmonious, happier life – and I want that for all of you reading this.