Taking off the Masks

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

After a long pandemic, the mask mandates have been lifted. For the most part there is a sense of hope and relief that things are getting better after more than two long years. It’s good to be able to see faces and expressions again! At the same time, numbers are starting to creep up reminding us that risk is still present. Masks, while irritating, did offer protection and their removal does bring some risk.

Removing masks seems like an appropriate metaphor for our individual and relational journeys. Psychologically, masks offer protection allowing us to hide part of ourselves. However, in so doing, masks can block intimacy and growth, in the same way as our masks during COVID kept us from being fully seen.

Masks were an essential part of the Greek Theater, and provided a means of transformation for the actors. The actor was able to put on a second face and transcend everyday life, taking on a whole different  persona. While Carl Jung did not talk specifically about masks, he did talk about the persona: the self we project and want to be seen as. Think of persona as a type of mask, similar to the ones in Greek theater. Our society validates personas by what it suggests are the symbols of success: wealth, acquisition, academics, career, athletic ability, attractiveness etc. As a result it becomes all too easy to try to live into one of those “personas” in the hope of interpersonal acceptance. Check reality TV or Instagram to see the lengths that people are going to create a persona that they hope will get them acceptance and “likes”.

Parents can complicate this by selective mirroring: that is, they reinforce certain qualities at the expense of others. As a result, the child often, unconsciously, tries to be the self that will be rewarded at the expense of real self development. (The great child development expert Winnicot talked about the real self/false self that emerges from this). It is not surprising that the “overfunctioning/hero” child who has been validated for their role often has no idea of what they need or who they really are apart from that role.

Taking off the mask/persona can be frightening. Jung talked about the “shadow” as the part of self that is kept hidden, sometimes even from ourselves. The result is a life that is lived in the shallow end, blocking the opportunity for real intimacy and self knowledge, and even a deep spiritual life. As the psalmist of old put it; “Search me O God and know my heart…” Depth psychology and depth spirituality does not focus on surface problem solving: it attempts to go deeper into the self: to that which lies often unconscious under the persona. As both Freud and Calvin suggest, genuine self knowledge is rare.

Too often, what lurks in the shadows is shame: the sense that in reality we are defective, not good enough, and that if people really knew who we were - stripped of our masks and persona, they would not want to be with us. They would somehow reject us as unworthy. So we stay hidden and lonely, hiding behind the mask with our secrets and fears, hoping no one knows but unsure why we remain lonely and anxious. At the core, we are paradoxically frightened of being seen and yet hopeful of unconditional acceptance at the same time. Feeling seen and accepted may be the most fundamental human longing, and yet our fears can keep us from the very thing we desire.

In the end, the only cure for shame is grace! In the words of the great “theologian” Bono from the rock group U2: “Grace - she takes the blame, she covers the shame, removes the stain.”   So as we take our literal masks off in light of the mandate being lifted, perhaps we begin to also explore taking the risk of becoming more aware of who we really are, and opening ourselves to experience of grace, and given the season; opening ourselves to new beginnings. How to get there: a spiritual director, contemplative prayer, depth psychotherapy are some of the paths. In the end, though, the leap of faith begins by being honest with ourselves and our partners. This is the journey of a lifetime, and too few people are willing to stay on the path. It is in the end what the psychiatrist Scott Peck called “the road less traveled”.