psychological masks

Many people love Halloween. Halloween festivities provide an opportunity to take on a different persona, to be someone or something you typically aren’t. (Note: The candy isn’t too shabby either). In fact, the National Retail Federation estimates that nearly 3.5 billion dollars are spent nationwide on costumes each year.

“Halloween is a day in which some people choose to wear a mask… while others finally feel safe to take theirs off.” ― Steve Maraboli

American’s aren’t the only ones fascinated with facades. In the days leading up to Lent, millions of people across the globe celebrate Carnival, donning extravagant costumes as they dance through the streets of Spain, Brazil, Mexico, and more. In Venice, partygoers dine in disguise while masked musicians and performers entertain them at the Grand Ball, an annual tradition started in the 13th century.

Fleeting nights of blurred identity carry an air of indulgence, but in reality, most of us play dress-up daily.

Masters of Disguise

The majority of us don’t just wear masks on Halloween, or to fancy balls. We “button up” before a business meeting, or turn on the charm before a job interview. We tweak our sense of humor to match a certain social group, and bite our tongue at family functions.

For many of us, life itself is a masquerade, made up of costume changes to fit the scene.

Perhaps one of the most chilling examples of hidden identity I’ve ever come across was in Frank Warren’s community art project, Post Secret. In 2004, he encouraged people to submit their untold secrets on a postcard, mailed to his home address. In the years since, he has amassed half a million compelling confessions, and curates them in both a blog and book series. Once such secret reads:

“Everyone that knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.” 

Let that sink in. Someone saw an escape in the September 11th tragedy, and took the opportunity to restart his or her life under the veil of assumed death.

A much lighter (but still startling) secret scrawled on a Starbucks coffee collar admits:

“I serve decaf to rude customers.”

When browsing Frank’s collection of secrets, you can’t help but wonder about the people behind the postcards. Seemingly distant and mysterious, these individuals could be your co-workers, your banker, your hairdresser. Under the mask of anonymity, they’ve shared their deepest betrayals, darkest addictions, fantasies, regrets, strange habits, hopes and dreams. It’s not uncommon that on occasion, a certain secret strikes a chord in your own conscience.

Opportunities: When and Where Masks May be Harmless

Do you wear a mask to conceal a part of yourself? Perhaps it’s a nervous habit, a speech impediment, or an unpopular interest.

Psychological masks can be a practical garment in our wardrobe. They can be functional, empowering us when we’re insecure, protecting us in weakness. Masks guide us in social settings to stick with what’s appropriate, and navigate us through workplace hoops.

Productive masks are akin to your publicist, they help you put your best foot forward. Beauty professionals might consider these types of veils “refining masks” or “re-touching masks”- they accentuate desirable qualities and downplay minor imperfections.

There’s no question that these kinds of benign masks have a place in our lives, and there’s no shame in acknowledging that we feel comfortable wearing them. Some even argue that selected masks may symbolize our idealized self, and motivate us to think and act accordingly. Under the principle of “fake it till you make it,” wearing certain masks could, in theory, promote personal growth.

Obstacles: When It’s Time to Hang up Your Mask

Of course, masks can also be quite harmful. These masks may be painful to put on, or painful to take off. They might temporarily patch wounds, but leave you feeling exhausted or hollow. They might serve as a shield from abuse you should not experience.

Masks you feel you must wear in order to function are damaging long-term. You might rely on them to sustain your well-being beyond your mind and/or body’s capabilities. They’re like oxygen masks; without them, you struggle to catch your breath and just survive.

In romantic and familial relationships, wearing these types of masks can wedge a divide between you and your loved one(s). One of the pillars of successful relationships is vulnerability; an emotional openness despite potential consequences. Complete transparency and communication are key. A malignant mask is an obstacle to intimacy, understanding and soulful connection.

We encourage that malignant masks be removed. Unfortunately, deeply buried trauma, depression or anger tends to always find a chink in your armor, no matter how meticulous you are. These masks will ultimately sabotage your mental and emotional health, as well as your intimate relationships.

And while the more mild “re-touching/refining” masks are generally safe, taking them off from time to time can feel liberating too, like a breath of fresh air.

Personal anecdote:

When I was in 7th grade, I hid my interest in classical piano from my peers, for fear that I would be labeled “nerdy.” I eventually told my good friend (who was quite popular) that I was looking forward to attending music camp that summer and she was excited for me. I was surprised, and relieved, by her support.

Funny, almost 40 years later, I still feel like I keep my piano interests to myself. I’m no longer concerned with the peer pressures of early adolescence, but with people’s expectations that I play better than I do. As I embark on lessons and camps for adults, I realize that I’m looking forward to taking off the mask again and re-connecting with my passion, while finding ways to share it with others.

Next Steps:

Taking off some masks isn’t easy. If you feel like you’re ready to remove an emotional “band-aid,” and really heal from what you’ve been hiding, please know that we’re here to help.

We offer individual counseling for adults, couples counseling and trauma therapy.

psychological masks


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DEC 1, 2021

Please note that as of December 1st, 2021, 
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