The ability to mask is good insofar as it allows you to present yourself in a—perceived to be—more acceptable way, which of course has many social advantages. However, this requires a lot of cognitive effort which is draining, which can lead to exhaustion and burnout. And over time, it can even come at the expense of your sense of self, or a sense of genuine belonging.
When someone doesn’t like our mask, that can hurt to a degree. But the mask is a superficial part of yourself anyway, and so the hurt you might experience when someone rejects you—or rather, the constructed ‘you’*—is much more limited and manageable.
When the mask is dropped and people indicate not liking or understanding your true self, however, that can be potentially devastating. As such it is understandable that we would mask—not only to fit in, but as a way to protect ourselves. The mask acts as a shield. A social buffer zone, if you will.
- Of course, what constitutes ‘you’ is inherently at least in part a construction. For example, identity emerges not only from intrinsic attributes, but from people’s perceptions of themselves, how people relate to you, which groups you belong to, which groups you might make people think you belong to, etc.
But when I say constructed ‘you’, I am talking about a much more deliberate construction of the self, which can range from a false extension of yourself to a completely false persona.
However, masking also means that the ‘you’ who fits in is a mere construction, and so there is often an underlying fear of your genuine self still being excluded, your genuine self still not fitting in, and your genuine self still being ostracized, all the while your constructed self is being (superficially) included and/or accepted. It might dawn on you that the very act of masking—of constructing an alternate self—is an act of self-ostracization.
In other words, by masking who you really are, you exclude your true self from the social groups around you, as you fear that if you would show your true self to the social groups you are part of—or want to be part of—they would reject you. And is a superficial sense of belonging not significantly better than outright rejection and exclusion?
It seems to be a choice then between ostracization and self-ostracization. Not a great selection of choices, really. At least with self-ostracization, the true ‘you’ is still somewhere “safe” inside you, right? Maybe this would be the preferable choice. But is it?
While your constructed self may excel in the social domain, at the end of the day there is no energy left to nurture the true self. What place is left for the true self, other than to be hidden deep within you, not to be seen by most—or indeed forever shielded from every other person?
The more is invested in the mask, the more it may seem like your constructed ‘you’ takes over and is living, while deep inside the genuine ‘you’ is struggling, and withering away. At the end of the day, when no one is around, the genuine you may come out of the shadows of your mask—too exhausted to do much at all. Too malnourished to live a functional or enjoyable life.
You go to bed, and you dream of what it would be like if your true self could emerge, but next morning your mask is ready to live the day again. Where are ‘you’ in this? Or ultimately, what is left of ‘you’ if you keep pursuing this path?
Do you really want to know where that path leads to?
About this post
I am aware, this was not the happiest of posts. I am painting a bleak picture, which might seem hyperbolic to some. However, I think what I wrote will nevertheless resonate with many as I think it represents their struggle, and the weight they carry—irrespective of whether they are immediately aware of what exactly weighs so heavily on them.
Most of all, I hope that this post served as a wake-up call for some people, because masking is not a sustainable strategy for social inclusion. I hope it starts conversations on what better strategies might be, and how to stay connected to yourself when you are prohibited from giving expression to your true self.
In a future post (update: I wrote that post: Autism & camouflaging) I will go much deeper into the concept of masking and camouflaging and what the research literature has to say about it. For just this once, I felt like writing a post without scientific references. Let me know if you are interested in the occasional post of this nature, where I just pen down my thoughts. Or are you a footnote fetishist and couldn’t go without the scientific references?