Masks of personality, what is masking and how to cope with it

Personality is a mask you believe in.

Masking (personality)

The term Masking in Psychology was first used to describe the act of concealing disgust by Ekman (1972) and Friesen (1969) respectively. It was also thought of as a learned behavior. Developmental studies have shown that this ability began as early as preschool and does improve with age. In recent developmental studies, masking has evolved further and is now defined as concealing one’s emotion by portraying another emotion. It is mostly used to conceal a negative emotion (usually sadness, frustration, and anger) with a positive emotion.

Each person masks their emotions differently. During one’s childhood, an individual learns to behave a certain way when they receive an approval from those around them and thus develops a mask. The individual is “not conscious of the role they have adopted and is projecting outwards to people they have met”. In some cases where an individual is highly conscious, they may not even know that they are wearing a mask. Wearing a mask takes away energy from our consciousness and, in the long run, wears out our energy! A person’s mask is completely noticeable when he or she is sick or weak as the individual will no longer have the power to keep the mask on.

What is Masking then?

Masking is covering up one’s own natural outward appearance, mannerisms and speech in dramatic and inconsistent ways depending on the situation. People with Personality Disorders often suffer from low self-esteem, or have an inconsistent self-image which categorically shifts depending on their inner emotional climate. That can change rapidly if they are susceptible to several mood swings, they may even sometimes represent themselves publicly in quite inconsistent ways.

This practice of altering our behaviour or mannerisms is familiar to most people. Almost everybody consciously or subconsciously puts their best foot forward when they want to make a good impression on family, co-workers, authority figures or large social groups. Most of us adjust our behaviour for different contexts such as cheering at a football game as opposed to sitting in a meeting.  However, in some people with Personality Disorders there is a marked inconsistency, involving rapid cycling and an acute intensity of Masking which is beyond typical!

People are more complicated than the masks they wear in society.

How Masking looks

  1. Sudden and drastic changes in voice, vocabulary or geographic accent;
  2. Situational changes in one’s physical mannerisms;
  3. Wearing different clothes – thoroughly copying the appearance of another;
  4. Using different names, depending on who is being spoken to;
  5. Change in taste of food, interests etc.;
  6. Rapid as well as inexplicable changes in political views and/or religious beliefs

We understand how dangerous mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be.

How Masking feels

It can sometimes feel a little frightening to watch someone close to you morph right before your eyes when the phone rings or when someone else comes into the room!

It’s also common to feel they are being hypocritical or even fake. You may feel angry if they are so nice or so humble and practically accommodating to one particular person while they show a drastically lesser attractive side to you. It’s common for non- maskers to hope that the person who is masking will be “found out” eventually.

Sometimes, it feels quite embarrassing to be a family member or spouse or partner to someone when their Masking is obvious to so many others. You may even feel humiliated to be associated with them and fear a loss of respect, contempt or ridicule of others!

We understand how dangerous mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be.

How to cope with Masking

While it may be quite tempting to pull off the mask, it’s important to remember that each person has a right to their own thoughts and beliefs. It is important to remember your matter is yours, and their matter is theirs, and you must remain more focused on yourself and your own behaviour. Wherever a person’s masking does not affect you or even harm you, it is best to leave it alone; however if a person’s masking does create harm for you (for example, involves either an emotional or a physical abuse), it is important to get yourself towards safety.

What NOT to do

  1. Don’t try to Thought Police or pull off another person’s mask.
  2. Don’t waste energy in trying to figure out which version of a person is the “real one”. The real person isn’t either the “good one” or the “bad one”; it’s in fact the sum of them all.
  3. Don’t stay in a room or a situation where you are being hurt or abused by another person. Politely and calmly move over to a safer place.

What TO Do

  1. Talk to others who do understand Personality Disorders about the situation. Chances are they will recognize Masking.
  2. Try to keep a stable and consistent view yourself and deal with the person as the sum of all their parts – not just the side you are seeing at any given time –  that is good or bad.
  3. Focus on your own behaviour and build healthy relationships with others who will deal with you consistently and even respectfully.

Masking occurs in our relationships

We mask to conform to social pressures and unrealistic expectations, like when others expect us to entertain the masses when we’d rather just read books. We can mask when our job requires us to develop skills that are way out of our wheelhouses. We can mask when we find ourselves in hard marriages, doing anything and everything to improve the very relationships.

These adaptations become masks when we accept them as who we are.

One famous name in the world of psychology gave great credence to the idea of the mask – Sigmund Freud. His theory of repressed emotions plus energies in humans gave rise to the notion of individuals having a ‘second self’, a double, a mask worn to help them cope with the stresses and strains of real life.

A mask is what we wear to hide from ourselves.

Seven masks we use to hide our faults:

1. THE PERFECTIONIST: I must do everything perfectly. Then perhaps no one will notice that the rest of my life happens to be a mess. The Perfectionist works so hard in order to overcompensate that he or she may have “control issues.”

2. THE LIFE OF THE PARTY: I tell the jokes, you laugh (with me, not at me) and you won’t notice my mistakes. The Life of the Party loves the limelight, when the response is positive, and people don’t see the clown within them crying.

3. THE INTELLECT: I want you to see how smart I am, so I will outwit everybody in the room. The Intellect works so hard to be brilliant, he or she sometimes does fall apart after an intense brainstorming session.

4. THE LOSER/THE BLACK SHEEP: It is my entire fault! I am always the outcast, no matter how hard I try to please you. The Loser/Black Sheep secretly hates being labelled, but is resigned to a life of an underachievement and even self-pity.

5. THE SPACE CADET: I’ve been called a “ditz” or an “airhead” all my life because I have trouble paying attention. The Space Cadet is wounded by several false accusations, but has learned to play dumb, in order that people don’t expect much from him or her.

6. THE SUPERHERO: I do get a feeling of happiness and contentment when I help other people — the bigger the crisis, the better. Generous to a fault, the Superhero wins “friends” by being indispensable but never ever asks for help for themselves.

7. THE REBEL/THE HOTHEAD:  I do it my way. If you don’t like it, tough luck! What is wrong with you? The Rebel/Hothead pushes people away with angry remarks or even arrogance, using it as a protective shield against criticism as well as intimacy.

All these folks yearn for more than anything else is to be loved for being who they are. No mask. The first step to loving your Authentic Self is to come out of that closet without any disguises.

However, there are some caveats:

  1. Know and embrace your masks. When a mask has been in place for a long time, you forget you are wearing it. Your masks have well protected you in the past, but release them with love.
  2. Be realistic. Dropping disguises all at once is too drastic. Some of them may still serve you and revisit you on occasion. Make sure you choose to use a particular disguise, and that you are not just going back to old habits again.
  3. It takes time. If you have lived in your mask, your close associates may not appreciate your Authentic Self. Don’t let that dissuade you from making the necessary change. Be candid about your changes and surround yourself with people who love you for who you truly are.
  4. Let your Authentic Self shine. The vast potential can be tapped only when children and adults unlock their Authentic Selves. Remember that you were born to be extraordinary. So live your life with utmost gusto!

Be what you are. This is the first step towards becoming better than you are.

Masks of personality, what is masking and how to cope with it 3
Trishna Patnaik
Trishna Patnaik is a BSc (in life sciences) and MBA (in marketing) by qualification but an artist by choice. Previously a corporate professional, she realised that she wanted to do something more meaningful. She found her true calling in her passion, painting. Trishna is now a full-time professional painter based in Mumbai, as well as an art therapist and healer.

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