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Masking

One of the most influential thinkers who made the concept of masks in relation to human psychology popular was Erving Goffman (1922-1982), a Canadian sociologist and writer. Goffman introduced the idea of “the presentation of self in everyday life” (1959), which suggests that people act differently in different social situations, depending on the roles they play and the expectations they face.

Goffman compared this to a theatrical performance, where actors wear masks or costumes to portray their characters and follow a script or a set of norms. He argued that people use “impression management” techniques to control how others perceive them, such as hiding their flaws, emphasizing their strengths, or conforming to social norms.

Goffman also identified different types of masks that people wear, such as the “front” (the public image that one projects), the “back” (the private or backstage self that one reveals to trusted others), and the “face” (the positive self-image that one wants to maintain in social interactions) (Goffman, 1959; 1967).

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Goffman’s theory of masks has been widely applied and expanded by other scholars and researchers in various fields of psychology and sociology. For example, some studies have explored how people use masks to cope with mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Masking can be seen as a way of hiding one’s symptoms or emotions from others, either to avoid stigma, rejection, or discrimination, or to fit in with social expectations (Lai et al., 2017; Rynkiewicz et al., 2016). However, masking can also have negative consequences, such as increasing stress, reducing authenticity, or impairing self-esteem and identity development (Hull et al., 2017; Livingston et al., 2019).

Other studies have examined how people use masks to express their personality, identity, or creativity, such as through humour, art, or fashion. Masking can be seen as a way of enhancing one’s self-expression or communication, either to attract attention, gain acceptance, or challenge stereotypes (Sparks, 2015; Swami et al., 2011; Tseëlon, 1992).

How masking works

Masking can be influenced by various factors, such as parental pressure, peer rejection, abuse, trauma or discrimination. It can be a coping mechanism or a survival strategy for some people, especially those who belong to marginalized groups or face oppression. However, as previously mentioned, masking can also have negative consequences, such as loss of self-esteem, identity confusion, emotional exhaustion or mental health problems.

For example, a person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may mask their autistic traits to avoid stigma or bullying, but this may also prevent them from getting the support they need or expressing their authentic self. According to Cooper et al. (2020), “masking can be understood as a complex and nuanced social phenomenon that is shaped by individual, interpersonal and socio-cultural factors” (p. 2).

Another example of masking is when someone engages in social behaviours that do not come naturally to them, such as making eye contact even when it is uncomfortable or mirroring body language to avoid standing out (Verywell Mind, 2022).

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Similarly, when someone hides fidgeting or stimming behaviour that is associated with neurodivergence, such as autism or ADHD (Verywell Mind, 2022). Or when someone compensates by spending more time and energy on tasks than their peers to hide that they are struggling (Verywell Mind, 2022).

Another example of masking is where a person of colour may mask their racial or ethnic identity to fit in with the dominant culture, but this may also result in internalized racism or cultural alienation.

As Fanon (1957) wrote in his seminal work Black Skin, White Masks, “the black man has two dimensions. One with his fellows, the other with the white man” (p. 17).

Masking is not a fixed or static behaviour, but rather a dynamic and situational one. People may mask differently depending on the context, the audience and the purpose. Masking can also involve different levels of awareness and intentionality.

Some people may mask consciously and deliberately, while others may mask subconsciously and automatically. It can also vary in its degree and frequency. Some people may mask occasionally and partially, while others may mask constantly and completely.

Masking is a complex topic that has implications for various fields of psychology, such as social psychology, developmental psychology, clinical psychology and cross-cultural psychology.

Understanding the causes, effects and mechanisms of masking can help researchers and practitioners to better support people who mask and to promote their well-being and inclusion.

Masking and the ego

The concept of masking relates to the ego in the sense that both involve the adaptation of one’s personality or behaviour to fit in with social norms or expectations. Masking is a process in which humans change or “mask” their natural personality to conform to social pressures, abuse, or harassment (Ifioque, n.d.).

Both masking and the ego involve a degree of self-regulation and compromise between one’s authentic self and one’s social self. However, masking could be seen as a more extreme form of ego adaptation, as it involves hiding or suppressing one’s true personality or symptoms, rather than expressing them in a modified way.

Masking can be influenced by various environmental factors, such as authoritative parents, rejection, and emotional, physical, or sexual abuse (Wikipedia, n.d.). Masking can also occur unconsciously over time as an individual receives negative feedback for their authentic presentation (Verywell Mind, 2022). It can have negative consequences for one’s mental health, such as increased stress, anxiety, depression, and identity confusion (Verywell Mind, 2022).

Some people may mask their emotions, opinions, or identities to fit in with others, to avoid conflict or criticism, to protect themselves from harm, or to appear more competent or successful than they feel. However, masking can also have negative consequences, such as reducing one’s authenticity, potential, and wellbeing (Psychology Today, 2015).

Possibly more prevalent than commonly understood, many people have a tendency to become their mask. They find adopting the mask more comforting and acceptable than displaying what they might think of as their true-self, and over time, they come to believe that the mask they have adopted is their true-self. There is no definitive answer as to how this comes about, as different people may experience different effects of masking depending on their personality, context, and coping strategies. However, some possible outcomes are:

  • They may internalize the mask and lose touch with their true-self, leading to identity confusion or dissociation (Ifioque, n.d.).
  • They may experience cognitive dissonance and psychological distress when their mask contradicts their values or beliefs (Ifioque, n.d.).
  • They may develop a false sense of security or superiority based on their mask, ignoring their vulnerabilities or flaws (Ifioque, n.d.).
  • They may become dependent on the mask and feel unable to express themselves without it, leading to social isolation or anxiety (Ifioque, n.d.).

In conclusion, the concept of masks in human psychology is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that has been popularized by Erving Goffman and his followers. Masks can have both positive and negative effects on people’s wellbeing, depending on the context and the purpose of masking. Therefore, it is important to understand the reasons behind why people wear masks and how they affect their mental health and social interactions.

Impact on others

While masking can have negative consequences for the individual who masks, there is also the impact of these masking individuals, on those around them. If everyone is wearing a mask, then “normal” becomes potentially a hollow and distorted version of the truth. This can affect the quality of interpersonal relationships, the authenticity of social interactions, and the trustworthiness of communication.

For example, a person who masks their emotions may appear to be calm and rational, but in reality they may be feeling angry or hurt. This can create a mismatch between their verbal and non-verbal cues, which can confuse or mislead others who are trying to understand them. Similarly, a person who masks their interests or opinions may seem to agree with others or fit in with the group, but in reality they may have different or conflicting views. This can create a lack of genuine connection or intimacy, as well as a loss of diversity and creativity.

It also means that society is potentially projecting an unobtainable concept of normal, a normal of make-believe, which individuals with low self-esteem and self-worth will tend to copy, thus reinforcing this societal dissonance and causing those that are more authentic to feel isolated and abnormal.

For example, a person who masks their appearance may try to look like a celebrity or a model, but in reality they may have different or unique features that make them who they are. This can create a sense of dissatisfaction or insecurity, as well as a pressure to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty.

Similarly, a person who masks their abilities or achievements may try to impress others or avoid failure, but in reality they may have different or hidden talents that make them valuable. This can create a sense of inadequacy or fear, as well as a loss of self-confidence and self-expression.

Therefore, masking can have detrimental effects not only on the individual who masks, but also on the people and society around them. It can undermine the quality and meaning of human relationships and interactions, as well as the diversity and richness of human potential and expression.

It can also create a false sense of normality that excludes and marginalizes those who are different or authentic. As Brené Brown (2012) stated, “authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are” (p. 50). By being authentic, we can foster more honest and respectful communication, more meaningful and fulfilling relationships, and more diverse and creative contributions to society.

Masking and self-transcendence

self-transcendence is the phenomenon of experiencing one’s self as expanding beyond the boundaries of one’s ego and connecting with a larger reality that transcends one’s individual concerns. It involves a shift from being preoccupied with one’s own needs and desires to being concerned with the needs and desires of others, as well as the meaning and purpose of life. self-transcendence can be seen as a form of authenticity, which is the degree to which one is true to oneself and one’s values.

According to Lonergan (2015), authenticity is not a static state, but a dynamic process of self-transcendence that involves four levels of consciousness: experience, understanding, judgment, and decision. At each level, one is faced with questions that demand a response. For example, at the level of experience, one asks “What is happening?” At the level of understanding, one asks, “Why is it happening?” At the level of judgment, one asks, “Is it so?” And at the level of decision, one asks, “What should I do?” self-transcendence is actualized when the inquirer arrives at understandings, judgments, values and choices that really do satisfy the call of questioning. authenticity, being true to oneself in Lonergan’s sense, means genuinely responding to the questions that one has put to oneself about one’s culture (Reischer et al., 2020).

One theory that supports this view of authenticity as self-transcendence is Maslow‘s (1968) theory of Self-actualization. Maslow proposed that human beings have a hierarchy of needs that range from basic physiological and safety needs to higher psychological and spiritual needs. The highest need is Self-actualization, which is the fulfilment of one’s potential and the expression of one’s true self.

Maslow argued that self-actualized people are more likely to have peak experiences, which are moments of intense joy, wonder, and awe that transcend ordinary consciousness. In these experiences, one feels a sense of unity with oneself, others, nature, and the cosmos. Maslow suggested that peak experiences are glimpses of self-transcendence, which is the ultimate goal of human development.

Another theory that supports this view of authenticity as self-transcendence is Frankl’s (1984) theory of logotherapy. Frankl was a psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor who developed his theory based on his observations of how people cope with extreme suffering.

He argued that human beings have an innate need for meaning, which he called the will to meaning. He defined meaning as “the reason for which we live or for which we are prepared to die” (p. 121). Furthermore, he claimed that meaning can be found in three ways: by creating a work or doing a deed; by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by taking a stand or adopting an attitude toward unavoidable suffering. Frankl argued that our existence is not authentic unless it involves the self-transcendent quality of this form of attention, beyond us and towards meaning. Life questions us, and in the act of finding meaning we are taking responsibility for our own lives.

Some examples of how self-transcendence and authenticity can be manifested in everyday life are: volunteering for a cause that one believes in; meditating or praying to connect with a higher power; expressing gratitude or compassion for others; pursuing a passion or a hobby that brings joy; or facing a challenge or a loss with courage and dignity. These are some ways that people can go beyond their masks and be their authentic selves, while also contributing to something greater than themselves.

Therefore, people who are self-actualizing and self-transcending tend to have less need for masks, which are ways of changing or hiding one’s natural personality to conform to social norms or expectations (Ifioque, n.d.). Masking can be seen as a way of coping with lower needs such as safety or belongingness, but it can also interfere with the expression of one’s true-self and potential. Therefore, such individuals are more comfortable being their authentic self, and they value qualities such as spontaneity, positive self-regard, and acceptance of paradoxes (Compton, 2023).

However, this does not mean that self-actualised and transcendent individuals never mask. Sometimes, masking can be necessary or appropriate in certain situations, such as when dealing with authority figures or unfamiliar cultures. In these cases, such individuals are very aware of the mask they are wearing, and they look to revert back to their authentic self as quickly as possible. They do not identify with the mask or let it define them. They also do not use masking as a way of avoiding their problems or escaping from reality.

Some examples of self-actualised or transcendent individuals who have used masking in different ways are:

Mahatma Gandhi: He was a leader of the Indian independence movement and a champion of non-violence. He often wore simple clothes and lived a modest life, which was a way of masking his high social status and showing solidarity with the poor and oppressed. However, he also used his mask strategically to gain attention and respect from the British authorities and the international media. He was very conscious of his image and how it could influence his cause. He did not compromise his values or principles for the sake of his mask.

Frida Kahlo: She was a Mexican painter and a feminist icon. She suffered from various physical and emotional traumas throughout her life, which she expressed in her art. She often wore colourful and traditional Mexican clothes and jewellery, which was a way of masking her pain and disability. However, she also used her mask to celebrate her cultural identity and challenge the stereotypes and norms imposed by the dominant society. She did not hide her flaws or difficulties behind her mask.

Albert Einstein: He was a physicist and a Nobel laureate. He is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant and influential scientists of all time. He often wore casual clothes and had messy hair, which was a way of masking his genius and eccentricity. However, he also used his mask to show his humility and humour, and to avoid unnecessary formalities and distractions. He did not let his mask interfere with his curiosity or creativity.

These examples show that masking can be used in different ways by self-actualised and transcendent individuals, depending on the context and the purpose. However, they also show that masking is not a permanent or essential part of their identity or personality. They can switch between masks when needed, but they always remain true to themselves.

References

Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead. New York: Gotham Books.

Compton, W. (2023). Myths versus realities about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory: A historical review. Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

Cooper, K., Smith, L. G., & Russell, A. (2020). Social identity, self-esteem, and mental health in autism. European Journal of Social Psychology, 50(1), 101-112.

Fanon, F. (1957). Black skin, white masks. Grove Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ifioque. (n.d.). What Is Masking? | Psychological Effect of Masking. https://ifioque.com/social-psychology/masking

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Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being (2nd ed.). New York: Van Nostrand, Reinhold.

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Wikipedia. (n.d.). Masking (personality). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masking_%28personality%29

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