Last year, I wrote about attending a very eye-opening workshop by Pat Wyman, who talked about how we all have a defensive personality (profiled in the Enneagram). Our defensive personality is the mask behind which we hide our vulnerabilities, an instinctive self-protective response and attempt to save ourselves from being hurt. This defensive mask is typically formed by the time we are 5 years old. What capacity and sophistication do we have at 5? Imagine continuing to go through life wearing that mask, disconnected from our true selves, being closed off to our inner wisdom, and making suboptimal decisions—and not being aware of doing any of that.
Is the above too abstract? Allow me to elaborate. As a 3 on the Enneagram, my defensive personality—the face I show to the world—is one of success; failure is not an option to me. I acquired this mask since I was little as an unsophisticated response to feeling unworthy and unimportant. If I could always appear completely in control and a picture of success, I could compensate for my unworthiness and vulnerability to being cast aside—or at least be able to hide my fears of being perceived as less than worthy and utterly dispensable. This mask is sustained by validation from others that I know what I’m doing and that whatever I undertake is successful.
Having recently started a new job at a fast-paced company in a new industry, I was very aware of bumping up against my self-preservation need to be perceived as a success—and not finding my defensive mask very secure at this early stage. There’s much for me to learn and on which to come up to speed. This period of learning and not yet being able to make big contributions doesn’t instinctively feel good. After all, I was used to being a star at every other job I’ve had in my career. Even as I was feeling the pressure, mostly self-imposed notwithstanding, I knew I had a different choice, i.e., to recognize my subconscious drive to hide behind success and not feed this fear-based response.
My consciousness was further challenged this past week, when I participated in a series of discussions about a difficult situation. I realized that I could listen to the part of me that’s afraid of making a mistake and failing as a result—and needed to hide behind my mask. Alternatively, I could stay centered and grounded in my inner wisdom, and recognize that I knew how to evaluate the information in front of me and make the right decision—even if it wasn’t the easiest decision objectively speaking. That’s the stuff of fearless leadership.
What’s Your Mask?
We all have a mask, whether or not your mask is the same as mine, i.e., needing to appear in control and successful. Yours may be the need to be perfect always, or to appear completely unique, your own person. Perhaps, your defensive personality is to disengage completely to avoid the risk of losing your cool, or you think you can’t make a decision unless you’ve exhausted all sources of input and opinions.
Whatever your mask may be, it’s good to become aware of it. (Wyman’s book is a great resource for helping you learn about that.) Beyond awareness, the next step is to realize that you don’t have to hide behind that mask anymore. It’s simply an outdated defensive strategy developed from early childhood before you have the capacity and wherewithal to keep your true self safe. You have the power right here, right now to begin dismantling that mask. Note that it has been with you all your life, so it won’t go away that easily. However, with practice, it will become easier to choose not to hide behind it and instead allow your true, wise self to lead the way.
Over to you: What do you think about the notion of having defensive mask/personality, a face you show to world? Are you aware of it, and how has it served you? Please share in the comment box below.
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