The Mask You Wear

3keysLast 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.

maskWhat’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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About Alice Chan, Ph.D.

Dr. Alice Chan is passionate about developing conscious leaders and organizations. Her path to serve her life purpose has included being an award-winning Cornell professor and a leader in the corporate world for nearly 15 years. She’s the author of the book, REACH Your Dreams: Five Steps to be a Conscious Creator in Your Life, and creator of the program, 30 Days to Living Your Best Life. All content on this blog and website is her own, not the opinions of her employer.

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16 comments
cap99
cap99

HI Alice - 

I loved this article.  I am so buying that book!  I can totally relate to this particular segment:  

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.

I am looking forward to finding out more about my number.

Warm regards - Carol


scott_elumn8
scott_elumn8

Alice this post really had me thinking about my masks, (I think you can have more than one), and how I use them. I could even recall how they played a part in events I experienced today and the way I want people to perceive me as opposed to being real in the moment and trusting that being authentic is more important than maintaining a certain reputation or persona with others. Thanks for this challenging post. As always, great stuff!

DiannaBonny
DiannaBonny

These masks we wear are a cumbersome burden that shield us from perceived pain, but in truth keep us from the very thing we desire.

ThinDifference
ThinDifference

Yes, we all wear a "mask" in our life and work, Alice. Our mask can be our brand; it can our image; it can be our personality. There are times we need to present ourselves in a way to work through a situation, challenge, or opportunity. The hope through it is that we act with integrity, consistency, and show some vulnerability at times. Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights, Alice. 

LaRaeQuy
LaRaeQuy

Hi Alice

I'm a 3 on the enneagram as well so I know how you feel about failure not being an option! And I agree....we all have masks. The important thing is to be aware of them.

Great article. Thanks!

LaRae


Hiten Vyas
Hiten Vyas

Hi Alice,


This was another brilliant post, my friend!


Indeed, I can very much relate to wearing a mask for the outside world. My biggest fear when I was younger was speaking because I stuttered. I did develop a lot of confidence with my speech and it improved my life greatly. However, even now, at times I wear the mask of always having to look confident and as someone who speaks confidently. This mask is born out of fear that I will become that child again who used to have trouble with speaking. It is at those times when I let go of this mask that I release so much pressure I have put on myself, and suddenly life becomes easier again.


Thank you.

Lori
Lori

Hi Alice!

I've written about the mask too - such an interesting topic! As I read what you wrote I see that there has been some evolution for me in that department, however small. When I was in university I learned about something called "dramaturgy" which said we all wear masks and are never ourselves unless alone. That we wear different masks with different people. How to remove that mask, though, that's the question!

I think grief removes it. When I was still in the first days of shock there was no mask. Sometimes, too, I feel there is no mask when I'm vacationing with my cousins who I grew up with. In both cases there was a lack of make-up - could that be connected to it? We literally apply our masks every morning, those of us who wear make-up. (!)

I'll have to give it more thought. I've been focusing lately on noticing my thoughts rather than acting on them or feeling because of them. I wonder if this, too, is connected (everything I bump into in the run of a day is connected, right?)

Thanks for this!

:-)

Lori

AlliPolin
AlliPolin

Alice, I definitely have masks that I show to the world.  I call them my carry boxes.  Boxes that I carry with me that filter the way I see myself and put a wall up between myself and others.  I'll bet that going back to work within an organization after so many years of self-development work has been a completely new experience for you.  Thank you for continuing to share it with us here!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@cap99 Thanks, Carol! Enjoy the book. It comes with a lot of good exercises for healing the inner child as well.

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@scott_elumn8 Thanks, Scott. Yes, we can--and do--show different faces, but they tend to tie back to a set of underlying motivations/fears to avoid, just like our personality has nuances with a core set of traits. Thank you also for sharing your experience with trying to manage how you're perceived. We can all relate to that, as we all do it. I catch myself doing it more often than I'd like. Thank you for joining this conversation!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@DiannaBonny Well said, Dianna! That's the ultimate hallmark of our ego that constructed our defensive mask - in the name of keeping us safe, it keeps us from what's best for us. Thank you for sharing.

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@ThinDifference Thanks, Jon. Yes, we do sometimes need to engage our mask in a deliberate manner. That conscious use is different from when we unconsciously follow a pattern that isn't for our highest good or that of others involved. When we allow vulnerability to show, that's when we know we aren't simply hiding defensively behind our mask. Appreciate your joining the conversation, Jon!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@LaRaeQuy Many thanks, LaRae! Do you happen to know your MBTI code as well? I'm an INFJ/3. Pat Wyman, the author/workshop presenter referenced in this article, is also an INFJ/3. She said that our MBTI type profiles our true self obscured by our defensive self (Enneagram). Until she explained the difference, I couldn't place myself on the Enneagram for 15 years (as I couldn't own being a 3 as my true self), while I had no trouble identifying with being an INFJ.

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@Hiten Vyas Thank you for sharing such a great example, Hiten! We put so much undue pressure on ourselves to keep up appearances via our masks, don't we? Yet, if we can bring consciousness to any situation, to remind ourselves that it's only fear talking, that we have a better choice, we ease ourselves from that pressure. Thanks again.

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@Lori Thank you for your thoughtful sharing, Lori! Having gone through some serious life challenges, I'd agree that in our moments of being on our knees, we are pretty naked, i.e., without our masks. Yet, we've learned through a lifetime of reinforcement to be comfortable hiding behind that mask (or masks in psychological terms) that it's not as easy to do without it. And your observation our makeup is quite interesting - it's a form of "cover," don't you think? Sometimes, when I feel not at my best, even wearing glasses--not even sunglasses, but just glasses--made me feel a little less "exposed." Part of the same phenomenon, I think. Thank you again for adding food for thought, Lori!

DrAliceChan
DrAliceChan moderator

@AlliPolin Carry boxes - love that, Alli! Isn't it wild that it seems to be the human experience for us to be born knowing we're whole, forget that in the first few years of our life, and then spend years in our midlife--and beyond trying to unlearn what we picked up, so that we can return to our truth? Anyway, thank you for joining this conversation.

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