I’ve always struggled with social gatherings—give me a night alone reading a book over a wine with the girls any day.
This is partly because I’m a bona fide introvert, but there’s also more to it. It’s called “masking.”
According to psychologist Paul Ekman, who first coined the term, masking is a process in which humans change or mask their natural personality to conform to social norms or conventional expected behaviours.
Masking is most often associated with people with autism and the need neurologically diverse people feel to hide aspects of themselves due to social pressure.
But it’s a practice that we all engage in—mostly unconsciously. It’s also socially acceptable and even encouraged (a quick google search reveals thousands of articles on how to appear confident at work).
Why we mask our natural personalities
The fear associated with not belonging is primal, and masking is a survival technique, an unconscious strategy for belonging.
I grew up in the 90s, a time when extroverted, bold, and confident personalities were all the rage. I was none of these things and quickly picked up that this needed to change if I were to make my way in the world and fit into my community.
Following the mantra “fake it ’til you make it,” I learned how to mask my naturally introverted, sensitive, emotional, and creative self whilst in social gatherings with a persona of extroversion, easy-goingness, and confidence.
This allowed me to survive social gatherings, but it also caused me to fear and dread them. What if the mask fell off and they saw who I really was underneath?
How to tell if you’re masking:
1. You feel exhausted after social gatherings.
My sensitivity allowed me to expertly read other people and magically transform my personality into something they would approve of. All of this was unconscious.
Masking, for me, could mean anything from striving to appear cheerful to completely upending my political views. But it always left me feeling exhausted, fake, and strangely resentful of other people, as if they had imposed the mask on me.
If you feel exhausted after social gatherings, try asking yourself these questions:
>> Did I say or do anything that was out of integrity with my values?
>> Did I feel safe in my body?
>> Did I feel like I had to be more upbeat, positive, nice, or cheerful than I naturally felt?
>> What would happen if I dropped the mask?
Learning to unmask begins with bringing the masking process into consciousness by checking in with your body and emotions and becoming curious about your own response to social situations.
2. There’s a lack of congruency reflected in your relationships.
Other people are incredible mirrors—especially our children and partners.
When my kids were young, I was completely unable to tolerate them acting out in public. Each time we attended playgroups or met up with friends, I would be hypervigilant, ready to clamp down on any behaviour that might upset my veneer of confidence and positivity.
Without fail, my kids would draw out what I was really feeling and bring it to my awareness with their behaviour. I then had a choice whether to try to uphold the mask of “having it all together” or allow myself to appear as fragile and flawed as I felt.
Eventually, I began to see that allowing myself to be vulnerable led to more genuine friendships and meaningful interactions.
By dropping the mask, I also gave my kids permission to be their true selves and no longer abandoned them for social approval.
3. You experience social anxiety.
No one is born with social anxiety. It’s a learned behaviour and a deep unconscious process that stems from a belief that it is unsafe to show up as your true self in certain situations.
Part of healing or managing social anxiety is developing the tools to make yourself feel safe in social situations.
When you’re aware of your tendency to mask your true self in certain situations, you can begin to develop a kind, nonjudgmental voice to offset it. This is something I work with clients to do, and there are many approaches to it—from inner child work, NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming), cognitive behaviour therapy, and hypnotherapy. Journaling can also help.
When I stopped trying to figure out who the person in front of me needed me to be—funny, witty, light, deep, wild, bold, quiet—and shaping myself into this mould, I gained the freedom to support myself to show up authentically.
How to unmask.
We mask because we are biologically wired to seek belonging. But deep down, we are also deeply driven to express ourselves with integrity. This causes internal conflict.
For me, “unmasking” has involved a lot of inner work over many years. I’ve looked deep inside to identify the parts of myself that had been pushed to the periphery and learned to love them again.
I have also faced the idea of being unacceptable, disapproved of, or disliked and found that the actual experience of these things is more tolerable than the fear.
When you shed the mask and show up as yourself, you may or may not feel like you belong in whatever social situation you find yourself in.
Either way, you’ll have the satisfaction of belonging to yourself—something that no one can take from you.