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Why We All Wear Masks

Halloween is a time when many of us dress up to go out and it is often a highly anticipated holiday.  What is it about a mask that is so liberating that many people look forward to Halloween all year?  There are many theories as to where this tradition comes from but what I think is more interesting is the masks that we all wear the rest of the year.  We all do it, but why? And is it a bad thing?

Masks serve many purposes for the person behind them:

  1. To Conceal Identity: Probably the most obvious reason for wearing masks is that they conceal our identity.  If no one knows who we are then there will be no (or, we assume, at least fewer) repercussions for our actions.  We no longer feel tied down by social norms and judgments and it can be liberating.  At times we may even create a false identity or do things to distract others from what we view as our true selves to protect us from anticipated judgement and criticism.
  2. To Fit In: Many theories of self-esteem point to “Multiple Selves.”  We all know persons who act completely differently in situations, and being “2-faced” can hurt relationships, but all of us adapt our behaviors and attitudes to the persons we are with and our environment to some extent.  These adaptations are actually helpful as they allow us to better connect with others and feel more successful and confident in social situations but there is generally an underlying self-concept that ties them together at the core and provides consistency for ourselves and the persons we are close to.
  3. To Learn About Ourselves:  Identity is a dynamic and ongoing process throughout our lives but it is probably most apparent during adolescence when we will actively try on different masks to figure out what “fits” for us.  We see this in the high school cliques – cheerleaders, goths, nerds, skaters etc. where masks are chosen, assigned, changed and developed.  Our self-concept and identity often develops through several routes.
    1. Gaining knowledge about our history, ancestry and culture – we assume that our ancestors will have some meanings and traditions to pass on to benefit us and allow us to feel connected to something greater than us.
    2. Through our interactions with others – we quickly learn what is considered “acceptable”to others and what is not and will often adjust our behaviors as to what is approved, or what gets attention, depending on our personality.
    3. Through our experiences – we watch ourselves and what we do and learn from it. We believe that our reactions and choices in situations reflect our attitudes and beliefs and we like for them to be consistent so each experience helps us to learn more about ourselves.
  4. To Increase Resilience: Having multiple sources of self-esteem and different aspects of our self-concept, as noted above, is adaptive to fit in but also so that if we experience difficulties or a failure in one aspect of our lives (eg: I had a conflict with my boss at work) then we have other areas that we can turn to to maintain our self-esteem (eg: but I’m still a good parent).  Flexibility is a good thing.  Having different masks or roles that we find fulfilling allows us to be more resilient and to bounce back from difficult times more quickly by relying on other strengths and resources to get us through.

We all wear masks. What are yours?

Ready. Set. Breathe.

-Dr. Bodden

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