The streets are speckled with people dressed in costumes, some of them wearing masks, on this evening because it is Halloween. As I see theses physical masks I cannot help but think about the internal masks people wear on a daily basis. If you are human, you have most likely worn an internal mask in your life. Let us examine some of the masks that people often wear:
- The Emotional Mask: This is the mask people wear when they are hiding their true feelings. Anger often masks internal pain and hurt. Sometimes people stuff their emotions down, pretending that they have no emotion at all, until their true feelings bubble to the surface because they have pushed down too many emotions for too long. I often use an exercise with youth and children in which we draw on one side of a paper how they truly feel and on the other side we draw what people see; this is often an eye-opening experience for them.
- The Dating Mask: This is the mask that people wear when they are just starting to date someone that they are trying to impress. Often times in the beginning of relationships people act like the person they think a future partner “wants” them to be. Their hygiene may be better than usual and their house meticulously clean; they may even go to the extreme of attempting to be the paradigm of perfection.
- The Professional/Political Mask: This is the mask that some people wear when they are attempting to get ahead in the professional world. They adapt to their surroundings and the people that they are working with. Like a chameleon, they respond to others in a way that they believe will help them fit in, perhaps telling people what they want to hear rather than being honest about what they truly think and feel about different topics.
- The Social Mask: This is the mask that people may wear in social settings. Some people want to play a particular role with the groups that they socialize it. They may talk and act differently to get the kind of attention that they are seeking (or to keep the attention away from them).
Does it even matter that we wear masks? Quite simply, yes, it does. When we wear masks we are often putting on a façade that is not congruent with who we truly are and what we are feeling and thinking. This can lead to increased stress and mental discomfort. Leon Festinger, a social psychologist, coined the term cognitive dissonance which is the mental stress that we experience when we hold beliefs that are contradictory to our behavior. When we fake a smile when inside we are actually hurting or upset by a situation, we are creating a dissonance within ourselves that can make us even more distraught.
So, on this Halloween I would like to pose a challenge to anyone reading this: Try taking the mask off for a day or if you are extra courageous, a week. If you laugh at jokes that aren’t funny to you or find yourself smiling out of habit rather than true happiness, try making your facial expressions congruent with how you really feel. You just may find that you have a lot less stress at the end of this experiment because you have lessened your internal dissonance. Happy Halloween!