Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Lowering the Mask—Showing Your True Self

I had lunch with a friend and former colleague over the weekend, and he talked about "lowering the mask" with regard to school (he's a teacher, too) and, to some degree, his personal life, but after we finished lunch, that phrase swam around my head for a bit. I have to admit, it still clings to my cranium.

We all wear masks. Every single day of our lives, even when we say we're "like an open book." For people to be completely open to everyone all the time seems a bit unrealistic. We need to have that moment when we smile at others when we'd rather be by ourselves in quiet meditation. It's a human thing to do. But, I do believe that it is necessary to lower the masks we wear if we want to have any meaningful relationships with people, including ourselves.

A mask, to me, is a persona that I wear that gives me a thin veneer behind which I can be someone else or at least have that hint of experience where I can be an expert on something, like teaching. Or, it can be that shield I put up when I have to be in a setting where I am entirely uncomfortable. My masks come in many forms, and for the longest time (27 years, to be exact), my greatest mask was as a straight man. I lived behind that opaque, porcelain shell, hiding my true self to everyone, perhaps even to myself. When it was time to lower that mask, I endured a maelstrom of emotion and psychological upheaval that changed me forever.

To some extent, as a teacher, I wear a mask, too. I can't very well go into work feeling bedraggled and overwrought from whatever's been happening in my life—my students see me as their English teacher whose life is much less complicated than theirs. If they only knew. I walk into my classroom every day with a smile and buoyant spirit, hoping that it becomes infectious. Occasionally, I do lower that mask when I speak with students individually or when I know my personal experience will help someone. I have to show them that I am, indeed, a human being, and not some automaton or holographic projection that comes to life when the school opens. It's this mask that is sometimes hard to maintain, especially when I see students in crisis or feel the Atlas-like burden of bureaucracy pressing down upon me. Unlike the mask of "straightness" that I wore to protect myself growing up, my professional educator mask will remain a part of me as it's a vital part of who I am.

I'm sure my proverbial closet has what I would consider a collection of masks I wear from time to time, and they can be crucial to maintaining my sanity. Lowering these masks can be helpful, especially when among friends who understand. One of my most commonly used masks is, "How am I? I'm fine."

How many times have we been asked that question, only to put on a smile (i.e. mask) and lie? Is it worth taking that mask off and allowing that person to see exactly how we feel and what we feel? This mask removal comes with risks. Taking it off to too many people weakens its efficaciousness. Not taking it off enough leaves us miserable and lonely. It's not bravery to deny feelings to those who care about you. It's fear. "What if he doesn't understand?" or "What if she judges me?" or "Do they really care, or was that just a gesture?" The only way to find out just what's on the other side of that mask is to lower it and wait.


Scary, eh? Sometimes, I'd like to superglue the mask to my face, so to speak. Other times, I can't take it off fast enough. But, in either case, I have no idea what will happen when I make that choice.

Ultimately, I believe in my heart that lowering a mask we wear, at the appropriate time, can bring us peace and love, balance and strength. We just have to okay with what we look like without it.

In most cases, the one whose judgment we fear most is our own.
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