Beware the Mask You Wear
“If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all the other things I could possibly be.” Soren Kierkegaard
Language shapes how we see the world. It does so most powerfully when we name things. When we look at others, we understand that their labels are mere abstractions that fail to capture their depth. Yet when it comes to ourselves, we easily forget this.
The world requires us to pick labels for ourselves and it has no time for nuance. We must pitch ourselves for projects and jobs. We want that match on the dating app. Our presentation needs to be effective, punchy, and engaging. So we spend a lot of time distilling our lives into a few words. We look for the best headline to hook the human algorithm. We develop a character for social media and carefully craft our bios and CVs. Our life is condensed into a collection of achievements, activities, and aspirations.
We carefully carve and chisel until we end up with a mask made of the things we do, the people we know, and the places we’ve been to. We wear this mask all day. Strangers get to know us not as ourselves but as our mask.
And if we are not careful, one day we reach up to touch our cheek, feel the mask, and believe it to be our face.
Beware the mask you wear for it can become your reality.
Our masks shape our perceptions and steer our decisions. Take a good look at yours. How long have you worn it? Does it still feel good on your face? Does it feel tight anywhere? Consider what words you choose to describe yourself. How do you tell your story? What would you do differently if you had to craft a new one?
Your mask is not real. It is made up, a necessary hallucination required to navigate the world. And yet it becomes extremely real.
What don’t you do because it does not fit the label of ‘who you are’?
What can’t you see because your mask limits your view?
What side of yours are you unwilling to show because it would be ‘out of character’?
What places do you not visit, who do you not meet, what books do you not read, what thoughts do you not think, where do you not go, figuratively and literally, because of the mask you chose to wear years ago?
Sometimes life offers us a chance to experiment. Like when you go off to study, switch careers, or move to a different place. I went to college in Germany but was able to study in New York for one semester. It was my chance to change things up. I wanted to be bolder. Nobody knew that I was a shy kid and so I acted as if I wasn’t. I bought pointed leather loafers that my classmates affectionately called ‘pimp shoes.’ And I joked around with girls I found interesting. What had seemed impossible at home was suddenly a reality.
Nothing really changed, of course. It was still me under the new clothes. This was no grand reinvention, and I was doing no serious inner work. But it was a fun exploration of what another mask was like. And hey, I found my first girlfriend. So, in a way it did work.
You might find it useful to create such open space in your life. Can you find activities and communities in which your current mask has no meaning? What would it be like to engage with people who don’t care about the accomplishments you use to define yourself? Can you find a space in which your current labels hold no power?
What would it be like to step away from the constraints of your identity? Could you be curious without inhibition and rediscover who you are, who you have always been, underneath your mask?
Never confuse your mask with your face. You are so much more.
Thank you for reading,