Artful Aging

Taking Off Our Masks

Taking Off Our Masks

Some time ago when I interviewed RH, he shared his belief that everyone wears a mask. His premise not only was based on observing others around him, but on his realization that he, too, had worn a mask throughout much of his adult life. He believed people are reluctant to take off their masks because they do not want to deal with the nakedness of their humanity and vulnerability. He also maintained that we cannot help loving someone when we know their story. And yet, how can we know someone’s story if all we see is their mask?

My conversation with RH caused me to wonder about the masks people around me might be hiding behind. Perhaps more importantly, it made me wonder whether I, too, wear a mask depending on what image I want to portray.

According to mental health professionals, we all wear masks to some extent, concluding that over the course of the day, we may use multiple masks as a social disguise to help us get through a variety of situations. They may convey self-assuredness, confidence, authority, perfection, or efficiency. They also may hide fear, anxiety, depression, and anger. One woman I knew grew up believing she was responsible for solving many of the problems facing her family and friends. Her mask hid her fear of incompetency. Although her intent was to be helpful, not everyone appreciated her effort, thus interfering with her ability to form healthy relationships.

The problem with masks is when they become the norm, hiding our true selves and impacting our ability to give and receive love. There are many types of love. Indeed, the Greeks identified seven types of love, ranging from passionate to self-love. Our challenge is to identify the masks we wear and to eliminate those that interfere with our relationships and our ability to love.

Can you identify how wearing a mask might impact the following examples of giving and receiving love?

Think about the love we have for a friend. There is companionship, dependability, trust, and goodwill. And when we share past hurtful experiences, we know that such stories are safe. Close friends can even serve as each other’s therapists, suggests British psychiatrist and philosopher Neel Burton, MD.

Universal love infers a deep commitment to the welfare of strangers, nature, country, or perhaps a specific cause.

Familial love, whether between a parent and child, grandparent and child,or other family members can be strong and long lasting, no matter what circumstances, positive or negative, may arise.

Finally, consider the love we have for self, either healthy or unhealthy. An inflated sense of one’s status promotes injustice, conflict, and enmity. Healthy self-love, akin to self-esteem, reflects not only on our relationship to ourselves, but to others and society.

Our ongoing assignment then is to be more transparent and less judgmental by becoming more aware of the masks we wear and how they can affect our relationship with others. A worthy goal, don’t you think?

Linda Henry writes regularly on topics related to aging, health care, and communication, and is the co-author of several books, including Transformational Eldercare from the Inside Out: Strengths-Based Strategies for Caring. She conducts workshops nationally on aging and creating caring work environments. Her volunteer emphasis is age-friendly communities.

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