How often do you 'put on a brave face' or 'bite your tongue' to get you through? Whenever we act different from our natural way, we are, in a sense, wearing a mask. We're making ourselves 'look' different to the other person so we can manage the situation. Sometimes it's temporary, like in a conversation. And sometimes it is how we train ourselves to be at work, in community or in a relationship.
Does it help? Heck yeah! Sometimes keeping our mouth shut is much better than spurting out what we really want to say. Can we hold it in all the time? Absolutely not. It's exhausting and not our genuine selves. The same is true when we stretch ourselves to be brave or confident or outspoken. If that's not your usual way of being, it can really sap your energy.
So when is it good and healthy to stretch ourselves into a place we don't normally live and wear that mask and when is it unhealthy or harmful? The easy answer is that short-term masks are helpful to get things done and maintain relationships while trying to wear a mask long-term can be unhealthy as it goes against our natural ways and wears us down. For example, you find yourself at a party in a conversation with someone who is terribly annoying. Do you say, "You're annoying. Peace out! And walk away?" You could but if you're trying to live your life as a polite person this choice won't get you there. Instead, you might put on a smile, nod your head as if you are listening, and then excuse yourself as soon as possible. This is your short-term mask.
An example of a long-term mask is in professional relationships where you have to regularly stifle your true thoughts and put on the "I get along with everyone!" mask. Depending on the degree to which this is a stretch for you, it can really wear you out. But it's necessary for job survival, right? So we power through.
Now, if you are trying to change a deeply rooted behavior that has gotten you into trouble or done you no good, you may choose to put on short-term masks to practice a new behavior. If it's a positive change, than this is a healthy use of mask wearing. For example, if your natural tendency is to stay quiet and let others do the talking you not be getting your point across on the regular. While this alone can be very frustrating, it can also be damaging to relationships, professional or personal. So maybe you decide to put on a more assertive mask occasionally to try and balance things. By practicing with a mask you give yourself the opportunity to change slowly and naturally in a direction you intend.
Here are three steps to take when putting on a mask is something you want to try:
1. Outside of any immediate situation, take some time to think about what it is you want to change and why. Are you trying to be more polite or more outspoken or something else? Picture yourself doing it. Imagine the rewards (e.g. improved relationships, standing up for yourself, increased recognition at work).
2. When the moment arrives, recognize it for what it is and remind yourself of your intentions. Take a breath and put on a neutral face or a little smile. Even if don't feel happy, a smile is polite and can buy you time to get your reaction together. Say your piece or keep your trap shut, whichever it is.
3. After it's over, take a breath, and congratulate yourself for your efforts. Take a few moments to reflect on how it felt and if you think it helped. Adjust as necessary depending on your goals.
The key is to be clear about what you want and who you want to be. Take time to set clear intentions and give yourself permission to try. The more you practice, the easier it gets and maybe the less you’ll need a mask. Unless it’s Halloween, of course.