People often ask me what I do for a living. I used to say “I’m a financial analyst”. They could tell several things by this. I was numerate, intelligent, focused and academic. It was an impressive career for a woman. It was also process oriented, brittle and emotionless. But I was happy with the persona of financial analyst, I integrated it into my identity and built a career path around it. I was an analyst. It would be my intended evolution through life. Financial Controller, then Manager, Director, VP …perhaps CFO one day.
I created the mask that I later called financial analyst early in life. Whilst I didn’t have a name for it at the time, it was everything my adoptive parents ~ who were both teachers ~ wanted me to be. In our circles it was important that their offspring be intelligent, focused and academic; I was a reflection on my family, they who’d rescued me.
And then somewhere between Director and VP, I crashed. My strong identification with the rigid mask of finance professional proved to be extremely inflexible for the other parts of my evolving identity. The mother. The writer. The lover. The healer. The human. A creature of light.
The mask I had carefully constructed and lovingly invested in over a period of 15 years turned out to be devoid of meaning in my mid thirties. Day after day I could toy with numbers, projecting consumer demand, running sensitivity analyses, presenting recommendations to the board for products which would line their money sodden pockets. It wasn’t me anymore (if it ever had been).
If I wasn’t a finance analyst what on earth was I? Some unemployed statistic to be pitied, burned out and contributing very little to society? The antithesis of what my adoptive parents had wanted. I clung to my mask for several years after it had become oppressive. I cared what people would think. I didn’t understand that I contributed to life by who I was, not what I did.
We all use masks. But the danger is when your mask because bound up so tightly into your identity that you start believing that this is who you are. It isn’t (of course).
A strong ego relates to the outside world through a flexible persona; identification with a specific persona (e.g. doctor) inhibits psychological development. Thus for Jung “the danger is that [people] become identical with their personas—the professor with his textbook, the tenor with his voice.
Having a rigid persona, will restrict your growth. Because as we grow, our mind will suppress those parts of us which do not conform to the mask We have decided We are. Those parts go underground, living unhappily in your psyche. Suppress too many and they will find an outlet ~ in many cases an unhealthy one.
My mask helped me. It allowed me to operate within in certain circles. It faciliated my social acceptance and my progression through that which we call life. I can even consider that my mask shielded the exploitation of my true self through childhood. It is a valid defense mechanism. I was not to blame for creating my mask. But when I realised, I also realised that I was responsible for keeping it. And I let it go.
I know fear. I have felt it. What happens if you let go of the mask and there is nothing behind it? What if you are nothing good? What if no one loves you with all that you are?
In the legend of Narcissus, the tragedy is that he falls in love with his beautiful self ~ his mask ~ to the exclusion of all else. He denies his true self. His death was the consequence of his fixation on his false self.
It is not only the ‘beautiful’ ‘good’ and pleasant feelings that make us really alive, deepen our existence and give us crucial insight, but often the unacceptable and unadapted ones from which we would prefer to escape: helplessness, shame, envy, jealousy confusion, rage and grief. When they are understood they open the door to our inner world that is much richer than the ‘beautiful countenance’. ~ Alice Miller, The Drama of being a Child
I can still wear the mask of financial analyst from time to time. I also don the mask of mother, writer and healer. I am all these things, and yet these are not me. These are things I do, they are not who I am. So who am I? I am the infinite. I am the connected. I am life, or at least a piece of it. I am …indescribable by any label. And that’s ok.
And so the question is not whether you can live without your mask. I believe you can. The question is rather ~
How much of your life are you sacrificing by clinging to your mask? And how much more life will you waste before you start living?