As the world reopens, we can begin to imagine life without masks. At least the literal kind. Our figurative masks—identity and ego—will continue to be omnipresent, invisible filters of the outside world.
A Masking Culture
At a young age, as our identity and ego developed, we created an “I.”
The “I” is a combination of our intrinsic nature and the circumstances of our upbringing, and results from our deeper response to conflict.
“I” navigates relationships. “I” manages responsibilities. “I” helps us to cope with dissonance.
Throughout our childhood, young adult and early career experiences the “I” evolves to become a powerful sense of self that reflects:
– Our roles (i.e. parent, student, worker, sister)
– Our functions (i.e. teacher, policewoman, business executive, artist)
– Our preferences (i.e. lifestyle, geographic location, motivations, values)
– Our behavior (i.e. people-pleaser, rebel, change agent, conformist)
Side Effects of Masking Up
We develop figurative masks because the world can seem harsh and unforgiving. They serve as a protective frame of reference to interpret and interact with life’s ongoing challenges.
Having a strong sense of self is important for a leader. But despite the comfort masks provide, hiding behind them isn’t always the healthiest approach. This can lead us to develop a simple, binary and linear view. Identifying our “I” with a singular perspective, ideology or group can cause our sense of self to dissociate with others and our truer nature.
It is helpful to simplify complex issues into bite-sized pieces. In fact, simplifying complexity is a key leadership capability. However, adopting a binary or dualistic view of the world can be harmful to ourselves and our relationships at local, national and international levels.
By seeing things in black and white we lose sight of other perspectives, which leads to binary thinking. Win-lose. Good-bad. Right-wrong. Happy-sad. Performance-learning. Reward-punishment. Ultimately, me-you and us-them.
– If we think of ourselves as a rebel, then how do we value conformists?
– If we’re emotional, how do we relate to people who lead with their head instead of their heart?
– If we identify as a high-performing individual contributor, how do we judge team-oriented collaborators?
Added to this innate complexity of the human condition, is the fact that our sense of self actually consists of multiple, layered masks. The people we meet wear their own set of masks, too.
“You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it,” said the V For Vendetta writer, Alan Moore.
We get disconnected when we forget who we are and when make judgements about others based on their masks. No wonder authentic communication is such an uncommon event.
Challenges Provide the Mirror
A difficult divorce. The death of a loved one. A crisis in the workplace. A relationship blow-up. A new promotion. A public failure.
External challenges typically trigger self-evaluation by forcing us to acknowledge how our self-imposed masks have lead us to that moment. And when we glimpse our reflection, we have the opportunity to decide if we like what we see.
Self-evaluation sounds something like this:
– How did I react to that challenge?
– What could I have done differently?
– Why don’t people see me the way I see myself?
– What are the consequences of being the way I am?
Dissolving the Mask
As David Hawkins claims in Power vs Force, “We cannot enter into higher levels of existence until we advance in consciousness to the point where we overcome duality.”
One of the first steps towards growth is recognizing that the “I” is actually self-created.
“I” is a filter of our own choosing. “I” is a construct of our own making. “I” doesn’t exist other than how we have chosen it to. And the realization of this can be liberating.
Our response to this insight doesn’t mean simply ripping off our masks because then we'd throw away any benefits they provide. Rather, we can acknowledge they exist and then do the challenging work of integrating our masks with the real person underneath.
This requires trusting that who we are behind the mask is someone worth showing to the world.
Jamie Ramsden is a certified executive leadership coach and founder of Adastra Consulting (www.adastraleadership.com). A former Chief Executive, Jamie has been coaching C-Suite and Senior executives around the world for over fifteen years.