Psychology Sociology

How We Mask Our Authenticity

“We are all just actors trying to control and manage our public image, we act based on how others might see us.” ―Erving Goffman

Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about what it means to “take the mask off”. Part of this curiosity came from the recent hit song “Mask Off” by Future.

The idea of taking the “mask off” to reveal one’s authentic self has been a popular metaphor used among those suffering from addiction. Charles C. Finn wrote a great poem on the issue:

Don’t be fooled by me.
Don’t be fooled by the face I wear
for I wear a mask, a thousand masks,
masks that I’m afraid to take off,
and none of them is me.

Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me,
but don’t be fooled,
for God’s sake don’t be fooled.
I give you the impression that I’m secure,
that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well as without,
that confidence is my name and coolness my game,
that the water’s calm and I’m in command
and that I need no one,
but don’t believe me.
My surface may seem smooth but my surface is my mask,
ever-varying and ever-concealing…

Masks are seen as a barrier to authentic interaction, a thing to be overcome, and taking the “mask off” is often the goal of addiction counselling.

Sociologist, Irving Goffman, talks about masks when comparing social interaction to actors on a stage. He draws on Shakespeare’s following lines:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…

In Goffman’s world, we can’t escape our masks. Taking one mask off simply leaves us with another mask. The more roles we play, the more masks we juggle.

Unlike the metaphor of taking the “mask off”, Goffman would argue we are stuck with our masks. So if we are stuck wearing our social masks, is it possible to maintain a sense of personal authenticity?

For Goffman, authenticity may be found in an alignment between our personal identity and social identity. This means our beliefs about ourselves must match the role we play:

“And to the degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self and a special kind of wariness of others.”

For example, alienation from oneself, or lack of authenticity, might occur if you hold a personal identity centered on creativity and critical thinking, but found yourself in a career requiring uniformity and obedience. In order to advance in this role, you would need to wear a mask you don’t believe in.

As your real self deviates from your ideal self, you may become weary as you continuously work to keep the performance going. Carl Rogers defines self-actualization in these terms when discussing the congruence between your real and ideal self:

We wear incongruent masks to fit in, attempting to manipulate others’ perceptions of us. This constant focus on external validation invalidates our internal selves. We inhabit the social dreamworld of others’ imaginations, losing ourselves in the act. As Carl Jung states:

“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”

Fear of judgment keeps us from looking inside. We are too focused on maintaining a mask centered on external validation or self-protection. This is especially difficult when inhabiting hostile social contexts lacking love, trust, and support.

This is why Carl Rogers valued unconditional positive regard. 

When we speak to others through this non-judgmental lens, they are unburdened by the incongruent mask, allowing them to look inward and reconnect with their ideal self. This was the goal of Rogers’ humanistic person-centered  counseling-style.

Beyond the counselling encounter, healthy social contexts can facilitate similar experiences by removing stigmas that keep people feeling like they need to put on incongruent masks. In the case of mental health and addiction, removing stigmas will allow us to hear the words they are not saying. Like the poem above:

Pretending is an art that’s second nature with me,
but don’t be fooled,
for God’s sake don’t be fooled.

Although we use masks to fit in, fitting in makes us feel isolated from ourselves. Fooling others, we simultaneously don’t want them to be fooled. We want to reveal ourselves; we want others to hear the words we are not saying; but we want to fit in.

Sigma is the prison containing these silent screams. When we break down the walls of stigma, we can truly connect with other people. This is what “taking the mask off” means to me.


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20 comments

  1. See me, I look at humans as creatures who seek to do good because we are given a conscious that allows us to make what we perceive to be rational decisions. And a lot of those decisions are in the moment. So you might make an in the moment decision to be fake because that decision might lead to another situation that allows you to be that authentic you. For example, real you might attack someone for being combative at work. But ignoring that person in the moment could mean advancement for you. And you might never see that person again, so is it worth blowing up and potentially costing yourself an opportunity. So you want to be real and authentic, but not every battle is worth the energy, especially if the you is not needed in the moment. That’s tough and an on the fly decision.

  2. Well Steve,

    The mask I’m supposed to be wearing for societal recognition is a Paranoid Schizophrenic, but I really don’t agree with that mask. All for numerous reasons, I think I’m starting to become more, and more like the Diogenes of ye ol’ Greek era if this charade continues.

    Regardless, a few thoughts, if we’re all wearing masks, and mask removal leads to a new mask underneath, what happens if we actively foster the creation of a mask? You know, this is the persona/authentic me, and devil be damned it’s who I am! Also, before this mask theory took hold, were there still “masks being worn”? This smells of thought harkening back to Plato’s Cave which was an allegory. Not necessarily Truth.

    After all, in the land of the Blind, Deaf, Dumb, and Mute…who is the aware one? The one who accepts the knowledge that they just can’t tell if they have those qualifiers upon themselves for “ignorance”, or those who remain oblivious and accept/enforce “concrete reasoning”? (My APPLE IS THE ONLY APPLE! type thought). My eyes, nor my mind can deceive me adherents?

  3. Somewhat ironically, I think social media is a very large component to the issues of authenticity that we face today. Even the inventor of the Facebook ‘like’ button doesn’t use Facebook anymore because it manipulates. Humans have always seemed to be ‘liked’ because we are social creatures and we often view ourselves more as we think others view us, than as we actually are. Recently I began reading Happy by Derren Brown, and it has made a huge difference to how I perceive myself and my life, and yes, to a degree it has made me happier because it has made me more aware of my authenticity or lack of it. I have started to reprogram the way I view social online interactions and I have removed Facebook entirely from my mobile devices. Although I appreciate a need for social media for my freelance work, I now have to be more deliberate in my use of it. I have also removed notifications from twitter, LinkedIN, and so forth on my mobile devices. Life is better without it.

  4. I don’t think that I can make this coherent.

    Spirituality is the negotiation of the boundaries between ‘I’ and ‘we’. Conflict arises, but also unanticipated possibilities. Do I stop being ‘myself’ when I change for others? Or only when I feel forced to change by circumstances?

    It seems to me that we can never have perfect congruence between inner and outer. It’s in expanding the overlap that meaning is found. When I felt that happening in college, I considered the residue of my old ‘self’ and felt sorrow, but never thought about turning back. I was fortunate to have gentle people working on my personality.

    “Health” is not a static state – it manifests as the capacity to grow and adapt. Do the healthiest personalities look both outward and inward?

  5. Great post, Steve. Ironically, I’ve recently had several profound encounters with raccoons. The reason I bring this up is that part of the symbolism attached to raccoons has to do with wearing masks, due to the markings on their faces. Now I’ve just finished reading your post about masks and authenticity. It’s neat how these things line up sometimes.

    Also, thank you for reminding me about Carl Rogers’ theories. I was heavily influenced by his thinking when I was studying Counseling, and I still his philosophy can enhance multiple types of interpersonal relationships. I genuinely enjoyed reading this post.

  6. Steve,
    I contend people see what they want to see, looking through their own lenses. The “masks” may or may not project the image you want, sometimes the opposite, and sometimes nobody cares, anyway. Also, different people and different situations bring out different facets of ourselves, so these may not be “masks” but genuine reflections of ourselves in context.

    In my experience, people are more interested in how you perceive them than the reverse, maybe working on fine-tuning their masks? “Image” does seem over-rated in our culture.

  7. I have trouble knowing whether to wear a mask or not when I’m with people. Do they want to hear how sad I feel today? Should I tell them? Some articles I read say, no. Don’t burden people with your problems. Take them to God alone. Some articles say to be real, be honest and don’t wear masks. It is very confusing to me.

    1. To this, I say tell them. To those who care, they will not only hear you, but listen to you as well. Those who don’t, let them be. It’s a great way to ween out the people who may not need to be in your life at this time. But always be real and authentic!

      1. I would add that it’s not necessarily a question of whether or not your should wear a mask, but whether you believe in the mask. Every social context calls on us to abide by a particular set of folkways and mores (social norms). It’s a question of how to remain socially well-adjusted, while remaining true to yourself. If we attempt to forgo all social norms, we may find ourselves acting like Diogenes of Sinope (look up his lifestyle/philosophy). Although it may be liberating to define authenticity as forgoing masks, I would define authenticity as an alignment between personal and social identity. Therefore, we wear our masks like a light cloak rather than an iron cage, as Max Weber may call it. Rather than concealing authenticity, our masks can be empowering, revealing our authenticity by better connecting us with others. I think it is not productive to view authenticity as a dichotomous mask vs no mask situation. Rather, I’m interested in the question of how to remain socially well-adjusted and mindful of one’s social context (social mask), while simultaneously remaining congruent to one’s personal identity and unique sense of self-expression.

  8. I think we do wear many masks and play many roles over our lifetime. We’re multidimensional beings and I don’t think it means we’re unauthentic, unless we don’t recognize that we were never meant to be a static one dimensional being. I agree with Shakespeare, the world is our stage!

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