Masks and Vulnerability

Savannah Coombe reflects on the masks we all wear in an effort to please others, and how we might benefit from allowing them to slip every now and then. For TWSS Issue #17 ‘Masks’.

You’re sitting in your friend’s living room with your feet placed firmly side-by-side on their plush fur carpet, not daring to lean too far into the velvety zebra-print fabric (is that real?). It’s very glamorous. They’re in front of the island counter pouring you tea from what is probably a Ming-Dynasty China teapot and asking if you want soy milk, almond milk, coconut milk, rice milk, coconut-rice milk or hemp milk. Cow’s milk is not mentioned. They’re very glamorous.

Or maybe you’ve been in the opposite situation.

You’re sitting in the backyard smoking area of a pub in the bad part of London with a rubbish cigarette in your hand. You had to get one of your friends to roll it for you because you don’t know how. There are random household objects everywhere and it’s cold. Your friends don’t feel it because they’ve grown up sitting in gross smoking areas. You’re not quite sure what to contribute when someone protests that they would have gotten three A*s if they had a private tutor growing up. You had a private tutor. You did not get three A*s.

No matter which experience you relate to more, you have most likely been in a similar situation. One in which you find yourself going inexplicably red every time you say something. Nothing you contribute seems quite adequate.

It’s called imposter syndrome. We’ve all felt it at some point in our lives. You find yourself someplace you can’t help but feel you don’t belong in. There are plenty of coping strategies to help you deal with this feeling, but I am not a licensed therapist and I am also not WikiHow. Instead I want to discuss how not to deal with it.

We all put on metaphorical masks in our day-to-day life. Disguises and guises that help us fit in a bit better or feel a little more secure. This is perfectly natural. When you come to university you will (and should) find yourself surrounded by people from a variety of backgrounds and inevitably a variety of classes.

You have a friend in your Psychology 101 class who complains that they’re not sure how they’re going to make their rent that month. Your flatmate complains that he is not looking forward to the Maldives this year because the usual house is occupied. It’s hard to not want to relate in both these situations but it is so easy to miss the mark and end up compromising your own character.

This is the trouble with trying to put on a mask that you think is more suitable to the conversation at hand. You’re empathising when really you should be sympathising (I had to look up which was which). And really the worst part of what you’re doing is that you’re judging. You’ve made the decision that you will not be adequate to your friend unless you mimic their exact experience.

I think you will find your friends are much more open to your true self than you might realise and that when you try to be exactly the same as them they realise (and don’t like it).

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When I was sixteen, I would wake up each day and put on a mask. I was hurting inside and I didn’t really know how to tell anyone. I would get to school and I would be happy. I wouldn’t talk about my feelings. My friends’ problems were very different to my own and for some reason that made me feel as if mine weren’t worthy of worry. Looking back, I now realise I held onto my “happy” mask so tightly that I failed to let people see beyond it. I’d decided who I was going to be, and I was holding myself to it with no exceptions. I missed out on forming some truly great relationships because I refused to let people in.

It is hard not to keep on our masks. At work you wear your busy mask, at university you wear stressed and tired and around your friends you wear fun. I challenge you to instead try vulnerability. In this period of mental health crises, it is becoming increasingly important that we let each other in.

You do not always need to be brave and dependable. No one is. True bravery comes from vulnerability. Let those who matter to you see who you truly are. Let them see beyond the mask to your true hardships and struggles. The good and the bad. To see the real you.

Soppy, I know.

Illustration by Maegan Farrow. 

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