Behind the Mask
Posted on 30th November 2021 at 23:43
“We don’t need to dress up for Halloween, we are scary enough wearing these bloody masks!” quipped a customer to the shop assistant and while I smiled at his humour, there was also an essence of truth in what he said. After all, the usual purpose of masks in horror cinematography is to hide or paradoxically, reveal, the identity of the killer.
The idea of putting on a 'different face' and becoming a new person, or the mask serving to hide the real person, has its appeal. Over the course of our recent masked existence, I have heard remarks like “I think I have been hiding behind this mask” , “the mask has been great in hiding my embarrassment when someone speaks to me,” “I had a brace put on while I can hide behind the mask.”
Of course, the concept of the mask has long had its place in drama, ritual, literature, politics and psychology. The word persona originated with the early Greeks, meaning a mask that an actor wears allowing him to hide his own identity while presenting the one he performs. Carl Jung described the archetype as various aspects of our personality that make up the psyche. The archetype consists of the shadow, anima/animus, the self and the persona. The persona is that 'face' we show to the world, to all intents and purposes our mask, that can change according to the demands of family, friends, the workplace, society and so on. We have the ability to put on different masks in different situations: the caring mask for family, the jovial mask socially, the serious mask for work. The social smile is a well known mask to what may really lie beneath.
Reading facial expression has been critical to survival and existence through our evolutionary history. We search faces for cues to assure ourselves of safety and that we are being understood, a continuum of the unconscious mirroring that represents a critical part of early infant development. We have had almost two years now of the mask preventing us from looking at or seeing into people's faces individually and collectively. If we have never seen the other person unmasked, our minds construct an image of what the remainder of the face looks like. Depending on our construct, we can be shocked or surprised when the full face is revealed such that it seems like we are meeting a different person. In the absence of seeing a mouth we are forced to focus more on eye expression which can be unnerving for many. As well as the hiding aspect, being masked face to face in the therapy room, invokes issues of trust and paranoia with the client wondering if the masked therapist will regard them positively. The mask can act as a muzzle to speaking and free association or an expectation that the therapist is also not forthcoming. Those who rely on expression to communicate emotion are sanctioned by the partial face covering. 
We have always been dealing with masks in the therapy room. The hidden self and the hidden pain masked by story and diversion while a safe space is constructed with the therapist. The true self masked by the false self acquired for survival. Clients experiencing depersonalisation describe themselves as feeling masked and relating to themselves as such, acting yet observing. Developmentally, the narcissist is described as being stuck between "the mirror and the mask" where affirmation is sought (or found) through a reflected appraisal of themselves. Life is a process of controlling from behind a mask. 
In Freud's tripartite structure of the mind, comprising the Id, Ego and Superego, the superego is essentially our conscience, our internalised rules, expectations, guilt and ideals. It negotiates with the ego to reconcile the primitive Id’s unconscious and instinctual pursuit of pleasure. In his paper Civilization and its Discontents , with due reference to the work of Melanie Klein, Freud distinguishes between unconscious guilt, conscious guilt, conscience and remorse. In terms of unconscious guilt, he put forward two sources: “one arising from fear of an authority, and the other, later on, arising from fear of the super‐ego. The first insists upon a renunciation of instinctual satisfactions; the second, as well as doing this, presses for punishment.” This sense of guilt gives rise to a feeling of remorse even if only thought and not actioned. In this context, the mask is a symbol of guilt and the superego. The authorities don’t control by instruction but by invoking guilt -they want us to feel guilty about not wearing a mask. By wearing the mask, we suppress our individual guilt at contributing to the pandemic. [1,3]
So as we continue through our prolonged Halloween, our masked existence, we acknowledge the many challenges the simple mask has brought, multi symbolic as it is in our "war" against a virus. Most will look forward to the day it will no longer be required and for therapists, we look forward to one less mask in the room.
Get in touch here, if you are stuggling with any aspect on the ongoing pandemic or its fallout.
1. Giorgi, L. (2021) Not a political statement: Psychoanalytic notes on the measures to fight the pandemic and the responses to them International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies. 18(2): 224–231.
2. Bromberg, P.M (1983) The Mirror and the Mask—On Narcissism and Psychoanalytic Growth, Contemp. Psychoanal., 19:359-387.
3. Freud, S. (1930) Civilisation and its Discontents. Standard Edition 21, p-128-132.
Tagged as: Pandemic, Persona, psychosocial, Symbols
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