Fear of Being Unmasked

We think of our personality as our distinctive character. But the Latin root word, persona, means the mask through which an actor speaks. Like Halloween masks, our personality conceals who we really are. And we live in fear of being unmasked.

fear of unmasking

The Mask of a Best-Selling Author

With his first book, The School of Greatness, podcaster Lewis Howes achieved something that most authors only dream of. He debuted at the Number 3 spot on the New York Times Best Seller List. Howes shared his experience in his second book, The Mask of Masculinity.

I had achieved so much of what I wanted with my book and with my career, but deep down, I was asking myself about the point of it all. I had no one to share it with. I had no intimacy or deep connection with anyone else.

I should have felt amazing, but all I felt was terrible.

Unmasking Masculinity

Howes began questioning the personality traits that had simultaneously brought him success and misery.   

What he discovered were nine culturally sanctioned and reinforced “masks” that men are expected to wear.

Stoic Mask: Showing emotion is an invitation to scrutiny, judgment, and rejection.

Athlete Mask: A good athlete is a good man–period. Non-athletic men must compensate by knowing everything about sports.

Material Mask: A man’s net worth is his self-worth.

Sexual Mask: A man’s worth is also measured by the number of women he’s slept with.

Aggressive Mask: Men never back down.

Joker Mask: Man’s cynicism and sarcasm can defend against every attempt to soften or connect with him.

Invincible Mask: Men are fearless.

Know-It-All Mask: If you don’t understand why a man is your intellectual superior, he’ll be happy to explain it to you.

Alpha Mask: There are only two types of men: alphas and betas, winners and losers.

Problems with Masks

Many problems with Halloween masks also apply to masks we wear in everyday life. They don’t fit. They’re uncomfortable. Eye holes limit our ability to see things clearly. Rubber pullover masks are sweaty and make it difficult to breathe. They sometimes frighten those we love without making an impression on those we mean to scare. At root, they’re not really who we are.

The athlete, material, sexual, aggressive, and alpha masks all place a man in never ending competition with every other man. The stoic and joker masks pit a man against his emotions. Implicit in the invincibility mask is the fear of being afraid.

Behind the Mask

To discover why his success hadn’t brought him fulfillment, Howes attended an intensive emotional intelligence workshop. It was like group therapy with one-on-one and group exercises where participants spoke openly about the suffering, pain, and resentment that held them back in life.

Before shifting to people’s vision for their future, the facilitator gave everyone a final chance to address anything from their past that they hadn’t covered yet.

The honesty and vulnerability of the space gave Howes permission to do a mental inventory. He realized that if he didn’t take this moment to address the time, at the age of five, he had been raped by the teenage son of his babysitter, (something he had never shared with anyone in his life), he would never feel comfortable sharing it.

His body walked him to the front of the room. He looked at the carpet because he was too ashamed to look anyone in the eye. And he walked through the entire experience–the sights, smells, sounds, touch, and tastes of it–matter-of-factly without holding back.

When he’d finished, he went back to his seat and erupted in tears of pain, sadness, relief, insecurity, and fear. Women on either side of him held him and cried with him.

The Courage of Vulnerability

It was all too much. Howes escaped from the room and the hotel. He put his hand on a wall and buried his face in his arm, ashamed. He couldn’t go back.

One by one, the men in the group came up to him, hugged him, and told them, “You’re my hero.”

Howes’s vulnerability had given them permission to share stories that they had always been too ashamed to share. They told this tearful man with snot coming out of his nose that what he had done was the most courageous thing they had ever seen.

The Question

Everyone told Howes that he needed to share this with the people in his life, but he didn’t know how to bring it up.

A therapist friend suggested he begin with a question. “Is there anything I could ever say or do that would make you not love me?”

When Howes found the bravery to unburden himself, his vulnerability gave his loved ones permission to share pain they had tried (but failed) to bury. Instead of splitting them apart, it brought them closer together.

These unexpected benefits motivated Howes to risk opening up to his podcast audience.

The Answer

Howes writes: When I took off the mask, I was able to share my feelings. I also felt freed up to do better work. This unmasking let my audience see the real me, and they liked that me better. The results were great for my business. my relationships, and my health. I feel more confident every day that my audience sees the real me and that they appreciate who I am for what I am.

It’s not the mask they liked; it’s me.

Ten Minute Exercise

Howes’s book covers the benefits of removing each mask and techniques to help do it. Some tools include journaling, finding balance, gratitude, acknowledging our emotional needs, honest connection, self-worth, listening, and celebrating others’ good fortune.

Part of the technique for handling the Aggression Mask involves forgiveness.

Here’s an abbreviated version of the forgiveness practice recommended by the Greater Good Science Center.

1. Take five minutes to write down exactly what happened, why it was wrong, and how it made you feel.

In the remaining five minutes:

2. Make a commitment to yourself to feel better.

3. Recognize that forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciling with the person who upset you or condoning his or her actions.

4. Notice that your current distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts, and physical upset you are suffering now, not from what hurt you ten minutes—or 10 years—ago.

5. Practice stress management to soothe your body’s fight or flight response. For aggression, try this: Breathe in through the nose while slowly counting to four. Hold the breath for a slow count of four. Exhale for a slow count of four. Pause for a count of four. Repeat at least three times or until your calm is restored.

6. Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, which gives power over you to the person who caused you pain, take the remaining time to write about something that makes you grateful.

Bonus: This nine-minute animated book summary will help you decide whether The Mask of Masculinity is for you.

This nine-step forgiveness technique offers additional details on moving forward to meet your positive needs.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.