Why It’s So Difficult to Wear a Mask

And how to do it anyway.

Posted Aug 19, 2020

 cottonbro/Pexels
Source: cottonbro/Pexels

The coronavirus has changed all of our lives, and—depending on the country you are in—also your experience in the grocery store. For instance, in Germany you can’t enter a store unless you wear a mask. And if you don’t comply, you will be asked to leave. Simple as that.

But just over the border in the Netherlands, you will have a very different experience. There, masks are no longer required, and in fact you might get weird looks by wearing one at all. And then again, on the other side of the world, not wearing a mask has (sadly) become a political statement, often showing your support for the far right.

But corona doesn’t care about your political affiliation. And the science is clear: Wearing a mask is an effective measure to stop the spread of the virus (and research has shown that any concern about not being able to breathe properly is unfounded and untrue).

Wearing a mask is a necessary discomfort to slow the spread of the virus, and to prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths. And yet plenty of people continue not wearing one. They may refuse because it’s uncomfortable, for political reasons, because other people are not wearing one, because it makes them look “weak," or because they believe the “plandemic” is a hoax, perhaps orchestrated by Bill Gates.

And even if people wear a mask, they often do it improperly, covering only their mouth but not their nose, thus making the mask more or less obsolete (just like the sculpture on this post’s photo).

When you walk into an enclosed public space, you are better off with a mask. I know I’m not the first to tell you this, and I will not be the last. Almost everyone understands it at this point, and yet plenty of people continue to not wear a mask—even against their own self-interest.

As a psychologist, I’m used to working with people who act against their own interests. And more than a political or practical struggle, this is a psychological one, because wearing a mask has become a question of who we are, and how we are able to deal with discomfort. This is a psychological problem, and it requires a psychological solution.

Two Psychological Straps to Wear a Mask

Just like a mask is held up by two straps, there are two crucial steps (or straps) to overcome the mental blockage that is hindering you from covering your face. Let’s begin with the first.

Strap 1: Know Why You Wear a Mask

There are many good reasons to wear a mask, the most straightforward ones being to protect yourself and those around you. But there are also more personal reasons.

A key element of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is knowing what matters to you. The more you know what matters to you (and why it matters to you), the more you are going to act accordingly and bring it into your life. For instance, if being brave is important to you (and you know why being brave is important for you), the more you are going to act accordingly and bring bravery into your life. And it’s no different with wearing a mask.

The more you know why wearing a mask is important for you, the more you are going to act accordingly, and put on the piece of cloth. You have already heard plenty of reasons, but it’s important you find the one that matters most to you. Maybe you wish to protect your grandpa. Maybe you wish to be seen as caring. Knowing your why can be truly powerful, and it becomes even stronger still if you connect it to something bigger than yourself.

Research has repeatedly shown that doing hard things for others (rather than for yourself) predicts positive behavioral and mental health outcomes. In other words, by doing what’s uncomfortable in the service of helping other people, you step outside of your comfort zone, train your mind, and practice your ability to step up in other areas of your life.

Wearing a mask is a simple gateway to connect with what matters to you, and become mentally strong in the process. It’s not often that you can gain so much by doing so little.

Strap 2: Embrace the Uncomfortable Feeling.

Eventually, you will have to swallow the bitter pill and take action. This means putting on the mask, and wearing it for however long necessary. Chances are, you are not working in the ICU, which means instead of having to wear it for hours on end, you will only have to wear it for the duration of your current shopping spree. How lucky and fortunate you are.

But instead of forcing the mask on yourself, and merely tolerating it, see if you can open it up. Willingly. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, and, in case you are wearing glasses, you can even expect foggy eyesight. And the longer you wear it, the more your nose may start itching, your ears may start hurting, and the stupider you may seem to yourself. And yet, aim to open up to it.

There are still many mysteries in the field of psychology, but after decades as a scientist and therapist, I can assure you: The more you allow yourself to feel uncomfortable in the service of what is important to you, the better your quality of life will be. In other words, by allowing yourself to feel the discomfort of wearing a mask, the more you empower yourself to do what matters to you, and the easier you will be wearing this mask.

After all, it really wasn’t so long ago that it was considered good training in self-control to deliberately experience small bits of discomfort in the service of something bigger than yourself. Our spiritual and religious traditions all encouraged it. Don’t eat meat on Fridays. Give up something for Lent. Fast. Stay on your knees even if you don’t feel like it. Our cultural heroes encouraged it too, from Ben Franklin to FDR.

Much of that has fallen away as the modern binge of self-indulgence too center stage, but this nasty pandemic is asking every one of us to pivot back toward this rich cultural source of growth and psychological health. If we get this right, the benefits of this challenge well met will be long-lasting.

The deliberate combination of emotional openness and values-based behavioral persistence has been shown to reduce the linkage between stress and mental health problems. It is another key element of psychological flexibility, the set of skill Acceptance and Commitment Therapy help teach, and it is a fundamental skill in any area of life. Life itself asks us to learn not to turn away from what is painful or difficult and instead to turn toward our fears, doubts, and discomforts in order to live a life full of meaning and purpose. And you can practice this skill right here and now, just by covering your face with a small piece of fabric.

Not a bad deal.