The Masks That We Wear
"Imposter Syndrome" and why we sometimes feel like a fake
Posted Oct 20, 2015
It’s that time of year: the season when Halloween pop-up stores appear on every corner. Popular costumes range from the princesses in Frozen to Donald Trump and zombies—which are, I believe, the same outfit.
People go nuts about Halloween. That made me start thinking about the psychology behind the celebration. Halloween is actually an ancient Celtic holiday on which people believed they needed masks to protect themselves from bad spirits that roamed the earth on All Hallows' Eve.
Thousands of years later, people are still wearing masks. They hide behind anything from a false smile to Dr. Dre headphones to my personal favorite: people who wear dark glasses in the subway—and they aren’t even celebrities.
Then there are the emotional masks, the masks we hide behind because of fear. For example, if we are insecure, we might hide behind the mask of name-dropping. If we are unsure of our power, we can hide behind the mask of being a bully. If we don’t think the world loves us, we can hide behind a mask of anger. We mask the debt we’ve incurred to pay for lifestyles we can’t afford; we pretend things are fine at work when our jobs are on the line; we pretend things are okay in our marriages when there is distance.
What masks do you wear?
One of the most common reasons we wear masks is what I think of as Imposter Syndrome—the fear that the world is going to find us out. I’ve heard it described as feeling like a fake like you don’t really belong, or you aren’t really successful but are just posing as such. It’s like my Halloween costume at age 7: I dressed up as a zombie gypsy—something I believed to be terribly scary, until my next-door neighbor yanked off my mask and said, “Oh, it’s just you.”
One of our greatest fears is that if we show our true selves, the world will say, “Oh, it’s just you.” But being just you is actually the best and most perfect thing you could ever be. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” Or if you are interested in the spiritual perspective, the psalmist wrote, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
There are three practical reasons why we should shed our masks. The first is to live to our potential. We have to bring all of who we are to what we do. There are numerous people who have our same skillsets, or maybe an even better one. But none of these people bring the same personality, creativity, and spirit to the job that you do. That’s something they can’t match. The irony is that we often mask that part of ourselves at work and lose our greatest potential.
The second reason is relief. It is exhausting to live an inauthentic life. You put on a mask or two or 10, then take a few off, then put a couple more on. It’s exhausting! Worst of all, you start forgetting who you really are. As comedian and actress Fanny Brice explained, “Let the world know you as you are, not as you think you should be because sooner or later, if you are posing, you will forget the pose, and then where are you?”
The third reason is healing. When we wear masks, we carve a piece of ourselves out—withholding parts of ourselves as unworthy. But in relationships, we can’t be truly healed unless we offer up all the pieces. It’s like handing someone a broken vase and asking him or her to fix it but holding back two or three of the broken pieces. As one of the pastors of Hope City Church in Indianapolis, Indiana explained, “Masks make shallow what God has intended to be deep. Everything in our lives get cheated when we choose to hide behind our masks.”
We weren’t born with masks. We put them on, so we can take them off. Start with this simple exercise: Think about a negative message you have held onto. Ask yourself whether it is true? More than likely, the answer is no. And if it is not, then you have to ask these questions: Why am I carrying that message? If I put it down, what would happen? Probably nothing. The main risk we face is the world’s reaction. Opening yourself up threatens others; it invites them to reevaluate their own lives. Many times, it forces them to realize that they too have the power to change, but they haven’t.
Don’t let that stop you. Don’t pull your mask partially off then let the world scare you into putting it back on. As the poet E. E. Cummings wrote, “The greatest battle we face as human beings is the battle to protect our true selves from the self the world wants us to become.”
Think about the masks you wear and commit to taking them off. Hold your gifts out to the world—no apology, no shame, no regrets. As the old saying goes, every creature has its rightful place, and in that place it becomes beautiful.
This was also delivered as a sermon at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.