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Masks and the Self: A Reflection on Interconnectedness

How thinking about the self differently can help us to feel more connected.

Deborah Cabaniss
Source: Deborah Cabaniss

Now that rates of vaccination are on the rise, Americans can’t wait to take off their masks. Masks feel like a punishment—being maskless feels like freedom. Anti-maskers have been saying this for months, perilously shedding masks in the name of liberty. But why? When I was in Japan in March of 2019—long before the 19 was associated with COVID—I was surprised at how many people wore masks. Paper masks, cloth masks, printed masks—they were everywhere. Whole families of Japanese tourists in Tokyo took photos of themselves, all wearing masks. I couldn’t understand it. Could it be that the whole country had terrible hay fever? Could they be incredibly paranoid about catching colds? Curious, I ran my hypotheses by a translator with whom we were working. “Oh no,” she said simply. “They are just respectful.”

Respectful. Of course. People in Japan don’t wear masks to protect themselves. They wear masks to protect others. They don’t think of themselves in a vacuum. They think of themselves as interconnected. They don’t mind wearing masks because they think of it as part of their responsibility to the people around them and their world. Being maskless isn’t a sign of freedom, it’s a sign of disrespect to others. One is never truly alone, never fully autonomous. People are always connected.

For Western therapists, this is a very different way of thinking about the self. One primary psychoanalytic definition of self is that it is a subjective experience “always organized around an experience of ‘I’” (1). We value a consolidated sense of self that is differentiated from the other. We help our patients to strive for independence and personal agency. Margaret Mahler wrote about the importance of separation and individuation (2). So many of Erik Erikson’s eight phases of man champion the drive towards separation; just think about “autonomy vs. shame” and “identity vs. role confusion”(3). We believe that too much dependence is a problem, and we try to help children and adults to strike out on their own. During the pandemic, many of my patients with school-age children are frustrated that these young students can’t learn independently. At age 8? Is that a goal?

In their brilliant 1991 paper, “Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion and Motivation,” social psychologists Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama consider the disparate ways that the self is considered in Western and Japanese culture (4). “In Western cultures,” they explain, “there is a faith in the inherent separateness of distinct persons,” whereas in many non-Western cultures, the view of “the self and the relationship between the self and others features the person not as separate from the social context but as more connected and less differentiated from others.” They link the non-Western view to the deeply held belief that people are intimately connected to nature, made up of the same substance as all other living things. It is connectedness that makes us who were are, not separateness.

I was particularly struck by the discussion of the Japanese word for self, jibun, which Markus and Kitayama define as, “one’s share of the shared life space.” At first I thought the word share was used too many times in the definition, but then I realized that was the point. Who we are is defined operationally as how we share with others. We can be individuals, but individuals who harmoniously connect to the rest of life.

The implications of this notion of self are breathtaking. It impacts everything from the way we raise our children to our relationship to climate change. As therapists, it challenges us not only to think broadly when we treat people from non-Western traditions, but also to think about the goals of treatment for everyone we see. How should we think about the self? Do we focus too much on the development of a fully “consolidated” and “individuated” self as a sign of health? Might we loosen our grip on the attainment of personal agency as a therapeutic endpoint?

Although it has isolated us in ways we never could have imagined, the COVID pandemic has also reminded us of our essential interconnectedness. Many of us are more connected to and dependent on our families or pods than ever before. We need to trust those to whom we are close, as well as those we don’t know. One person’s “independent” decision to forego a mask can impact the larger group in ways that many Americans don’t generally consider. We literally share the air we breathe—with all of its many shared particles. We must consider how we share that air, whether it is related to the masks we wear or the language we use. I, for one, will think about this expanded definition of the self—the self that is connected to the great and awesome world—as I see patients, think about theory, and wear my mask far into the months of 2021.


1. Auchincloss EL and Samberg E (2012) Psychoanalytic Terms and Concepts, Yale University Press, New Haven.

2. Mahler MH (1963). Thoughts about Development and Individuation. Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 18:307-324.

3. Erikson EH (1966). Eight ages of man. International Journal of Psychiatry, 2(3) 281-300.

4. Markus HR and Kitayama S (1991). Culture and the Self: Implications for Cognition, Emotion, and Motivation. Psychological Review 98 (2) 224-253.

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