I recently happened upon an interesting piece1 by Dr. Charles T. Tart over at the University of California. The article discusses the fear of ESP, but— ESP aside— contains remarkable insight into human nature.
In it, he discusses an interesting psychological theory called “social masking”. He explains it like this:
Briefly, the social masking theory recognizes the fact that our implicit social contract often calls for not really understanding other people.
It is as if we had contracted,
“I’ll support your illusions if you’ll support mine.”
By “illusions” I mean the incorrect perception of our true motivations and feelings because we attend to a more acceptable fantasy in order to avoid seeing unacceptable aspects of our true self.
Persons might consciously believe, for example, that they are sympathetic listeners, when they are actually driven by an unconscious, unacceptable fear of feeling inferior and being rejected: Thus identifying with the myth or illusion of being a sympathetic listener simultaneously avoids the unpleasant feelings of fear of rejection and subtly obligates others to accept the person because he or she acts like a sympathetic listener.
We wear two kinds of social masks: masks we put on to hide aspects of ourselves from others, and masks that hide aspects of ourselves from ourselves. The former masks we are reasonably aware of, we remove those masks to those we trust the most. The latter seems pertinent here; self-delusions, we are unable to remove a mask we do not know we are wearing. We are driven by thoughts/feelings we are unaware of more often than we’d like to think. In those times we are automatons, acting out based on self-created illusions.
No Fear— We’ve all seen “no fear” bumper stickers, and the no fear persona. Yet no fear is not possible, since fear is one of many emotions on the spectrum of human emotions. Saying “No Fear” is like a rainbow saying “No Red”. Impossible for one, and I would wonder what issue the rainbow has with the color red. So to adopt an impossible position is psychopathological.
‘No Fear’ is a social mask, covering a deeper, unpleasant feeling. No Fear’s true motivation is likely fear of being afraid. This can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms like denial and avoidance of things that make you afraid2… perhaps you might avoid an ambitious job interview, and convince yourself that the real reason you didn’t go was because “I wouldn’t get it anyway”, rather than, “I’m afraid they might not pick me”. Or you might avoid public displays of affection because you fear being perceived as unmanly. As long as No Fear’s true motivation (fear of being afraid) is unknown, No Fear has no choice in their behaviors. They are run by unacknowledged feelings. Unaware, they cannot choose if this behavior serves them.
The Critic— Another example: criticality of others. This can take on many personas. A few: The Know It All, The Critic, The Snob, The Self Righteous. Outwardly, the expression is of superiority. Yet what is the motive for unsolicited and un-constructive criticism? If I don’t love myself (maybe my parents put conditions on me for their love), I may engage in the unhealthy habit of pegging my self-worth relative to others. When I engage in this illusion (that I am only good to the extent that others aren’t), I feel better about myself as long as I see others as less than me. Criticism comes easily, praise is hoarded; when praise is uttered it may sound flat as the disappointment of a competitor. The social mask takes the form of superiority. The uncomfortable truth is the faulty internal logic: I can only love myself as long as you are less lovable. This behavior pushes others away and fails to address the root of the matter; better to work on loving yourself… one simple strategy is to reverse the hoarding of praise and the abundance of criticism.
The Victim— This is a sensitive example. It is taboo to question victimhood, and with good reason: questioning someone’s status as a victim compounds the violation. Yet every true status can also be used as a social mask. So one might adopt the posture of the victim as a social mask. The motives for proclaiming victimhood are many, as I’ve touched on before. The taboo of questioning the victim lends extra protection, making it more appealing as a social mask. The root of the victim illusion may be something along the lines of, “I don’t think I deserve to stand up for myself”.
I’ll Support Your Illusions If You’ll Support Mine
While I’m sure Tart understands the issue, his choice of words, “not really understanding other people” is incomplete; ‘other people’ is only half of the equation. In his example of the faux sympathetic listener, the listener doesn’t understand himself. We create false stories about ourselves to avoid undesirable emotions (fear, shame, etc).
You may be creating this false story about yourself right now: “social masking is true and interesting, and it describes other people, but not me”. Social masking is a tactic everyone employs, so the uncomfortable truth is I do it, and so do you.
But social masking theory involves two parties: the author and the accomplice. We can see why the author creates the illlusion, but what motive might the accomplice have for going along with it? Well, the accomplice might be unaware; fair enough. But sometimes they know it is a ruse, either emotionally (‘something feels yucky about this’) or may be fully aware of the deceit, and still go along with it. The accomplice might say “I don’t want to hurt their feelings”. But even this is social masking. When you decide to no longer be an accomplice to social masking, you are re-writing the social contract. Your new contract goes something like this: “by me calling you on your bullshit, I implicitly give you permission to call me on my bullshit”. No one likes to be called on their bullshit; it’s easier to keep the current contract in place. So I’ll support your illusions, and you agree to support mine. This is less about hurting feelings and more about not allowing someone to continue using their veil to hide from their own uncomfortable selves. A self so uncomfortable that it had us lie to ourselves, and we believed it. When you don’t let them hide from themselves any more, you are telling yourself that you cannot hide anymore either. Terrifying, and liberating.