THE MASKS WE WEAR AT WORK
I was discussing with one of my colleagues at MCBHappier what to write for this blog post and she said, “Hey, Halloween is coming up so let’s do something about masks” and the first thought I had was, “Yeah, how we wear masks at work and how we need to remove the masks we wear and show who we really are” but then I realized that’s too simple. I always need to go deeper.
So let’s go deeper.
The most common reference to the mask is what famed psychologist Carl Jung called the persona, meaning, the ‘mask’ we show in society to please others. Jung’s view was that we can’t throw away our persona as it helps us to function, but when we become more integrated and more accepting of who we truly are, the persona becomes a more pliable thing, it morphs and becomes the face we wear that is both who we are but also respects the needed boundaries and ways in which we all must be to function in society and in different situations.
When we lose sight of this delicate balance is when we become that strange 'fake' in public, that off-putting 'on' that feels false and mannered to people because, well, it is.
We often find out what our persona is when we’re very young. When I was a boy, I grew up in a very strange and disturbing childhood home. As an adult I didn’t want to show my strength which was how in touch I was (am) with all of my emotions and the emotions of others, a strength birthed from my dramatic start.
One of my specialties is working with men and teens who are very much in touch with their emotions, which is something that freaks most people out. We are still part of a society that wants men and teens to be stoic and emotionally pensive. We don’t like, nor trust, men who show their emotions via tears or admitting they’re frightened and pensive.
I spent most of my adult life trying to find the middle ground between who I had to be to survive a strange and violent childhood, and being the stronger and more decisive version of myself. Today, in society, I show the side of myself that is the more decisive and also very feeling and aware. I’ve consciously found that middle sweet-spot emotionally. My focus is the authentic fostering and conveying of that persona. It’s the sweet-spot I work on with my coach (yes, coaches worth their salt are being coached as they coach) and it’s the persona I wear in life.
I’ve talked with so many clients who came from difficult childhoods and who have had trauma’s when they were younger. How do we take the darker aspects of our past, the parts of us that feel inadequate and less-than, and integrate those into our current persona in life and in business? What do we show that respects the boundaries that are necessary in business and in our work life, while also being authentic to ourselves?
That is the question, isn’t it? So much of today’s business life is a formal interplay of nuances and what people aren’t saying. It’s a game of hide and seek with emotions. We are still living in a world where emotions aren’t respected, nor wanted, in business. We like things to be compartmentalized and we like to have people simple carry out directives, get things done, and then report back when finished.
I’ve worked for much of my life in businesses primarily in New York City. New York is very buttoned up. People like things done in an extremely factual and efficient manner. Like a virtual assembly line and yes it's very efficient and it's with great pride New Yorkers do very, very good work, and yet…yet, the one thing that everyone I coach tells me when I meet with them in these Offices Of Efficiency is a lack of emotional connection in their work, of a lack of feeling they are contributing to something larger, of a lack of drive and connection.
It’s not remotely new to say things aren’t working for many people in the ‘fact based’ ways of being in offices everywhere. I even see it take place in the so-called ‘progressive’ entrepreneurial companies today. There is a deep distrust, yet burning desire, for emotions and human connection in the midst of so much decisive actions and check-list living.
The only thing we have control of in this life is how we decide we want to function in our careers and in life. We have to decide how much of our true self we want to show at a job, in our careers - how much of our persona we wish to expose. If we expose too much, then others can’t take it in. They become threatened and afraid and may lash out. They may say, “I just need you to get this done” and then off they run because, in their minds, the only thing that matters is that you do the paperwork necessary and call this person or that person and get it done. How you feel along the way is immaterial in the larger scope of getting things done.
On the other hand, if you don’t show any part of your genuine, emotional humanity and instead feel you have to put on a persona of The Boss and rarely show who you truly are then your employees never know who you truly are, they only know a purely constructed persona which is the surest path I’ve ever seen for a bosses distrust on the part of their employees.
There is a middle ground that has to be achieved. There is a sweet-spot of honesty where we are who we are in our careers, and yet we are also a construct that can function in society. I always find this most obvious in the people who are very successful. They exude a ‘not needing to prove anything’ feeling. They aren’t hiding behind corporate speak (and the inflected voice of corporate talk where you can sense someone is trying to patient, which is the last thing they truly feel), nor are they spouting the rhetoric of business. They are talking person-to-person and are still playing a certain role in their role. It’s a blending of authenticity and a curious construct that is conscious and needed.
Our goal in our careers is to find that middle place. To be who we are in our work lives, while also knowing there is a prescribed role that others will expect us to play, and need us to play. Exposing too much is simply too much for most people, and exposing too little causes people to distrust and question.
But in the end, this is the rub when it comes to masks and personas - once we become conscious of what persona we’re showing, and how much of it feels right and doesn’t feel right, the more we question why we are presenting ourselves as we are. And that’s when change can come in like a winter storm.
We may realize we’re sick of being something we aren’t, and that we’ve been working in an industry where radical self-expression isn’t welcomed and that’s when some of us change jobs and move to different industries where the balanced persona we show is welcomed and wanted.
The goal for all of us is the same: to feel we belong. To find out where we want to spend time in our work life, where it feels ‘right’. To be able to step back from our lives and see how we’re living and bravely ask “Is this working for me anymore?” Many times when we do that we realize the answer is something has so change. And the first step towards that is easing up on how we’re functioning at our current job/career while we take action to find a new career home.
Action on a daily basis.
We must be careful in living out our prescribed personas in life. If we’re not conscious and careful we lose consistent connection with who we truly are as we adopt the role of the needed persona on the part of our colleagues and say and do things which go counter to what we truly want to say or do. We lose touch, and most often we aren't aware of it.
It’s a slippery slope if we don’t gain purchase by remembering that such conditions are the perfect opportunity to find out what we truly want and who we truly are.
It’s why jobs and careers define us and tell us who we truly are. Most of us as adults spent half our our lives living our careers. It’s a vital part of our lives and if not lived consciously, can be our downfall. Of course, the opposite is true and that’s how a well-lived and fearless stance in embarking on a thrilling career can bring a kind of unprecedented joy.
Carl Jung wrote in 1940 something which is wildly relevant today. As he noted, careful what you project in this life as you may become what you are not.
“Every calling or profession has its own characteristic persona. It is easy to study these things nowadays, when the photographs of public personalities so frequently appear in the press. A certain kind of behavior is forced on them by the world, and professional people endeavor to come up to these expectations. Only, the danger is that they become identical with their personas-the professor with his text-book, the tenor with his voice. Then the damage is done; henceforth he lives exclusively against the background of his own biography. . . . The garment of Deianeira has grown fast to his skin, and a desperate decision like that of Heracles is needed if he is to tear this Nessus shirt from his body and step into the consuming fire of the flame of immortality, in order to transform himself into what he really is. One could say, with a little exaggeration, that the persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is.”
- Carl Jung / "Concerning Rebirth" (1940). In CW 9, Part I: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.