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The Psychology of the Mask and The Real You

Updated on May 12, 2017
chef-de-jour profile image

Andrew has been writing for decades, publishing articles online and in print. His many interests include literature, the arts and nature.

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Kummattikali celebration masks, India
Kummattikali celebration masks, India
Kummattikali celebration masks, India | Source

Masks and Psychology

One famous name in the world of psychology gave great credence to the idea of the mask - Sigmund Freud. His theory of repressed emotions and energies in humans gave rise to the notion of individuals having a 'second self', a double, a mask worn to help them cope with the stresses and strains of real life.

Have you seen the movie The Mask, with Jim Carrey as lead role? He has a 'stranger within' who comes alive at certain times, becomes a wildly successful hero who just happens to wear a real, found, mask. The inspiration for that movie came from the work of Freud and others.

Masks have always fascinated me. The simple act of putting on a 'different face' and becoming a new person is something I'm naturally at home with. A mask can help to hide the real me.

As a drama teacher and producer of many plays I've seen over time how easy it is for a person to become someone else, with a new voice, new way of moving, new way of thinking and being. Just by covering their own face!

As with many aspects of our culture, the early Greeks introduced the idea of the persona - mask - into their plays and drama. The idea that you could be one person capable of displaying several personas stuck, and masks have played an important role in acting ever since.

'All the world's a stage' wrote William Shakespeare, implying that we're all pretenders some of the time. Many of his plays involve the use of character masquerade to highlight gender and social roles, issues that continue to be of relevance.

As 21st century humans you might argue that we're always masquerading, putting on different masks for different situations? The serious mask for work, the clown's mask for friends,the caring mask for family? Or are we constantly hiding our true selves behind these masks in order to preserve our status and dignity?

Are males more adept at masking their emotions than females? When the mask comes off and we look in the mirror who do we see? In the modern era psychologists have developed this notion - some use it in their work on identity theory for example.

What have the artists, writers and poets made of the mask? W.B.Yeats for example wrote extensively on the inner workings of the mind and emotions. He wrote poems on this subject and later on in this article I want to take a look at one in particular, The Mask, a poem about two lovers.

Masks can be bizarre, plain, scary and powerful. They add mystery and intrigue.

Masquerade (from Italian maschera 'mask')

1. the wearing of a disguise

2. a gathering of disguised or masked people.

3. a false show or pretence.

4. passed off as something else.

5. to assume the character of someone else.

6. to take part in a masquerade.

7. to pretend, to create a facade.

Carl Gustav Jung
Carl Gustav Jung | Source

Jung, Psychology and the Mask

Have you ever felt that in certain situations you're not being yourself? Or you feel obliged to act in a certain way that somehow seems contrary to your natural way of doing things?

Carl Gustav Jung, psychiatrist and psychotherapist, worked out a theory of identity which helps explain why it is we sometimes 'put on a face' and don't feel comfortable with it. He suggested that the psyche is made up of three distinct parts - the Ego, the Personal Unconscious and the Collective Unconscious.

He also invented the concept of the archetype, various aspects of our personality that make up the psyche. These are the shadow, anima/animus, the self and the persona.

The persona is that 'face' we show to the world, our mask, and protects the Ego, our conscous mind. This mask can change according to the demands of society, parents, family, friends, work and so on.

When we are children it can be damaged if too much stress is experienced at the wrong time in development. Thankfully, most of us come through trauma and upset as children and emerge into adulthood ready to take our place and contribute positively to society.

Psychologists who follow Jung's ideas (Jungian analytical psychologists) work with those individuals whose personas are in some way damaged. In effect, the mask has cracked and not been strong enough to protect the ego from unwanted influences.

'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.

It's interesting to note that this quote exactly describes what happens when you're acting in a play or drama! Actors try to convince the audience and themselves that the character they're playing is for real. The difference is, the audience and actors know that the character is in reality invented and is not the true persona. I have to say, sometimes it's difficult to tell the difference!

Jung observed that, when the persona or mask became fixed in a person, problems and issues came to the surface. Individuals were not able to move on in their lives, owing to the fact that they were stuck wearing a particular mask, which made them incapable of looking inside, of adapting to social situations.

Absense of the persona led to difficulties in handling reality. He thought it possible to develop a flexible persona for navigating successfully through life, to help in expressing the true self.

Noh mask from Japan. The same face slightly tilted.
Noh mask from Japan. The same face slightly tilted. | Source
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Masks from Germany
Masks from Germany
Masks from Germany | Source


Humans have been dressing up, applying paint and make up and wearing masks as part of ritual from very early tribal days. Dance, music, drugs, sacrifice and story telling combine to produce powerful cultural ceremonies often performed to appease the Gods, or strengthen ties with nature and ancestry.

Aboriginal peoples the world over have long understood the need for festival, carnival, and shamanic ritual. Masks have helped shape history by allowing the wearer to communicate important messages through spiritual and emotional channels, transcending the ordinary.

More masks from a small town in Germany
More masks from a small town in Germany | Source
Roman theatre masks. Tragedy and comedy.
Roman theatre masks. Tragedy and comedy. | Source

You might want to make a mask!

The Mask-Making Handbook
The Mask-Making Handbook
A superb book with easy to follow instructions so you can make great masks suitable for any kind of occasion. From the grotesque to the animal, you can make your own for little cost.

The Mask In Drama

Masks have been used in plays and drama for thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans certainly used them - many are preserved in museums to this day - to help the actor define the role or change character, and the audience to differentiate between characters.

It is a powerful tool, one which can transform any given situation. Masks have been used to very great effect in modern day movies - just think of the Scream series - and give the actor another dimension in which to exist, as a completely changed personality.

Horror in particular seems to be a perfect genre for the mask!

Mask making isn't such a difficult art to master and it is possible to create beautiful (and scary) masks using the excellent The Mask-Making Handbook available from Amazon. Follow the guidelines in this great book and you can produce wonderful masks at low cost and in little time. Home made masks for parties, celebrations, festivals, dramas.

W.B. Yeats in 1911, a year after he wrote The Mask.
W.B. Yeats in 1911, a year after he wrote The Mask. | Source

The Mask and Poetry - W.B.Yeats

The Irish Nobel prize winning poet and playwright W.B.Yeats wrote many poems that reflected his strong interests in the workings of the human mind. Through his studies of the occult he built up a theory of the soul and worked on it throughout his life, creatively wrestling with the idea that he had an inner and an outer self.

'I think that all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self...'

he wrote.

As a shy and sensitive person he used theatre and drama as counter-balance, bringing Irish myth and history to the fore with his plays at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

His poetry changed over time, the lyrical beauty of some of his early work giving way to more complex, symbolic poetry.

The Mask is one such poem. Two lovers are engaged in a short question and answer session about Love, deceit and trust of the real self.

The Mask

"PUT off that mask of burning gold
With emerald eyes."
"O no, my dear, you make so bold
To find if hearts be wild and wise,
And yet not cold."

"I would but find what's there to find,
Love or deceit."
"It was the mask engaged your mind,
And after set your heart to beat,
Not what's behind."

"But lest you are my enemy,
I must enquire."
"O no, my dear, let all that be;
What matter, so there is but fire
In you, in me?"

Guy Fawkes masks at a demonstration.
Guy Fawkes masks at a demonstration. | Source

Masks and Protest

Masks are sometimes used in demonstrations and marches by those who :

  • don't want to be recognised
  • believe the mask to be a more powerful image.

Recent mass protests by people in various countries around the world, unhappy with recession, poverty and globalisation, have seen use of the so called Guy Fawkes mask. This is a pale, smiling face of a male with strong black moustache and mini goatee beard. It's loosely based on an English rebel catholic conspirator Guy Fawkes, born in 1570.

He was caught below the Houses of Parliament with a pile of gunpowder attempting to blow up King James 1st in an effort to restore a catholic monarch to the throne. Needless to say the whole plot failed.

Guy Fawkes, along with his gang, was executed. That's why on November 5th each year all over England bonfires are still lit to celebrate the foiling of this treasonous plot!

The current design was created by David Lloyd for the graphic book V for Vendetta, made into a movie in 2006, although some claim the mask is older in origin.

Masks and The Fool

Back in time the fool was someone who appeared when things needed livening up, when seriously minded folk had exhausted their ideas and arguments. Usually a male, they delivered comedy, riddles and wisdom couched in colourful language.

The fool could also give advice and suggestions to those who had big decisions to make. Fools were thought well of because they made people laugh, sometimes by embarrassing those who thought themselves above such ridicule and foolishness.

This poem came about because I was inspired by the idea of an exotic, foreign mask covering the real face, disguising true thoughts and feelings.

The masks and carvings are in a friend's collection.


Which Mask Today?

A different person

carved out

of dreams

each day, a

subconscious profile


on the horizon's mind,

silent and deep like

the black behind stars.

You travel through disembodied time.

Your language clicks and spits

out of another mouth.

I talk to you, to myself, reply.

I collect you, put

each idea on a wall or table -

wood,plaster,bronze,copper -

faces ordinary and mad

made serious, you a morning

gargoyle the tide has swept

onto this island.

Who can guess what's behind

your visage; what act

might emerge when the veneer


Dramatis personae.

The little family

you left behind, idiot dancer.

Talk back, to yourself, answer.

You appear to be

out of reach, the light

hiding, revealing you.

Exotic shadow mind.

All I need is a drum

to summon yet more


the rhythm of you

a facial concentration

as you chase portraits down stairs,

shy eyes hidden, yet full soul

heard in love's erupted laughter

after I talk to you, to myself, reply

remove, replace.

Mask Maker


© 2013 Andrew Spacey


Submit a Comment
  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Grateful for your visit and astute comments stessily. This hub began as a series of photographs and a poem but somehow seemed to be wearing the wrong mask! Thanks for the information on WBY, I must delve a bit further into his dramatic work as I tend to concentrate on his wonderful poetry.

    best regards. Chef.

  • profile image


    7 years ago

    chef-de-jour, Your presentation on masks is interesting and entertaining. As an admirer of William Butler Yeats, I was especially pleased that you incorporated his poem and a brief profile on him. So many think that WBY was awarded the Noble Prize in Literature for his poetry, because that is what is most well known, but so much of his poetry flowed in his later years, after the Prize. In fact, the Prize recognized his dramatic repertoire, which combined tradition with innovation. One of WBY's innovations in his plays at the Abbey Theater was to incorporate masks and other elements from Greek and Asian (especially Japanese) plays. So he and his work excellently exemplify the psychology of the mask.

    Also appreciated is your enigmatic poem, "Which Mask Today?", which conveys the prowess and mystery of our natural masks.

    All the votes. Shared.

    Appreciatively, Stessily

  • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

    Andrew Spacey 

    7 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

    Hey gracious thanks for the visit and comment jamiehamann, much appreciated. Fertility! Interesting. A fertile fool frolicking freely. I see.

  • jhamann profile image

    Jamie Lee Hamann 

    7 years ago from Reno NV

    Wonderful read, great poetry with great pictures. Thank you for sharing. Be careful of the fertility idols they tend to work...Jamie


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