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                                        “Image Is Everything.”

       

So says the sign outside of a local barber shop. The statement caught my attention and caused me to consider its meaning and its implications both for individual and relationship health. Is image really everything? If it is, perhaps we need to rethink the role that image plays in our day-to-day lives. If, indeed, image is everything, perhaps we need to work much harder to cultivate and maintain the right image. The statement on the sign invites several relevant questions about the issue of image.

What does “image” mean to you, and how important is it in your life? First, in your personal life how much attention do you give to image? How much time do you spend on your physical appearance in terms of clothing, hair style, and physique? Secondly, in your relationship life how does the issue of image affect your choices of spouses and friends? What specific image are you trying to project or present to people around you? What price are you paying in your effort to create and sustain that particular image? How concerned are you about the way you are seen or perceived by people around you? To what extent do you base your appearance and behavior on image?

The bottom-line question is this:  “Is image really everything?” As we consider our responses to these questions we probably would downplay the notion that “image is everything” but admit that image is certainly something. The importance we place on our image could be measured by a number of assessment tools, such as the time and money we invest in image, or the amount of emotional suffering we experience when our image is criticized or rejected by other people. Another useful assessment tool is the extent that we wear a mask.

Before we proceed too far, perhaps it would be helpful to explore briefly a common health issue related to image, specifically, imageitis. The Baker’s Dictionary of Current Relationship Terminology (which I refer to as the BDCRT) provides the following definition and description.

“Imageitis” (sometimes referred to as “maskitis”) is a troublesome disorder caused by acute inflammation of the anterior image gland. The primary internal symptom is usually experienced as an excessive need for approval from oneself or from other people. The primary external symptom is most easily observed behaviorally in the usage of relationship masks designed to deceive other people for manipulative purposes. Effective treatment requires a revision of the person’s internal belief system regarding approval along with the discontinuation of mask-wearing. For persistent cases the individual should consult a professional therapist who specializes in relationship therapy combined with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). If allowed to continue, imageitis often leads to Mask Addiction. For these severe cases active participation in MAA (Mask Addiction Anonymous) is recommended. With the completion of recommended treatment prognosis is positive for individuals who are committed to personal growth and relationship health. (Page 301, Baker’s Dictionary of Current Relationship Terminology, 2012 Edition)*  

With these thoughts in mind let’s dig a little deeper into the process of becoming a master of mask madness.

Masters of Mask Madness . . .

“Everyone wears a mask.” This statement was made to me in a recent discussion with a friend. Could it be true? Do we ALL wear masks? The simple truth is probably a “Yes” in that no human is immune to or exempt from the mask. For some people the usage of the mask is minimal, usually limited to a few occasions when the person was unaware of putting on a mask or when the temptation was not resisted. However, for other people the usage escalates into full mask madness. They become masters of disguise through the wearing of masks. Afraid and unwilling to leave home without their mask, these individuals develop over time a full-blown mask mentality in that mask-wearing becomes a way of life. The first decision to make each morning is “which mask to wear today.” The image they want to see in themselves or the image they prefer to present to other people determines the specific mask chosen for that particular day. Their personal image for that day is altered by the chosen mask.

Our culture seems to encourage a mask mentality. The mask is often marketed as the best way to create and maintain a preferred image. Promoted by prevailing media marketing the statement “image is everything” is followed quickly by the recommendation “therefore, put on your mask.” Frankly, we’re often attracted to Broadway musicals, Hollywood productions, and television sitcoms that highlight the mystery of the mask. We sit for hours enthralled by the music and amazed by the plot of the “Phantom of the Opera,” mesmerized as we try to determine the identity and secret of the mask-wearing Phantom. Whether we’re watching Jim Carrey in “The Mask” or Anthony Hopkins in “The Mask of Zorro,” we’re captivated by these masters of disguise. Along with the people who were rescued by the Lone Ranger we cannot help but ask, “Who is that masked man?” With this constant bombardment from media marketing it’s no wonder that we develop imageitis and cultivate a mask mentality.

However, we could be a mask-wearer in denial. We proclaim “Not me! I don’t wear a mask,” while at the same time we lie about personal information to deceive and manipulate other people. Every lie is evidence that a mask is in place. If I resort to lies to protect myself in some way or to present myself to other people for some purpose, then the conclusion is clear:  “I am the masked man.”  

Motives for Mask Mentality . . .

As we explore the issue of image in our personal and relationship life, we cannot help but wonder about motives.  Why are we so tempted to put on a mask that changes the image that we see or that other people see? How is it that we are so prone to maintain a mask mentality? We pose the questions and the mask-wearer responds, “Why wear a mask? I have my motives.” Over the past thirty years I’ve worked professionally in therapy settings with many individuals and couples who were struggling with image and mask issues. In these discussions at least two primary motives emerged that explained the usage of masks. Perhaps you can identify with one or both of these motives.

Motive #1:  “I wear a mask to protect myself from critical people.”

The first motive involves a desire to protect ourselves from other people whom we perceive to be critical and rejecting toward us. This motive grows out of a mindset of fearing other people. I am afraid for other people to see me for my true self. If they see the real me, they will criticize and reject me. Since I want to receive approval and acceptance, I therefore have to wear a mask to keep them from seeing the truth. Another possible mindset is that we fear ourselves; our self-criticisms pose a major threat to inner peace and joy. In this mindset I become the “other critical person” so I don a mask to try to hide from myself. This self-created false image is preferable to the ugly truth that we don’t want to accept. This motive reminds me of one man’s honest self-disclosure:  “If you knew me like I know me, you wouldn’t like me either.” A mask allows us to develop a false image that we find more attractive and that, hopefully, other people will find more appealing.

One explanation of mask-wearing suggests that the mask is simply a defense mechanism that plays a positive purpose. Besides, what’s so bad about trying to defend and protect ourselves from a harsh and critical world? No doubt we can connect with that explanation, at least to some extent. When asked “How are you?” we typically respond with “I’m fine,” even though the literal truth is that we’re in the pit of despair or the middle of a crisis. Perhaps we can connect with a song popularized by The Platters entitled “The Great Pretender.” The lyrics contain the following thoughts:  “Oh, yes, I’m the great pretender. . . My need is such I pretend too much . . . I seem to be what I’m not, you see. . . . Too real is this feeling of make-believe.”  We might not be the Great Pretender, but as a “Little Pretender” we don a small mask and cover up with little lies. Whether Great or Little, we know what it’s like to pretend to be something that we’re not, particularly in regard to other people. Predictably, this pretense lifestyle involves the wearing of masks.

Once begun, the wearing of a mask can evolve into a mask mentality, that is, a way of life that hinders the growth of the real person behind the mask. The mask promotes shame and fear; we don’t like who we are and we’re afraid that other people will discern the truth about us. Just as the bank robber wears a mask as a deterrent to recognition our motive is to prevent detection and to avoid conviction by critical people. Instead of choosing to mature the inner man we choose to maintain the outer mask. The focus on the outer mask is usually much easier and less painful than trying to change our inner negative features through positive growth.   

Motive #2:  “I wear a mask to present myself to crucial people.”

A second motive for mask-wearing involves a desire to gain acceptance and approval from other people, especially those we deem to be crucial to our success and happiness. This motive may suggest that mask-wearing represents an “offense mechanism.” We choose to go on the offensive in order to get something that we really want, and we’re willing to use a mask to attain it. We see this motive at work when people spend money they don’t have to sustain a lifestyle they cannot afford in order to gain acceptance and approval from other people. This pretense lifestyle is actually a mask they put on, and they pretend to be something they’re not to get something they really don’t need in the first place. A mask can take many forms, such as houses, cars, or wardrobes, particularly when the underlying motive is to present a picture that is different from reality. For these individuals and couples the size of their financial indebtedness is highly correlated to the type of mask they’re trying to wear for the sake of popularity, status, and success.

The mask often enters the scene of personal relationships and causes many breakdowns and collisions along the Relationship Highway. For example, consider the tendencies to use masks in the arena of dating. A friend recently told me that she had joined several Internet dating sites in hopes of finding her “special someone.” Her initial experience had been disappointing and frustrating, particularly in regard to the false advertising that she had encountered from other site participants. According to her, people are prone to present a profile in which they automatically lose fifty pounds, grow three inches taller, and get ten years younger! A ten-year-old photo seems preferable to one more current, especially when the site member knows that the current physical appearance would be more of a “turn off” than a “turn on” for potential dates who prefer beauty over brains. Internet dating clubs offer unique opportunities for people to practice image development through mask manipulation. The use of masks in marriage relationships has become commonplace and the marital masquerade is often viewed as a “normal” lifestyle. However, by definition the marriage mask involves dishonest behavior that leads to deceitful betrayals. As the predicted conflicts escalate the marital mask is transformed into a martial mask, and the relationship is damaged or destroyed as each spouse becomes skilled in the use of “martial arts” weaponry. Needless to say, the mask poses a major threat to the health and happiness of any human relationship.   


Not too long ago I went to a theater with family members to view the movie “Avatar” in 3D. Like most viewers, I was amazed at the special effects and intrigued by the story line. More recently I saw the movie again in a televised format. Again, I was impressed with the creative technology inherent in the movie, along with the character development and plot resolution. My spin-off thinking led me into the world of what I call “Avatar Relationships.” By definition an “avatar” is a visual or graphical image you create or select to represent you in another environment, such as a virtual chat room or video game. A few months ago I watched as one of my grandsons developed his personal avatar for a new video game he had purchased. He selected his avatar’s basic body form and then with skill and precision fine-tuned the facial features and chose the clothing befitting his preferred virtual counterpart. The final product was indeed a work of creative imagination and computer implementation. I was impressed!

But how does the use of avatars in the virtual world relate to Avatar Relationships in the real world? The answer is simple:  we present our avatar image through the particular mask we choose to wear. We become skilled at acting; we pretend to be what we present that we are. The created image is false in that it is not who and what we really are, but we hope that the other person accepts the projected image as the truth. We may try to justify the usage of avatars by believing “what other people don’t know won’t hurt them.” Prior to marriage a man is prone to wear an avatar mask in order to project the best image and capture the lady’s heart. Besides, he’s convinced that he could never attract a potential spouse by just being himself. Then, after the wedding he removes his mask and reality is realized. With deep regret and in painful agony the wife is blindsided with the harsh reality that she is now married to a stranger. She was a victim of marketing fraud and false advertising. To be fair to the guys, it is also true that women use the same deceptive device; the mask is the lure she uses to hook her husband. Understandably, both spouses wonder “what’s real?” and question the sincerity and genuineness of their Avatar Relationship.

Without a doubt this second motive is inherently self-centered and self-serving. With selfish motives we attempt to manipulate other people to gain advantage over them and/or to persuade them toward specific attitudes or actions that will satisfy our wants and needs. In this process we use masks to influence and control other people’s behavior for our personal gain. Our mask-wearing is a negative manipulative behavior that hurts and hinders the growth of a healthy relationship.    


Methods for Mask Management . . .  

 

While we might occasionally enjoy an innocent masquerade party in which we wear a mask and play a role, in real life we need to reject the mask as an ongoing feature of both individual and relationship behavior. Clearly, we must become skilled at mask management. Just as my personal computer needs a Task Manager for desired efficiency so I need a Mask Manager for personal and relationship proficiency. To become an effective Mask Manager we need to improve our skillset in controlling our thoughts and behavior. Let’s consider four methods for better mask management that involve work in both attitude and action.


Integrity instead of Inclusion . . .

First, we need to determine our approach to image based on personal integrity rather than popular inclusion. We must let go of the delusion that we must have everyone’s approval and acceptance in order to be happy and healthy. Mask removalis a prerequisite to both true identity and personal integrity. If we value personal authenticity and genuineness we will take off our masks and be ourselves, regardless of the reactions of other people in terms of approval or rejection. The gain of acceptance through mask-wearing incurs a price tag that is too high:  the price of compromised integrity. Therefore, we must choose to travel through life without masks; we must present to others an image of the person we really are, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. We must not compromise our integrity in order to gain some level of inclusion in other people’s clubs, groups, or organizations. Our presentation is clear:  “It’s me—not my mask!” Our practice of integrity exceeds our preference for inclusion.  


Honesty instead of Deception . . .

Secondly, we need to increase our commitment to honesty over deception. In other words, we understand that mask-wearing is inherently dishonest and deceptive. The answer to the question “What lies beneath the mask?” is simply “Lies, lies, and more lies!” We make a clear choice: enough of the lies! No more mask manipulation! Admittedly, our commitment to truth runs the risk of potential criticism and rejection from other people, but we will prefer to be alone and truthful than to be in the crowd and dishonest. Sometimes we can learn a lot about life from cartoon characters, such as Popeye the Sailor Man. He certainly had his shortcomings, but he refused to wear a mask of deception. His words expressed his commitment to honesty over deception.

         

                                              

"I yam what I yam and I yam what I yam that I yam
 And I got a lotta muscle and I only gots one eye
 And I’ll never hurt nobodys and I’ll never tell a lie
 Top to me bottom and me bottom to me top

That’s the way it is ‘til the day that I drop,
 What am I? I yam what I yam.”




Reality instead of Fantasy . . .

Thirdly, we need to reject the alluring face of fantasy and instead face reality, that is, to accept ourselves as we really are—with our inherent strengths and weaknesses. We seek to celebrate our strengths while we strive to survive our weaknesses. We know we have our “warts” (that is, personal shortcomings), but we refuse to hide them through a fantasy of mask-oriented deceptions and manipulations. I have long valued the philosophy about physical appearance contained in an old poem expressed in everyday language.

    “I know how ugly I are,
     I know my face ain’t no star
             But I don’t mind it

     For I’m behind it
    The folks in front get the jar!”
        (Author Unknown)

Furthermore, my choice of houses and cars and wardrobes will be based on what I can afford financially without incurring irresponsible debt, regardless of the level of acceptance and approval I receive from other people. The lure of a “Fantasy Island” lifestyle is often hard to resist, but we will reject the lure in favor of a lifestyle based on reality.   



Humility instead of Pride . . .

Fourthly, we need to grow in the kind of personal humility that overcomes unhealthy pride. Negative pride maintains the fantasy pattern of “image through mask-wearing,” whereas positive humility promotes reality patterns for being ourselves without excessive worry regarding approval and acceptance. Through humility we increase our willingness and ability to admit our wrongdoings and make appropriate apologies, even if the acknowledgment reveals a personal weakness or shortcoming. Mask removal allows us to be human and, thankfully, it’s okay to be human.
 


Concluding Thoughts . . .                        

                                                                     

Travels along the Image Highway are challenging and confusing, particularly in the heavy traffic of cultural trends, media marketing, and selfish pursuits. A safe and successful journey requires that we develop a healthy approach to the issue of image and that we practice effective mask management. We will work hard to examine our current belief system about the role of image, and we will strive to exercise self-control in the usage of masks that deceive and destroy. Any pursuit of image will not occur at the expense of our integrity, honesty, reality, and humility. In their professional practice physicians honor the Hippocratic Oath in that they are committed to do no harm. We would do well to adopt and endorse a “Hypocritic Oath” through which we avoid the hypocrisy of mask-wearing in favor of doing good to others with sincerity and integrity. Healthy image development includes the effective management of masks, particularly in the arena of human relationships. With this fact in mind, please allow me to share a mask management tip in the form of a short poem.

         “Managing Your Mask”


    To grow a good relationship
    Remember one important tip—
    Complete this vital daily task:
    “Just be yourself! Remove the mask!”
           (Dr. Bill Baker--2012)

 


I wish you well as you travel through life on the Image Highway. As you work toward a mask-free journey you will certainly encounter many “bumps in the road” in the form of ind

ividual and relationship struggles. These highway obstacles may slow you down or require an occasional exit for some repair work. However, the refusal to wear a mask will equip you to see the road ahead with realistic clarity and will enable you to travel toward your destination with increased integrity and personal peace.

And, as always, I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys.  

 


(Blog #1315 Mental Health)

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*BDCRT: This book is a fictitious compilation of terms used by Dr. Baker in his writings about relationships. It is not available in local bookstores or on the Internet.


                             
 
 
 
 
VIDEO:  To see a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses workaholism please click on the image to the right or click here. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 




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         (Mental Health Blog #1315)

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