Masks and Projections

By Jimmy Warden

In life, a lot of what we do is based on a projection of who we want to be, and how we want others to see us in the world. This can help us gain clarity in terms of how we act in the world, but it can also be a source of anguish because we constantly judge ourselves, and others also judge us on how well we are performing our projections. After reading a book called Mastery of Self by Don Miguel Ruiz Jr., I have realized that there are some important concepts for us to consider if we want to try to project our true selves or project appropriately within a contextual situation.

Ruiz is a spiritual teacher and guide who is also a descendant of the Toltecs of the Eagle Knight lineage. The Toltecs are an ancient culture that formed in south central Mexico and they refer to themselves as artists of life, with a goal to create the best masterpiece that they can, using Earth as their canvas. That being said, they pride themselves in authenticity and creating alignment within our minds, bodies, and spirits. Often times it is the projections that we want to show the world that can get in our way of being our authentic selves. This is what the Toltecs refer to as “putting on a mask”.

For example, when you go to work, and someone asks you “how’s it going?”, we tend to have an automated responses, such as, “Good and you?” or “I’m doing well, how about you?”, when that might not be the actual truth. This is an instance where we are putting on a mask to project the fact we are doing well, when in fact, we might not be. The interesting part is that we do this far more often than we are aware of. Think about the last time you disagreed heavily with a loved one. Did you let them know or simply put on a mask with a smile to project that all is well? If you disagreed and let them know, did you tell them the actual reasons why? These are just a couple of examples of how we put on masks to project parts of ourselves.

As humans, we have so many parts of us that make us who we are, that we often put on different masks in different situations. For example, when I think of who I am, I consider myself a son, brother, boyfriend, friend, teacher, coach, mentor, athlete, and writer, all wrapped into one. However, a lot of people see me as one of these pieces. My mother sees me as her son, my siblings as their brother, my girlfriend as her boyfriend, my students and colleagues as a teacher, my team as their coach, those that look to me for guidance as a mentor, etcetera. Even I just projected a one-dimensional image on the people who see me as one-dimensional. It is this lens that often pigeonholes us into seeing people for a fraction of who they are.

This can make it difficult to fully understand others because we just see them as that one dimension. It creates an expectation for who we think they should be, so when they are not fulfilling that expectation, we get frustrated or annoyed that they are not doing what we feel they should be doing. For example, maybe “Jimmy the teacher” made a choice that a teacher colleague disagreed with, but the students agreed with because they needed “Jimmy the mentor” or “Coach Jimmy” in that moment. The decision may not have been wrong holistically, but a colleague thought it was wrong through the “Jimmy the teacher” dimension because it didn’t fit the expectation of what they think “Jimmy the teacher” should have done. However, if they knew that I am also a coach and mentor, they would have the ability to understand that aspect of my being, and how it can be useful in the classroom.

Projections and masks aren’t always a bad thing. Sometimes certain contexts and situations ask that we put on a mask and project a fraction of ourselves. For example, if I was at a family gathering, the son and brother in me would be revealed. Sure, I may mention how teaching and coaching is going, but I am most likely not going to roll out a whiteboard and teach a lesson on decimals or draw basketball plays up for my family. In this instance, it is important for me to put on my “family mask”, so that the time we enjoy is a genuine family experience, to which everyone feels involved, and I am not taking over with a different version of myself.

This concept of wearing a mask is often applied in our work places, especially when there are things happening that we disagree with, or merely don’t want to do. Often times we project that everything is okay even when there is turmoil or extra responsibility added to our profession because we’d rather deal with that instead of the challenge of trying to find a new job. However, it is not always a bad idea to respectfully bring up issues in the work place, in attempt to solve any potential problems that may arise in the future. This act of courage also shows another aspect of our identity which is crucial if we want people to see more of us.

Underneath our many masks is our full identity. The accumulation of these masks create our whole self. In order to know which part of ourself is appropriate for a certain situation, it is important that we have a level of awareness of the situation, as well as a level of self-awareness. Once we are aware of a situation and understand what is needed from us, we can have the self-awareness to bring that version of ourself into the situation. This is really how we can start to be masters of ourselves. Through self-awareness, we can also come to an understanding of what versions of ourselves serve us and the world around us, as well as the versions that do not serve us and the world around us.

Having this self-awareness will help us create more alignment with our mind, body, and spirit. We will know what parts of ourselves we need to bring into a situation and we can do that authentically, knowing that aspect of us will be serving the world around us, along with ourselves. This will allow us to create that beautiful picture that the Toltecs speak of. Our life will be a work of art, as each piece of us creates another color or brushstroke, that will eventually accumulate to a full picture. We won’t worry as much about the aspects of ourselves that others feel should be present because we’ll be painting our own picture, not a picture that others want. Instead, we’ll know our purpose, and we’ll put on the mask that we know fits the scene.

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