behind the mask

Written for my portrait class. The assignment is a double self-portrait, one of our "outer self" and one of our "inner self" or the self that we don't show to others, and we were to write a paper about what's "behind the mask."

I swear, one of these days I'll write something that's not crossposted from a class assignment...

What is behind my "mask" of public persona? What is my "inner self" which I don't allow most people, if anyone at all, to see? What do I hide from public view?

Frankly, just about everything.

I have met people with Asperger's syndrome who are more socially apt than I am. I can't take more than an hour at parties because I get exhausted and drained doing nothing more than sitting, drinking soda, and trying to make awkward small talk with people; in fact, people who are now my close friends have told me that they thought I hated them when they first met me-- I'm that bad at basic social situations. I like books more than people because books didn't make fun of me all through middle school. When I take personality quizzes, I rarely score anywhere below the top percentile on introversion, and I don't even have to jimmy the results. They simply don't make them much more introverted than I am.

What that means is that generally speaking, I present a fairly blank mask to the world. It's not so much that I control or suppress my emotions or thoughts as that I never quite learned to display them in the first place. Often this comes across as cold or disdainful to people who don't know me (or who haven't been warned by people that know me); I get asked a lot if something is "wrong" or if I'm "okay" when I'm just staring off into space, which I suppose means that my "neutral" expression often gets read as anger or sadness, or at the very least off-putting. All it really means is that it's extremely hard for me to physically interact with people I don't know well. I generally don't have a problem expressing abstract opinions or information, probably because of time spent in high school debate, and I have very little trouble being expressive in writing or artwork, but ask me about myself to my face and I won't have a damn clue what to tell you.

Most of my feelings, thoughts, and desires are going to totally fly under the radar of someone who's just "reading" my public persona, because that's about as informative as a blank check is to someone's bank balance. Growing up as a Southern evangelical Christian, I was subjected to enough well-meaning youth-group leaders whose entire profession was attempting to befriend me in order to convert me that I have a basic distrust of interpersonal relationships. I basically believe that to tell people what you want, or what affects you, is to give them a license to punish or manipulate you by withholding or obstructing your desires or using your triggers against you, so I tend to avoid revealing myself to people until I've established that they're not going to try to mess with my head. Most of the time, my "mask" is calculated, consciously or unconsciously, to attract as little attention and give away as little information as possible.

However, I'm a fantastically terrible actor. It's not in my nature to invent another persona to hide behind. I lie by omission, not commission. When I was part of the drama team in high school (ironically, I have a bizarre number of friends who are actors and performers) I worked behind the stage, running the lights. My costume was black clothing and a headset. Pretending to be another person is just as, if not more, draining in the long run as telling the truth about yourself; either way, you're telling a story, whether it's your own or someone else's. It's simpler to wear a blank mask than full Kabuki makeup.

So what is it that's "behind the mask?" Feeling. Passion. Desire and fear. Thought and belief, spirituality and sexuality, anger and joy. Anything that I perceive as potential vulnerability gets edited out of my public mask. It's all concealed by a blank facade like a stained-glass window behind a plaster coating, because the congregation is afraid of people throwing rocks through the glass.

Is it necessarily a bad thing? I would guess that most people find it incomprehensible, or at least a little sad, that I find it that difficult to open up to other people. Sometimes I wish it were easier to get along with strangers in everyday life. It's definitely hell on my love life, since it means I can flirt about as well as a brick.

It conflicts strangely with being an artist, since my artworks and stories are all based on outworkings of personal issues and conflicts, but I'll theorize that my creativity is a natural reaction to it and an outlet for all the mental/emotional turmoil that gets bottled up as a matter of standard operating procedure. I don't find my artwork personally threatening because the artwork is removed from myself and thus becomes universalized. Instead of it being about just my problems and fears, it becomes about anyone who feels that fear or struggles with that problem. It invokes compassion, not derision, because as an artist I can make someone feel what I'm feeling as well.

Art might not replace the mask, but it can provide a look through the same eyeholes.

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thus saith Liadan at 1:33 AM


Anonymous Anonymous saith at 4/02/2007 2:41 AM...  

I know what you mean about not giving off/out information to prevent it being used against you. I have to constantly remind myself to react to things here--I'll have natural, unconscious responses to or opinions about things, but I have to consciously choose to express them. It takes effort to outwardly react to things, which I guess implies that my default reaction is not to respond outwardly at all. I think that's why I can't go out when I'm tired--if I don't have the energy to play myself (for lack of a better way of putting it) I end up doing the non-responsive blank wall thing which in turn makes people all upset and weirded out. So...guess all that to say to things: (1) Terabil is a profoundly stupid place with a profoundly unpleasant set of social norms and (2) score one for writing something that resonates with people struggling with the same problem

- Bridget

Anonymous Anonymous saith at 4/23/2007 10:41 AM...  

please check out our blog at

we'd love to dialogue about art and masks and religion

Blogger just me saith at 6/15/2007 6:07 PM...  

Deep stuff.

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