Mask On/Mask Off

By: Eda Schottenstein

Note the following statements:

1.     Being open about your flaws and struggles helps you live a more authentic and purposeful life (Mask off).

2.     Act the way you want to feel even if you don’t feel that way, and you will likely start feeling better and becoming happier (Mask on).

So, which is it? Is the path to better living paved when we become more open about our struggles, or is it found when we conceal our inner feelings and act like everything is great?

In the Hebrew month of Adar, there is a commandment in the Torah to be happy. In Adar, we celebrate the holiday of Purim, where we wear costumes and commemorate the salvation of the Jewish people of the ancient Persian Empire from Haman’s plot to annihilate the Jewish nation.

We know that G-d wouldn’t command us to do something if it wasn’t possible, which means that happiness must in fact be possible even if we don’t believe it is.

With this in mind, how can we extract timeless lessons from Purim and apply them to our current experience to better understand the meaning behind the mask and the role it plays in living a happier life?

Treating the symptoms. Searching in the wrong places.

We live in a material world where a high value is placed on external forces and their role in bringing more happiness into our lives (i.e. superficial beauty, the amount of commas in our “net worth”, followers we have on social media.. etc..).  

We have insta-filters and digital retouching at our fingertips and more opportunities than ever to don our masks in the “masquerade” of life. Many of us operate on the faulty assumption that our “masks” will serve as armor and protect us from the harmful effects of emotional rejection. The problem is that seeking happiness through these means leaves us on a hamster wheel of “never enough “, sending us further into the abyss of denial, blame and discontent.

The path to happiness: Lessons from Research

Happiness has become increasingly elusive because of the way in which we seek it. People often go to therapy claiming they are unhappy, yet the presenting problem is merely a symptom of something deeper that needs to be uncovered, (often beneath their conscious awareness). For example, financial and relational problems are often the presenting problems, but the underlying issues are lack of boundaries, low self-awareness, low self-worth or co-dependency. In other words the problem almost always starts off as discontentment due external factors (i.e. financial struggles, spousal behaviors, external appearances. etc…), and once exploration begins, they begin to dig deeper and discover that the roots of their discontent often reside within them. This is not to say that a person is responsible for their problems, but the path to change can only be reached if they recognize where true happiness resides.

Happiness is not found in your next paycheck, nor will it be found in the amount of followers or likes you have on social media. Many of us are unconsciously riding the hedonic treadmill where “happiness threshold” continues to increase yet it leads us nowhere.

Esther concealed her identity, but never forgot who she was and never wavered in her faith in G-d. Esther also realized that happiness was not found in externalities, but within herself. After all, a good life is not one in which everything is good but when we see the good in everything.

So back to our question: According to the Torah, happiness is our default state. We would not be given the commandment to be happy if it was impossible to achieve, which means we have the capacity to achieve happiness and contentment.

But we must acknowledge the underlying issue that prevents us from being happy, beyond the symptoms we are treating. (Disclaimer: There are individuals who suffer from clinical depression who may need to seek counseling and/or take medication. This is in no way a replacement for getting the proper help when necessary).

We all figuratively wear masks on some occasions, afraid that people might discover who we really are and not like what they see. It often feels easier to wear armor and know we are shielded from the pain of emotional rejection. But this is a short lived solution similar to putting a bandaid on to treat an infection.

If you are wearing your mask to hide behind it and pretend everything is perfect when it’s not, chances are your unconscious mind is at play, confusing you about the nature of the mask and role it should play in your life. Knowing when to put them on and take them off is essential. There’s a time and place for everything. Know when it is important to be silent, and when to speak up. In other words, handle your mask with care just like Esther did.

When we discover the meaning behind the mask, only then can understand how wearing our mask can indeed increase the likelihood of improving our state of mind. In a classic study, students were told to put pencils between their teeth, naturally mimicking a smile, which activated neural pathways that increased feelings of happiness. Data backs the notion that faking it until you make it is effective- under the right circumstances.

As we often say, it’s not what you do, it’s why you’re doing it that matters.

Ask yourself the following: What role does the mask play in your life? What purpose does it serve, if any?

One in four people experience mental illness. This means millions of people walk around disconnected from themselves and others, wearing masks to avoid the pain of depression, not knowing there’s another way.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe often stressed that the lessons and stories we see in the Torah apply to all generations , so when we look at Purim, what can we learn about happiness?

There’s one thing I know for sure.

Happiness is an inside job.

Happy Purim.

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