By Hassan Khan, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on Masks & Facade
One of the greatest barriers to moving outside your comfort zone in life is the fear that you’re not worthy. Feeling like an imposter — like you’re not good enough and other people are going to see right through you. This was my biggest fear growing up, that I would be ‘found out.’ My parents were immigrants, and I spent many years trying to find a sense of belonging. The community I grew up in was mostly white and conservative, so there weren’t many people with my background, let alone those who could relate to my experience as the child of immigrants.
Experiencing self-doubt and insecurity about our place in the world is actually very common, but it cripples many of us to the point that we can’t put our best foot forward. We’re not able to project real confidence or enthusiasm or passion in the things we do, and we’re not able to truly show what we’re capable of because we shrink in the face of our perceived inadequacy.
Perhaps the biggest villain in all of our lives is this feeling that we’re going to be ‘found out.’ So we put on a mask, or many masks. We pretend to be whoever or whatever we need to be — who we think other people expect or want us to be — in order to fit in. I did this. I became whatever my environment told me I needed to be. I hid behind a mask, because masks shield us from close scrutiny. We wear them because we’re scared. We’re scared of being seen or noticed, and of not measuring up. We tell ourselves that without the mask, others will realise that we’re not supposed to be here. And that idea is a heartbreak so inconsolable that we do everything we can to avoid it.
I wonder how many people put masks on as they step out into the world. Is it all of us? Do we all leave our true selves behind in some way while we search for our place in society? I want you to ask yourself what masks you wear. Are you afraid of rejection, a people pleaser, in need of validation, or are you trying to hide a vulnerability and protect yourself? Maybe you’ve guarded yourself in the past because you were worried about being misunderstood. This desire to belong is human, but when we mold ourselves into who we think others want us to be, we’re not able to live up to our true potential. We’re not able to bring everything about us and all of who we are to all that we do. We dim our light in a world that needs to be lit up, in a world that is already dark and gloomy.
Something that has become even more apparent during this pandemic is how important it is to have strong connections and relationships in our lives. How connected we feel to others is actually a strong predictor of our feelings of self worth and happiness. And the more deeply connected we are with others, the more meaning and purpose we have in our lives. Even our neurobiology tells us that we are wired for connection. Connection increases levels of oxytocin, a hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter in our brains to build feelings of trust.
When we wear our masks, though, we’re not able to really connect with those around us, because we’re not able to be our authentic selves. We withhold parts of ourselves, and that withholding can limit our ability to build deep trust. We are left feeling disconnected and lonely, which floods our body with cortisol, the ‘flight or fight’ hormone. Our feelings of social and emotional anxiety are heightened, and we fall further into the trap of thinking that we need to be somebody else to belong. So we wear our masks. How else will we fit into a world that doesn’t understand us? How else will we find those connections that we so desperately crave?
The truth is that we’ll never be able to truly connect if we’re carving out pieces of who we really are. I’m still coming to terms with this in my own life. I’m trying to strip away this facade. I hope I can one day find the courage to leave all of my masks at home. Then I will truly be seen, and I’ll be able to share my gifts with the world.
But maybe that’s also a facade. Maybe the world doesn’t want to see me. Maybe I won’t ever be accepted, since exclusion has been the universal experience of every minority in every land across the globe. The mask is a way to counter the labels and stereotypes that others have placed on me. I am more than my identity, and the mask protects me from inequities that exist in the world. Yes, like everyone, I crave connection, but in the face of indifference and rejection, I yearn for safety even more. And the mask keeps me safe. Maybe it’s who I really am. Maybe it’s who we all really are.
Hassan Khan is a human performance coach and founder of Limitless Humans. He works with elite performers across a number of different industries. He teaches people how to be better versions of themselves and maximise their potential, all based on science. His work is focused on helping individuals and companies build their capabilities to deliver greater results.
Hassan holds an Economics degree, a Law degree, a Research Masters degree in Innovation, and a Master of Business Administration degree, and he is an alumni and graduate of Harvard Business School and the University of Cambridge. In his spare time, he is a hobbyist magician, an avid reader, a keen cricket player and fan, and is writing a book about the power of belief and expectations.