With Halloween around the corner, enjoy new contributing writer Becky Leigh's take on "masking" and her technique to release the tensions we pick up on in every day life.
“The price for ignoring or distorting the body’s messages is being unable to detect what is truly dangerous or harmful for you, and, just as bad, what is safe or nourishing. Self-regulation depends on having a friendly relationship with your body.” – Bessel Van der Kolk, MD
“Masking” is a term used in both neuroscience and psychology. It refers to how we act “out in public,” so to speak; it’s about hiding our authentic emotions because we deem them not acceptable in society.
What does "masking" look like in daily life when we interact with others?
A very mild example is the clichéd “how are you today” / “fine, and you?” greeting. We might ask “how are you?” because we have space to hear if that person truly wants to share, but just as often we say “fine” because we don’t want to share how we’re really feeling. That’s mild masking and most of us do this with some regularity. Wearing the occasional mask can be a healthy and appropriate way to hold boundaries. Even so, all masking creates minor physical tensions in the physical, mental, and emotional bodies that can be effectively addressed with physical exercise, especially yoga, and meditation.
What would more extreme masking look like? Imagine yourself out at a store, and suddenly you realize two people around you are yelling at each other. Since we’re talking about masking, let’s say this argument is about whether or not one of them should / shouldn’t wear a physical mask. I would imagine most of us could easily imagine ourselves in this type of situation...
Or maybe you find yourself as one the people yelling … or maybe you’re being yelled at, with someone telling you how you should or shouldn’t dress or act or feel. Maybe you’re the observer, but you agree with one of them. Maybe you want to rescue one of them. Or maybe there’s no yelling, but there's a tone of judgment, fear, or disgust.
Whatever’s going on, if you connect with your experience in the physical body, you might find yourself gripping and clenching. You might be holding your breath or breathing shallowly, high in the chest. Your hands might be trembling slightly. You might be sweating a little. Your heart is beating a little faster. Our hearts put off a field of energy that can be measured 4-6 feet from the center of the human body. We are in each other’s energy all the time even when we’re not speaking directly to one another, just like two magnets sharing magnetic fields.
NOW, when the cashier asks you, “How are you today?” and you say, “Oh, okay I guess,” then that’s a more extreme form of masking.
And it’s possible that you might not be aware of how you’re breathing in the moment. Only later, at home, when you recall the incident, when you play it back in your head, you notice the physical responses. These types of physical responses signal dysregulation and that we’re outside our window of tolerance; our amygdala is in charge and trying to keep us safe and meet our needs based on automatic programs. When we’re re-acting automatically, we’re not fully embodied. When we’re not fully embodied, we’re more likely to “mask up” unconsciously.
So what can we do? How do we process these interactions and help all the layers of our body know how (and what!) to integrate/release in a healthy way? Kundalini yoga, somatic therapy, talk therapy, shadow work, breathwork, massage…there are numerous ways to help our bodies balance and heal.
Tapping is one of the easiest ways I’ve found to help the body process suppressed emotions, and it’s also great for consciously rewriting our subconscious programs. EFT Tapping in particular is a great modality, but tapping can be as simple as gently tapping the chest or patting the thighs: it’s easy, effective, and can be done anywhere. I’ll outline a process below, but just tapping the body and affirming “I am safe in my body now,” and “I love and accept myself unconditionally,” can be very calming and soothing at any time. Often, little pictures or movies (memories) of various interactions will arise: Those times we bit our tongues. Those times we didn’t. And as we tap, we can just let those pictures drop away and surrender to the love and wisdom of the earth to hold and compost them.