The Mask Exercise
By Jerry L. Hampton ©

Author's note: This text is written for the community building workshop, but this exercise can be used with many groups using the same format.      You may make one copy of this exercise.


This exercise asks participants to draw one of the mask they wear. It is used in many of workshops to help people go deeper into themselves or to break open a "stuck" group. For most people it feels safe, but there may be a very small few that it scares or they just can not do it.

There are a number of variations of this exercise, but this description is a basic model, followed by a little about variations. The timing for use of this exercise must be carefully chosen or the group may not respond in a vulnerable way. For example, it would seldom be used early in a workshop or when people are in pseudocommunity or have returned to psuedocommunity after going through some of the stages.

Most people wear several masks of  “composure” to protect themselves from judgment and at other times to gain position or to feel safe. Most wear Five masks that have some similarity but are really different depending on the situation. For example, if conversing with a minister, you will wear one mask; when conversing with a subordinate employee, you will were a different mask and a yet different one with a total stranger. During pseudocommunity the majority are wearing a mask that may say: "we have no differences" or "we already are a community", etc. During chaos the mask may change to one that is protective and may say, "don't you dare ask me to speak" or the opposite, "I must speak and get in my say, so I will even if what I say says nothing at all".

The mask exercise allows people to safely look at personal barriers that keep them from being in community (with themselves) or with others. Some people will often become more vulnerable with this exercise than with any other. What they draw is actually not a mask but how they really are in some situations.

Example 1: A very large man, dressed in all black does not say one word during the first day and one-half of the workshop. But it is evident at the breaks he has some power in this closed group of people. Others are not sharing very much. So we pause at about 2:00 pm the second day for a mask exercise. These people really get into it, like child’s play, drawing their individual masks. Then it comes time to share the mask with the others; but only if desired. No one is made to share their mask it is by choice only.

The big man is noticeably anxious as it approaches his time to share. He decides to share. His mask is drawn in the shape of a square. He made one-half of it white with a black eye and the other half black with a white eye. As he stands to present his mask, he is nervously shaking and having a hard time speaking. He says,  “I am a square. I look at everything as being either black or white. This keeps me from having any friends. I know there is lots of gray in this world. I want to change to being a person that is open to others, and not just black or white. I need some true friends.” He then wads up the mask picture an throws it across the room. At that moment, the person setting next to him says, “That was very courageous of you to share that with us. I'd like to be your friend.” Some others in the group follow with similar statements.

Example 2 is a 37 year old family man that had shared considerably. One thing he shared was his dream from the second night of the workshop. It was about a wild panther being a prisoner in the upstairs of his house. His mask was an extension of his dream but he did not realize this. It was drawn only with black, no color. The eyes have a look of fear. Going across the face, is a set of bars, like a face looking from behind bars in a prison. Also, there are several jagged marks on his face representing scars. He talked about how he went into his profession only because his father wanted him to and he had never wanted it and now feels like he is in prison because he knows he does not do it well. He talks about wanting out, but does not how to get out. He stressed he must do it. There are a number of people in the workshop that know him and are served by him. When he finished talking, several of these people showed him love and acceptance and respect for what he said. He did find a way out of his career into what he had always wanted to do. The mask released him “from an eternal hell” (his words) and the wild, confined panther of his dream.

Example 3 A cartoonist mask. He showed you that he lives in a "shell" but pulled down the sides a little to allow us to see into his inner self. Note the hands thrown up in the air to show some of the frustration he feels at confining himself from others.


HOW  TO  DO  THE  MASK  EXERCISE

Materials:


Introduction.

Tell how and why people wear masks and how it can prevent authenticity in communications often presenting the person in a false way. Point out that mask have a purpose in providing safety, like boundaries and that in some situations it would be unwise to remove your mask. But usually it will help relationships if parts of the mask are removed, --some-what like removing the layer of an onion. It needs to be recognized that masks are built during a lifetime and they do change. They tend to get thicker during the middle part of life, then are removed one layer at a time as a person grows older or matures in a place of good self-esteem. You can read the poem at the end of this or a modified, shorter version of it because it.

Share the mask you have prepared before starting the introduction. (see my example mask) Show more than a normal number of symbols in your mask so they will get a variety of ideas from you on how to do their. Explain each symbol of your mask in your own personal terms, being somewhat vulnerable. Break the particiants into working groups of 5-7. Give them 30 minutes to draw their mask using the one sheet of white paper and the provided colors. Ask them to mostly work alone.

NOTE: If you are using fluid markers you will need to use something under the paper to prevent the markers from bleeding through onto a table or carpet or anything else. Take precautions against this to happening by using old magazines or papers under the paper. Caution the people from working working in their laps.

Your task is now to move around the group to keep safety, helping anyone that may get stuck. Make judgments about this because for some few people it is the best for them to be stuck to learn about themsleves. As an example, one man in a group often quoted famous people but said little that seemed to originate from himself. When he tried to do his mask, he perspired considerably and it was definitely hard to do. He did not have a clue of who he was with or without a mask.

It is possible some person may not be able to draw a mask. If this happens, note this to yourself and do not make them do it. Make a point of talking with them privatly to see what they have to say. Do not push! Occasionally someone may make a "scary" mask, perhaps too scary for some groups in what the mask represent. (suicide, murder, incest, etc.) If you see a very frightening mask being drawn, carefully ask about the meaning.

Once they complete the mask, tell them “We will now share our mask as you desire, but only if you want to.” Pick out someone you have observed really working on their mask and that you feel will share their mask. Ask, “Who wants to go first?” There will always be a pause and if no one comes forth, ask the person you chose to start. While the sharing is going on, you can monitor and be prepared to not allow inappropriate comments with judgment to be stated by observer participants. After each has shared once, ask if anyone has more to say. Some will, but hold down any run-a-way in to generalizations. When all have finished, put the mask on the wall.

A variation with large groups: put the people in groups of five to seven and have them share their mask only in that small group. When this sharing is over, have one person speak about the exercise to the entire group. Generally you do this with groups over 25-30 people because you usually can not take time for all to share individually in a large group. In some special circumstances, it may be wise to take the time to share in the whole group.

Take a break, then resume the workshop. You will notice that the room has gotten safer and people will be in a better place.

A variation of this can be to have a professional mask maker come in and teach about making mask and the history of mask through the years. If I do this, I usually reserve an evening because it will take 3-4 hours with a group of 30-40 people.

Below, are two versions of a mask poem. The first poem is in its entirety and the second versions is short and simplier. A group can usually comprehend the shorter poem better.



THE MASK I WEAR

Don't be fooled by me.
Don't be fooled by the face I wear
  for I wear a mask. I wear a thousand masks-
     masks that I'm afraid to take off
  and none of them are me.
Pretending is an art that's second nature with me
But don't be fooled, for God's sake, don't be fooled.
I give you the impression that I'm secure
That all is sunny and unruffled with me
  within as well as without,
     that confidence is my name
       and coolness my game,
         that the water's calm
       and I'm in command,
    and that I need no one.
But don't believe me. Please!

My surface may be smooth but my surface is my mask,
My ever-varying and ever-concealing mask.
Beneath lies no smugness, no complacence.
Beneath dwells the real me in confusion, in fear, in aloneness.
But I hide this.
  I don't want anybody to know it.
    I panic at the thought of my weaknesses
       and fear exposing them.
That's why I frantically create my masks to hide behind.
They're nonchalant, sophisticated facades to help me pretend,
  To shield me from the glance that knows.
But such a glance is precisely my salvation,
  my only salvation,
    and I know it.

That is, if it's followed by acceptance,
  and if it's followed by love.
It's the only thing that can liberate me from myself
  from my own self-built prison walls.


I dislike hiding, honestly
I dislike the superficial game I'm playing,
  the superficial phony game.
I'd really like to be genuine and me.
  But I need your help, your hand to hold
    Even though my masks would tell you otherwise
      That glance from you is the only thing that assures me
        of what I can't assure myself,
          that I'm really worth something.

But I don't tell you this.
  I don't dare.
   I'm afraid to.
I'm afraid you'll think less of me, that you'll laugh
  and your laugh would kill me.
I'm afraid that deep-down I'm nothing, that I'm just no good
  and you will see this and reject me.

So I play my game, my desperate, pretending game
  With a facade of assurance without
    And a trembling child within.
So begins the parade of masks,
  The glittering but empty parade of masks,
    and my life becomes a front.
I idly chatter to you in suave tones of surface talk.
I tell you everything that's nothing
  and nothing of what's everything,
     of what's crying within me.
So when I'm going through my routine
  do not be fooled by what I'm saying
    Please listen carefully and try to hear
      what I'm not saying
Hear what I'd like to say
  but what I can not say.


It will not be easy for you,
  long felt inadequacies make my defenses strong.
    The nearer you approach me
       the blinder I may strike back.
Despite what books say of men, I am irrational;
  I fight against the very thing that I cry out for.
    you wonder who I am
      you shouldn't
        for I am everyman
        and everywoman
           who wears a mask.
Don't be fooled by me.
At least not by the face I wear.
-----author unknown and it has been published in a number of books.



THE MASK I WEAR (shorter)

Don't be fooled by me.
Don't be fooled by the face I wear
For I wear a mask. I wear a thousand masks-
masks that I'm afraid to take off
and none of them are me.
Pretending is an art that's second nature with me
But don't be fooled, for God's sake, don't be fooled.
I give you the impression that I'm secure
That all is sunny and unruffled with me
within as well as without,
that confidence is my name
and coolness my game,
that the water's calm
and I'm in command,
and that I need no one.
But don't believe me. Please!

My surface may be smooth but my surface is my mask,
My ever-varying and ever-concealing mask.
Beneath lies no smugness, no complacence.
Beneath dwells the real me in confusion, in fear, in aloneness.
But I hide this.
I don't want anybody to know it.
I panic at the thought of my weaknesses
and fear exposing them.
That's why I frantically create my masks to hide behind.

But I don't tell you this.
I don't dare.
I'm afraid to.
I'm afraid you'll think less of me, that you'll laugh
and your laugh would kill me.
I'm afraid that deep-down I'm nothing, that I'm just no good
and you will see this
and reject me.

I idly chatter to you in suave tones of surface talk.
I tell you everything that's nothing
and nothing of what's everything, of what's crying within me.
So when I'm going through my routine
do not be fooled by what I'm saying
Please listen carefully and try to hear
what I'm not saying
Hear what I'd like to say
but what I can not say.

It will not be easy for you,
long felt inadequacies make my defenses strong.
The nearer you approach me
the blinder I may strike back.
Despite what books say of men, I am irrational;
I fight against the very thing that I cry out for.
you wonder who I am
you shouldn't
for I am everyman
and everywoman
who wears a mask.
Don't be fooled by me.
At least not by the face I wear.
-----Author unknown -this has been published in many publications.


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