Sophocles is sometimes credited with having introduced the idea that, in the theatre, spectators should be able to identify with the characters. Two thousand years later, Shakespeare went further and suggested how we might also identify with the actors. “All the world’s a stage,” says Jaques in As You Like It, “And all the men and women merely players.” But it was not until 1959 that the dramaturgical metaphor for human life was theorised fully in sociologist Erving Goffman’s seminal The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
Goffman invited us to think of our social interactions in terms of roles and acting. Whenever we are with others we are always “performing”, trying to control how we appear to them, consciously or otherwise.
It’s a powerful metaphor, but Goffman himself cautioned against pushing it too literally lest, like all metaphors, it eventually breaks down. The point at which this one starts to buckle is when you ask about the dressing room.
I suspect that most people who find the theatrical analogy appealing assume that we spend our days performing for others, but that our costumes come off and the acting stops when we are in seclusion or with close friends.
But why should we credit the backstage self with more authenticity than the public one? After all, it is often easier to avoid confronting who we are when alone than in company. Delusions of great talent or wit are hard to sustain when others fail to be dazzled.
Most things change according to their situation and each variant reveals another aspect of their entireties. To say we are only ourselves in one kind of situation is as nonsensical as saying water is only itself when liquid, and that steam and ice are just performances.
That leaves the idea that we are always in some kind of role in some kind of scene and that there is no actor behind the mask. That is closer to the truth, but undermines the dramatic conceit. When all the world is a stage, there is no dressing room and so no greasepaint to put on or remove.
From the consulting room to the wisdom of folk psychology, the language of masks has become ubiquitous. Much of it goes back to Carl Jung, who thought that we all hide our true core to some degree, and called our masked self “persona”, from the Latin for – you’ve guessed it – mask. The aim in Jungian analysis is to get to know the faces we’re showing to the world and allow more of our real self to show through. There are echoes of this through the therapy world.
It’s not a bad ideal in many ways. But once we start adopting the language of masks we’re constantly in danger of getting tied up in knots trying to work out whether we’re “being ourselves” or not. Surely there’s a sense in which we’re always ourselves, whether we’re showing our feelings or “putting on a brave face”, being polite, a helpful neighbour or whatever. It wouldn’t help to show our emotional, vulnerable sides at all times, and slotting into social roles does not mean being false.
If you resort to humour when you’re hurt, for instance, someone could comment that you are “wearing a mask”. But it might be a coping strategy. On the other hand, if you’re always showing a cheerful face to the world while harbouring feelings of bitterness and hatred, that might prevent others from seeing a significant aspect of you and therefore create a barrier between you and the world.
Rather than worry about whether you’re being “real”, it might be more helpful to ask more specific questions, such as whether a coping strategy is working or not. Are the costs too high? So if it’s humour, do you find it stops you connecting with others or even getting acquainted with your own pain? It’s also important to consider whether you are excessively attached to your roles, and whether some of your social roles clash with core values.
So it may not be a question of dropping the masks and revealing a shining authentic self underneath. We could, however, usefully examine the roles we adopt and be flexible about them, embracing all our nuances and complexity.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England