Costumes and Masks: When Do You Get to Be the Real You?

As Halloween approaches, I’ve been thinking about costumes and masks. The ones we wear when we go to a costume party, yes, and also the ones we wear every day. A few years ago, I decided to make my own Halloween costume. I saw a children’s chicken mask marketed as a “chicken disguise kit,” and I thought it was a riot. I found a cape that I could wear with it, and some leg warmers, and decided I would be Super Chicken for Halloween. Even though the costume was silly, I felt so comfortable in it. It was liberating and fun. I totally loved it!

Rewind to over a decade earlier, to my first salaried job after college. I landed a position as an assistant director at a tutoring company, and while I was excited about the job, I also felt uncertain about it. I wasn’t sure I was qualified to work with children and their families, and on top of that, I had no idea how to dress! I remember going shopping and buying all of these “grown-up” clothes – hideous loafers and ill-fitting business slacks – that were excruciatingly uncomfortable to wear.

I remember feeling like such an impostor at first; I didn’t feel like myself and I was afraid that if I let people see the real “me,” they would know that I wasn’t equipped to be in such a position. It took some time for me to decide I could be perceived as an adult while still being comfortable in the workplace. I have found a way to dress as myself (instead of what I imagine a “grown up” version of me would wear), and still feel professional. But that doesn’t mean I don’t still wear costumes from time to time. When I go to a fancy dinner party, if I decide to wear heels (which is rare), I still have the sense that I’m wearing a costume. This is also true when I’m getting ready to meet new people.

For me, anxiety tends to spike when I get somewhere and I don’t know anyone, or don’t know anyone very well. I will think long and hard about what I’m going to wear (which isn’t typical of me) and might even change a few times. More importantly, I might start to present in a way that’s not authentic. It’s tempting for me to put on a social “mask.” I know now that I feel most connected and at ease when I’m with close friends who are accepting of all of my different sides. When I’m in new situations where I might be a little (or a lot) uncomfortable, I try to remember that feeling that I have when I’m with my good friends, and try to borrow a little bit of it.

There are times when we might have to wear a costume or mask, and times when we might be compelled to wear one, when it’s actually not necessary. I try to be mindful now when I sense that I am wearing a costume or mask, and if it’s appropriate, I coach myself to be more authentic and vulnerable. When I go to a social event and enjoy a genuine connection with a new person, I feel proud and also pleasantly surprised. For me, this can only happen when I’m being my authentic self, rather than pretending to be someone I’m not.

This Halloween, when you’re out enjoying the holiday and you see folks in masks and costumes, I encourage you to think about how you can appreciate all the different sides of yourself, even in different social contexts. And, whenever possible, seek out those situations where you can feel totally at ease. We all need to feel like we can be completely at ease as our truest self at least some of the time, even if that can only happen when you’re alone.

anxiety counseling, self-image