Removing the Mask of Mental Illness

Mental illness still receives a lot of stigma across our respective communities, and across society at a grander level. The roll-on impact of this is many people feel the need to hide, disguise, or mask their mental health.

Using the term ‘mask’ or ‘masking’ concerning mental health is complex. On the surface, we may see this as people using the concept of a ‘mask’ to hide their symptoms or mental health challenges. When we dive deeper, we begin to learn that there are many ways this ‘mask’ can influence the ways those with mental illness are perceived and treated.

The mask of mental illness

While some people may use a mask to disguise their mental illness, their mental illness can also become a mask that separates who they are from not just themselves but those around them.

Depending on symptoms and how mental illness presents, this mask may take over, becoming more visible and overpowering. This can lead to the mask-wearer seeing themselves in only one narrow definition: as someone who suffers from a mental health illness. As they begin to lose sight of themselves, others around them may do the same, seeing only the mental illness rather than the unique and multifaceted individual underneath.

Wearing this mask can become burdensome, but removing it can be just as difficult and painful. The longer a person remains behind the mask, the more challenging it is to hold onto who they are without it.

The lack of an identity that is unconnected to their mental health is frightening and makes removing the mask even harder. The more an individual struggles to connect with their deeper self, the harder it is for others to do the same. Failing to foster deep connections with oneself and others can lead to more isolation, loneliness, and oftentimes, increased severity of mental illness symptoms.

The power of self-awareness

Mental health conditions can be lifelong battles. We don’t recover from them like the common cold or a stomach bug. For many people, they may never go away, but we can learn to cope and handle them in positive ways.

One way to cope and help remove the burden of the mask is though increased self-awareness.

What is self-awareness?

Self-awareness is the ability to see yourself clearly and objectively through reflection and introspection. It’s a process of acknowledging the different aspects of the self, including traits, behaviours, and feelings. As a psychological state, self-awareness allows us to develop acceptance for the different ways we exist and the other sides to our personality within different situations.

Why is self-awareness important?

Improved self-awareness has the potential to enhance nearly every experience you have. It’s a personal tool and practice that can be used anywhere, anytime, to ground yourself within the moment and realistically evaluate yourself in light of a given situation or scenario.

How can self-awareness help with removing the mask?

Through developed self-awareness, it’s possible to start building a more balanced and authentic picture of who we are - beyond any mental health challenges. The more we’re able to say ‘this is my mental illness, it is not who I am’, the easier it is to remove the mask and embrace who we are.

Five ways to become more self-aware:

Building your self-awareness is a rewarding tool. It is worth remembering that you might not always discover parts of yourself that you like - and that’s okay. It’s all a part of the process. The goal is not to develop/discover a ‘perfect’ version of yourself but an ‘authentic’ version of yourself.

Here are five ways to get started:

  1. Create space - First and foremost, it is essential to create space in your thought processes for self-awareness. Carve out some time to sit and reflect daily. Consider the ways you have engaged with others, what you enjoyed or didn’t. Ask yourself, if you faced the situation again, what would you like to do differently?
  2. Practice positive self-talk - Self-talk is the internal narrative we have about ourselves. Self-talk can have a significant influence on the ways we perceive ourselves and the world around us, which is why practising positive self-talk is vital. Try and catch yourself when you find yourself thinking something negative about yourself. Ask: Where is this impression coming from? Is it really true? How can I reframe this positively?
  3. Try journaling - Journaling is a great way to process your thoughts and keep track of insights and realisations as they arise. A good journal practice is to write down three things you are grateful for about yourself every evening from that day. This process can help you find new facets of your identity that aren’t linked to your mental health and raise awareness for who you are.
  4. Consider your ‘best future self’ - Another great way to develop self-awareness is to embrace and evaluate situations where you feel you let yourself down. Instead of spiralling down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts, ask yourself ‘what would my best future self do?’. Think about the thoughts, actions and words you would use. This process helps you tap into other ways of thinking and viewing the world around you and how you can interact with it.
  5. Utilise mindful self-compassion - Mindfulness is about building our sense of self-awareness, creating a greater connection with our bodies and emotions, and a stronger presence within our immediate environments. Combining mindfulness with self-compassion - the ability to accept all parts of ourselves - helps to boost self-awareness and embrace every version of who we are.

Take away message

Developing self-awareness takes courage. It means making a conscious and deliberate decision not to be held accountable to only one part of yourself - your mental illness - and to forge a new narrative for who you are on your terms. It can help to remove the mask and grow your identity in positive ways.

It’s a process and one you need to commit to for the rest of your life. As you change and grow, remember to nurture a continuous practice of self-awareness for who you are as you go.

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