Masks have been worn for various reasons in nearly all cultures, since the Stone Age. They have been worn as a form of disguise, by an actor in a performance, as part of a religious ceremony, as part of membership in a secret society, as punishment for a criminal or in celebration of a holiday.

Masks have quickly become part of our normal attire thanks to COVID-19. Most of us are looking forward to the day when it won’t be necessary to wear a mask any longer because somehow the world just doesn’t look the same through a mask. It is uncomfortable, strange, and out of tune with our normal day to day lives. Life no longer looks the same; everything, even people’s faces, seems strangely distorted. Masks hamper conversation, and some spontaneity is lost. Masks remind us that there is an unpredictable “enemy” out there that we need to protect ourselves from, and wearing a mask gives us a sense of control over the uncontrollable.

Hopefully, sooner rather than later, this pandemic will be over and it will no longer be necessary for us to wear a mask when we leave our home. In the meantime, though, there is another mask we can remove, our false-self mask, our inauthentic mask. Our pretence mask. Our what-you-see-is-not-what-you-get mask. Just like when we put our masks on when we leave our home, this one also gives us a sense of control and protection. Without it, we feel vulnerable and exposed. We hide behind it and we hardly ever take it off, except when we feel it is safe to do so. Often this only happens in the presence of those whom we know love us. With them, we sense that it is safe to be vulnerable, because they look at us with eyes of love. When there is a heart connection, no mask is needed. We can be real and be who we are, warts and all, and know that we are still loved. They may not approve of our actions and our behaviour, but we are loved nonetheless. There is no judgment, no rejection. The heart cannot do that. The heart can discern, but the heart does not judge. The heart is truthful and shoots straight, but it does not reject. The heart creates a field of safety, in which it is okay to remove the mask and become vulnerable.

So why do we keep our guard up? Why are we not prepared to be vulnerable? Why do we keep hiding behind our masks and our fake smiles? The simple answer is because we do not feel safe enough to show our vulnerability. Many of us can recall moments when we dared to do just that, the times when we opened up our hearts, only for them to be trampled on by someone from their high horse of judgment and wielding the logical mind as a weapon. As Brené Brown reminds us, “If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.” So we learned to keep up the pretence and not show our vulnerability.

Although you might never be able to tell, because we have become such masterful false-mask bearers, many people are in fact feeling highly vulnerable at the moment. They feel uncertain, anxious, and emotionally fragile. In that state, the last thing they need is some cheap advice or a pep talk or yet another clichéd quote. They just need a safe space. They need someone with a loving, compassionate open heart, in whose presence no mask is required. Times are tough. Let us be there for each other. Let us dare to become vulnerable. Vulnerability creates the perfect field for two hearts to connect. In that sacred space we can truthfully share our story, without feeling ashamed.

If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” – Brené Brown