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Personality Masks: What They Are & How to Spot Them

In this article, we talk about personality masks.

Mastering this topic has been a great source of strength and freedom for me. No longer do I take things so personally, I’m able to see people as they are, and the aggressive and obnoxious among us no longer frighten me. It has helped me understand that often our most salient character traits are a facade erected to conceal who we really are behind it.

As Robert Greene says, “Your mind tends to circle obsessively around the same subjects. But each person you encounter represents an undiscovered country full of surprises.”

So let’s start our journey into this uncharted territory by talking about what personality masks are.

What Are Personality Masks?

Note that I use the term in a different way to social masks, which you can think of as the everyday, benign masks we use to function in the social world, like politeness and small talk.

Personality masks are personal, idiosyncratic, and fairly permanent personalities we adopt to present our ideal self to the world.

We adopt them to bridge the gap between who we really are and who we think we should be. They differ from our true self and serve to conceal it. Many times we adopt them so that others will accept us and to meet expectations.

Yet they become so habitual that we’re unable to distinguish our real selves from our masks. We also become unable to distinguish others’ real selves from their masks, which brings us all kinds of confusion.

Always remember that people are trying to present their best self to the world. They conceal desires for power, antagonistic feelings, and insecurities. They also hide positive traits that they judge to be unacceptable.

And it’s crucial you remember that personality masks serve to conceal the exact opposite trait. You can distinguish personality masks from a person’s real self when they exhibit a trait that seems forced, overdone, fake.

All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances, / And one man in his time plays many parts.

William Shakespeare

Let’s look at some common examples so you get a concrete idea of what personality masks are.

Examples of Personality Masks

An overt trait often conceals its opposite. People who thump their chests are often big cowards; a prudish exterior may hide a lascivious soul; the uptight are often screaming for adventure; the shy are dying for attention. By probing beyond appearances, you will often find people’s weaknesses in the opposite of the qualities they reveal to you.

Robert Greene

Machoness and excessive masculinity is ultra-common among men. If you’re biologically female, or a male that can integrate his feminine side, you may be intimidated by excessive machoness and believe that those displaying it are as powerful and strong as they appear.

I won’t debate that there are naturally various degrees of masculinity. Yet you must understand that excessive, forced, fake machoness is really a mask, a smokescreen that hides the very opposite: weakness, emotionality, sensitivity. There’s a part inside of the male that is terrified, and the machoness is their way of repressing and denying it.

In a similar vein, chronic aggression is another personality mask. The chronically aggressive have a great need for control. Their energy covers up layers of insecurities and anxieties. They have greater feelings of helplessness or frustration than normal, feel chronically insecure and fragile, and cover it up. Look for the wound, the insecurity, the helplessness. See the frightened child within to cut them down to size.

Human aggression stems from an underlying insecurity, as opposed to simply an impulse to hurt or take from others.

Robert Greene

Another is excessive confidence. I’m sure you’ve met the type who seems a little too self-assured for it to be natural. Perhaps they spoke loudly about their achievements to make sure others would hear, walked with an exaggerated swagger, wore eye-catching clothes and accessories, or made up things for dramatic effect. You can sense something is off, but it’s not clear what.

As you might expect me to say, this excessive, advertised confidence is actually a symptom of the exact opposite. The person feels unseen and unloved, so they go all out attempting to grab attention and stand out.

Paradoxically, real self-confidence doesn’t loudly broadcast itself. Why would it? Self-confidence is the kind we generate in ourselves. It needs no external validation.

When looking for cues to observe, you should be sensitive to any kind of extreme behavior on their part—for instance, a blustery front, an overly friendly manner, a constant penchant for jokes. You will often notice that they wear this like a mask to hide the opposite, to distract others from the truth.

Robert Greene

Another common one is excessive boasting. This is similar to the mask of excessive confidence, except it has to do specifically with the person’s feeling of success or failure. Rest assured, those who boast about their successes tend to feel like failures on the inside. They advertise their accomplishments to feel recognised and valued by others.

How to Detect Personality Masks

In theory, we all naturally possess the tools required for a supreme understanding of other humans. But in practice they’re still very underdeveloped, meaning we’re completely unable to see who others really are.

The Naive Perspective

The explanation for this inability can be found in our childhood and our long period of dependency, when we experience the need to idealise our parents. We’d be overcome by anxiety if we thought they had frailties, so we ignore them and explain them away. We wind up viewing them through this distorted, idealistic lens.

Throughout our long period of immaturity, we tend to transfer our these idealisations and distortions to our friends and teachers, and compare them to those idealisations. Our opinions of people become laden with emotions: veneration, admiration, love, neediness, anger.

In adolescence we inevitably start seeing the less-than-noble side of people, and we realise a chasm separates our imagination of them from the reality. Determined to forge our own identity, we swing the opposite way and now tend to exaggerate people’s negative qualities.

And after spending so long seeing others through our emotional needs – at least 15 to 20 years – it becomes a habit we can barely control.

This view of people is called the Naive Perspective. It wraps us up in childish illusions about people. We’re incapable of seeing people as they are.

The NP makes us feel sensitive and vulnerable. When we analyse the words and actions of others, we tend to misinterpret their intentions. We project our feelings on to them, and we lack a clear notion of what they think or what motivates them. Our attempts to influence them are based on the assumption they want the same as we do.

We think we understand people, but we are viewing them through a distorted lens. In this state, all of our empathic powers are rendered useless.

Robert Greene

You must realise the Naive Perspective in yourself and start working against it. Here are some maxims to live by:

  • People have a unique character that includes their desires, fears, memories, and worldviews,
  • Their actions and words are mostly a reflection of their character, not of you,
  • They hide their weaknesses and accentuate their strengths,
  • They experience the world quite differently from you, and you can intuit this through their behaviour, habits and body language.

it is not one universe, but millions, almost as many as the number of human eyes and brains in existence, that awake every morning.

Marcel Proust

Ignore Words

The harshness of life tends to make us turn inward. We tend to spend our day running circles in our head: churning over the past, pondering the future, and worrying about our probelms. We end up stuck in the head, with no mental space left for simple observation of others.

The main reason we’re incapable of seeing people’s personality masks is because of our verbal fixation. We love talking, and we’re masters at carefully choosing our words to have the right effect on others. Words are mostly part of our conscious behaviour, which we control. They’re a powerful smokescreen, especially when we use convincing facial expressions to bolster them.

You must learn to look past the verbal and observe what leaks out unconsciously. Learn to pay less attention to people’s speech and more to their tone of voice, their look, body language, and energy. This is where we reveal things that we don’t want to express verbally. Even small gestures and habits reveal a lot. Delve into them, and you’ll realise how little words mean.

Interrupt your inner monologue and pay attention to the feelings and sensations the person provokes in you. Trust in them, because they show you something you tend to ignore. Then try to find a pattern in these signs and analyse them.

Look for other small hidden details that subtly reveal their character: how they tip waiters, their dress style, what excites them, who or what they idealise.

Seek excess in people’s character. Any excess, like those I mentioned earlier, is likely a false personality they have concocted to hide their true character.

Let’s go deeper into how to read people.

Body Language

Nonverbal communication cannot be experienced simply through thinking and translating thoughts into words but must be felt physically as one engages with the facial expressions or locked positions of other people.

Robert Greene

The first step to reading body language is to start with yourself. Recognise how little you observe, and release your continual need to interpret and categorise. Think less of what you want to say and turn your attention to the other person, attune yourself to them.

Open up the senses and relate to others on physical level, absorbing their energy, not just their words. Pay attention to their gestures, tone of voice and overall energy or demeanour. Sense and register the information they’re transmitting through these media. You might notice that their words contract this other information. Try to imagine why that is, and get a sense of what’s going on inside them.

With experience, you’ll match gestures to emotions, notice more, and discover a new way to relate to them.

No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.

Sigmund Freud

Keep these steps in mind:

  • Start by catching one or two facial expressions that contradict the person’s words,
  • Begin with the face: Be attentive to microexpressions and forced expressions,
  • Listen to the voice: it says a lot about people’s level of confidence and contentment,
  • Then go to the body: look at posture, their hands, their legs,
  • Be aware of mixed signals: a positive comment with negative body language, or a negative comment with a jokey tone of voice and smile. If it happens a few times, it’s likely they’re hiding unpleasant feelings towards you.

In all of this, you must be more interested in them than yourself, without being obvious that you’re gaining intel. Be relaxed and open, and get them to talk. Once you establish a person’s baseline mood, you can pay attention to deviations.

By doing this repeatedly, it becomes ingrained, and eventually you go beyond the Naive Perspective. You get a peek of the smorgasbord of human personality, so varied, so multidimensional, so idiosyncratic, and you’ll experience the powerful benefits of it.

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