Masks and Projections: Getting Beyond the Small Talk

/ Photo by S.AlSadhan /

Have you been to a party before where the main topics were breast implants, home improvements, and who is sleeping with whom? Small talk can be fun to a point, but it can quickly descend into verbal junk food. Sooner or later we yearn for more meaningful conversations.

My husband and I met a dear friend who is Buddhist practitioner and published poet for brunch at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago. We found a lovely corner table with cushions. She told us about a talk she had just attended by the transformational poet, David Whyte. We were jealous. He is an engaging speaker.

During his talk, David Whyte told a story from ancient Ireland. One day the people of a village noticed a band of invading warriors lining up along a ridge overlooking their valley. The villagers faced off against the warriors on the opposite ridge. The invaders drew their weapons and let out their battle cry, ready to charge. The villagers, instead of drawing their own weapons, all turned to one side… and simply stepped into the light, disappearing.

This says so much to me about the ways we choose to encounter aggression and the perception of threat.

This story reminds me of the principles of Aikido. In Aikido, harmony is the first goal, rather than jumping fast into an act of self-defense. In an article on the Tao of Aikido, we are reminded that “it’s better to defuse a situation and avoid combat.”

How much is war based on an assumption of what the other party is going to do? How much is the quality of our relationships based on our assumptions of who the other person is?

Our conversation with our friend continued, and we began looking at how we share in relationships.

  • Are we always protecting, defending an image or a projection of who we are?
  • When do we risk sharing our true selves?

We asked more questions:

  • Do we feed into each other’s projections of who we think the other person is or can we relate to each other from a fresh, vantage point?
  • Do we wear the masks of projection or can we remove them for a more honest declaration of ourselves?
  • When we are relating to each other’s projections, are we really relating?
  • Can we let go of the façade and how might this enrich our ability to relate to each other?

The following is from a compilation of notes from our conversation:

Walking Billboards

The common notion of relating can be like two billboards facing each other across a roadway. Too often we merely advertise our work or social selves. The mask of me is relating to the mask of you. Your projection of me is relating to my projection of you. We expend an exorbitant amount of energy defending and protecting this manufactured version of self.

Conversations are based more on projecting an image of personal and professional status. This is a form of social marketing rather than relating. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and emotions are taboo because they could tarnish one’s image.

Who are we anyway?

Who do you see when you look in the mirror? When other people relate to you, who do they see?

  • Are you a wife, a husband, a parent, a sister, a son?
  • Are you a lawyer, a cashier, an engineer, a writer?
  • Are you wealthy, poor, middle class?
  • Are you someone’s boss, or low man on the ladder?
  • Have you survived rape, war, violence, or just been an alien to those around you?

Make a list. Go ahead. Get detailed.

Once you’re done, read the list carefully. Study it.

Then ball it up and throw it out.

Recognize that the list isn’t you.

We fall into the habit of defining ourselves by the roles we play in life. We get attached to our personal histories and the social masks we wear. At first, we form the mask. But if we never take it off, eventually the mask forms us.

Ideally, we must cultivate a fluid sense of self. Who we are is not fixed. We can choose from many expressions of the self, rather than a fixed identity. Once we recognize that, we aren’t so busy projecting and defending images of who we are. We just are. Our conversations become more intimate, fluid, and truthful.

Intimacy requires a level of spiritual maturity

It feels good to share a life story, to talk about a divorce, a loss, a phobia, but how many of us have faced rejection in doing so? You hope to unload your burdens onto compassionate ears, but it doesn’t always work out. A young woman shares her rape experience and her friends turn away. A man admits his gambling addiction, and his bar buddies laugh it up.

We do need to set some boundaries when sharing our personal stories. That which is vulnerable, that which is most private or most sacred, these parts of ourselves must be protected, revealed only in the proper environment.

If you reveal your life experiences without discernment, then it can become yet another layer of projection. Your friend stops seeing you just as a best friend, but as ‘the woman who got raped.’ Your friends don’t see you as their buddy anymore, but as ‘the guy who has an addiction.’

In other words, we do sometimes legitimately need our masks. But we must always remember when we are wearing them. And we must cultivate situations and relationships that allow us to regularly remove them.

Seek like-minded friends who share your spiritual values. Seek relationships with people who respect both your struggles and your victories, and recognize that neither defines you.

Don’t forget to ask yourself what your own spiritual credo is. Once you establish your own spiritual values, it will be easier to make contact with those like-minded friends. Your life stories will be in safe-keeping. And you can lower your mask. That’s when real intimacy begins.

3 comments on “Masks and Projections: Getting Beyond the Small Talk

  1. Christine says:

    Hi Michelle,

    I so enjoy your writings! Just wanted to acknowledge what you said about being careful who you share your past history with or present personal information. I have made the mistake of “removing that mask” with the wrong people. It’s like a false intimacy is developed and it can sure work against you. I have experienced telling very personal and private information about myself to people and then having the person think they know the “total” me or “real” me. It feels infuriating but I was the one who created the situation. Hmm, hope this makes sense to everybody. Also, I hope it’s okay to ask you a question that maybe you could write on? Free Will, what’s your take on it? Why is it that when one intellectually believes in free will they still get stuck in feeling like they don’t have it. Intellectually one knows that they have choices in life but emotionally one still feels choiceless. Why does free will in regards to transcending current situations in ones life have to feel so torturous? And how do you know if what your trying to “transcend” can actually be transcended? Sometimes during painfully difficult situations I wonder why “transcending” my current fate has to be so difficult. Does it always have to be this way or can grace be given at some point to smooth the ride out? Anyways, just wondering what your psychic thoughts were on this topic. As a psychic you see peoples current fate and I’m wondering if you see how free will usually enters the situation and the why’s and how? Ugh, having a hard time finding the language I need to explain my thoughts. I apologize if I’m not clear.

  2. Christine,
    It does help to have a safe container to share one’s life experiences. A safe container is someone we know who is a compassionate and non-judgmental listener. When we share with a person who isn’t spiritually mature, then our old wounds break open, and we end up feeling even more vulnerable. That’s why we all need spiritual and like-minded friends. Great questions about free will! I will address these questions in a blog post. You explained your thoughts very well. Comments on a blog are meant to be conversational, and a natural and welcome extension of the original article. Thank you for your comments and questions!

  3. Radha says:

    Wow Christine ! that was honest. How wonderful of you to share what I’m sure many of us undergo – right from finding out that ‘friends’ are not quite the friends one thought they were, to your thoughts abt transcendence. For me: I’ve just let go of trying to transcend anything. I look at where I am, how I can realistically get to where i want to be and try and get there. I’ve discovered if I try for what works for me without majorly upsetting others then it mostly brings everyone else along in its wake… I hope I make sense. Love and luck.
    I believe in grace because its worked for me – just ask from the bottom of your heart.

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