Masking the Mask

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COVID-19 and the Narcissistic Plague of America

Since the arrival of COVID-19 on the shores of the United States in early 2020, we have witnessed a step-by-step unmasking of the deeply narcissistic character of America. In this essay, I will illustrate how the ongoing debate around the wearing of masks reflects this core dynamic at the heart of the American collective psyche, and I will offer an alternative approach and suggest some transformational strategies to address the pressing challenges currently plaguing our nation. 

Narcissism and Deficient Emptiness

One of the key insights of Western depth psychology is the understanding that our ego-self, or personality, develops in response to how we were treated in childhood. If we are treated, on the whole, with genuine love, care, and respect, then we are more likely to develop a resilient and flexible ego structure, one that can adapt and respond effectively to changing life situations. If we are abused, neglected, or otherwise violated, then we are more likely to develop ego structures that are overly rigid, brittle, fragmented, and/or that incline toward psychopathology.

However, regardless of how we were treated in childhood, all of us experience a deficient emptiness, a painful feeling of lack at the core of our being. This deep wound expresses what can feel like a fundamental rupture from our inner essence, from what can be described as our true self, that results from not being seen and appreciated for who we really are by our caregivers. Even the most loving parents could not consistently mirror back to us the purity and innocence of our being. So with the repeated rejection and dismissal of what is most precious and true about us—our innocent nature—we psychically disconnect from our true selves and in the desolate void of that severance, a new constructed self, a psychological self, or what is commonly referred to as the “ego”, is born. 

This psychological self, or ego-personality, is who we usually, and mistakenly, take ourselves to be; it is what fills in this void at our core with something that we then rely upon as a familiar sense of self. But the personality is not our true self. It is an imitation of the real thing, constituted by a constellation of mental self-concepts that coalesce to form an overall gestalt of “me”. This more-or-less consistent conglomerate of self-images and sense-perceptions provide us with the felt-sense of being the unique person that we are. 

The personality is an intelligent response to who we thought we needed to become in order to secure the mirroring, love, and attention from our caregivers. To be sure, when we strongly identify with the constructed personality, the immediate and intense experience of the hole of deficient emptiness at our core—the hole that formed as a result of the rejection of our true, innocent self—is effectively avoided or mitigated. 

Since the direct experience of this gaping hole at our core is too much to bear for most of us, the formation of the ego-self is an impressive strategy to avoid feeling the hole of deficiency directly. Once the ego is successfully established, the unconscious human project then becomes the development and implementation of all kinds of strategies to shore up this psychological self and protect it from getting punctured, wounded, insulted, or challenged. These protective mechanisms are necessary to avoid any exposure of the gaping wound lurking just beneath its facade, just below the thin fabric of its mask. 

If we suffered more extreme abuse as children, we may experience this core wound more intensely and thus identify more rigidly with the ego that develops in its wake. This is because in such cases even the slightest exposure of the underlying wound of profound rejection, abandonment, neglect, or abuse, is overwhelming to our nervous systems. In turn, this hyper-identification with our ego results in more extreme measures to protect it from any insult or threat to its structural integrity, including exploiting and manipulating others if it serves our self-interest. This internal process of hyper-identification with our psychological self at the exclusion of our true, innocent, pure nature, and the establishment of oftentimes manipulative strategies to affirm its reality through securing a steady supply of mirroring from others, accounts for the development of the range of character traits and behaviors commonly known as narcissism. 

Narcissism manifests on a spectrum, ranging from common everyday forms of narcissism characterized by mild to moderate ego sensitivity, all the way to pathological forms of malignant narcissism wherein even the slightest insults or perceived threats are responded to with extreme forms of defensiveness and retaliation. What is common to all forms of narcissistic structures (and rest assured that if we have an ego, we are somewhere on this spectrum) is the drive to avoid the raw felt-sense experience of this hole of deficient emptiness at all costs, and to shore up our self-identity structure, our psychological self. 

What distinguishes pathological narcissism from its more common expression is the extent to which one is willing to exploit, manipulate, and violate others in pursuit of one’s self-interest and the accumulation of experiences, or narcissistic “supplies”, that serve to affirm for the individual the value and resplendence of their ego. Pathological narcissists feel little to no empathy for the suffering or wellbeing of others and are quite skilled at coming up with all kinds of justifications and rationalizations for their destructive choices and behaviors. To be sure, they have an uncanny ability to twist facts and weave web upon web of lies and half-truths in order to prove their righteousness, often times successfully “gaslighting” others; that is, manipulating them into questioning their own instincts and/or sanity. 

Narcissistic Defiance and Compliance

The original wound at the core of our being is marked by a sense of rupture from the direct experience of our true, innocent self, from our innermost essence. This disconnect is caused by the repeated dismissals, rejections, or violations of the beauty, purity, and innocence of our true being that we naturally embodied as children. In the face of such painful experiences of rejection, I propose that we tend to adopt one of the following two distinct styles of ego formation:

The first style, what I will call the defiant type, is characterized by a tendency toward intense rage and defiance toward anything in one’s environment that threatens to expose the vacant hole gnawing at them from within. People with this psychological structure have developed a sense of self that is identified with a rejecting posture vis-a-vis the hole of deficient emptiness. By rejecting the experience of the desolate hole, these types are able to keep the pain and terror of the emptiness at bay. Those with this style see themselves as strong, independent, self-righteous, defiant, and courageous, and they carry a (not so) secret hatred toward anything or anyone who is perceived to threaten their sense of entitlement and freedom to do whatever they want, however they want. 

The second style, what I will call the compliant type, is characterized by a tendency toward feeling deficient, weak, and oppressed by anything in their environment that challenges or defies their social justice ideology. People with this psychological structure have developed a sense of self that is identified with the feelings of weakness associated with the hole of deficient emptiness that underlies their ego structure. By identifying with the feelings of deficiency, these character structures divert the raw pain of the emptiness away from embodied experience and into the mental mechanism of ego identification. 

This personality style is characterized by feelings of victimhood, of being the underdog or the oppressed. These types are champions for the underprivileged, the victims of injustice, oppression, or discrimination, and tend to seek forced compliance from all members of society to achieve their ideological goals. Just like with the defiant style, by aligning with victim identity and the compliance virtue, these types successfully divert the intense energy of the core wound away from the immediacy of embodied experience and successfully keep at bay the pain and terror of their core emptiness. 

Each of these character types—the defiant and the compliant—represent a different style of narcissism, each of which is in need of a steady stream of supplies to keep it shored up. The defiant narcissist will perceive any attempt at enforcing compliance as a threat to his or her identity while the compliant narcissist will perceive any attempt to defy social policy on behalf of the vulnerable as a threat to his or her identity. What both of these types have in common is the need to mask their core vulnerability, which is the pit of despair and emptiness eating away at them from the inside out. 

Masking the Mask

All ego and narcissistic structures function to psychologically mask our core wound, that sense of deficient emptiness at our center. This is the fundamental mask of the ego that we all garb ourselves in as a way of avoiding the pain and disturbances associated with the loss of our true self, our essential nature. How we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world are all expressions of our particular style of psychological masking that invisibly shapes everything about us, from our appearance, to our belief system, to our politics, to our interpersonal behaviors. In a word, our egos are the masks that we have constructed for ourselves, covering up our deep sense of deficiency.

With the onslaught of the coronavirus epidemic in the United States, the key collective health issue of whether or not to wear a face mask has divided the country and continues to be a contentious policy debate. This is complicated by the fact that wearing a surgical or cloth mask in public does not primarily protect the wearer from being infected by others, but primarily protects others from being infected by the wearer. This means that only universal mask-wearing offers protection and safety to everyone, and the success of this public health strategy thus depends upon across-the-board compliance. 

Yet, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that universal mask-wearing will save lives and offers the best chance for halting the pandemic, many Americans continue to not wear them in public and even openly protest any kind of legal mandate requiring such compliance. Some anti-maskers have even shot and killed store clerks who attempted to enforce local store policies requiring mask-wearing. 

Without understanding the nature of narcissism, it is difficult to comprehend how a significant percentage of this country can so intensely oppose what is ostensibly a simple and no-risk solution to a public health crisis. However, with a deeper unpacking of our earlier outline of the two types of narcissistic structuring we can begin to make sense of this phenomenon. 

The human face functions as the interface between our inside and our outside, between our deepest feelings and our surface expressions. In the field of neurobiology, facial expressions are analyzed and interpreted as signals that accurately reflect unconscious emotions and motivations. In many ancient traditions, various pneumatic arts such as physiognomy are used to process information from facial expressions and features in order to determine one’s character structure and to gain insights about their inner world. Our face thus functions as an emissary for our ego-self, the psychological structure that masks the core wound lurking just beneath our surface. 

Thus, it makes sense that covering the face in public—masking the mask—could provoke some unexpected psychological reactions and implications. For the defiant narcissistic character structure, wearing a face mask can be experienced as obscuring the flimsily constructed but rigidly held psychological mask that is cathected onto their facial features. By erasing the fragile interface of the psychological mask with a literal mask, the defiant narcissist obviates the very thing that protects him from his own deficiency, something he deeply abhors and rejects in himself and in others. Consequently, for this type of pathological personality, harming others by not wearing a mask in public poses no ethical or moral dilemma, since for him to wear a mask and to expose his vulnerability is experienced as an assault against him.  

Indeed, even the thought of being forced to comply with such measures is deeply troubling and humiliating to such characters, and in more pathological structures it can inspire deep rage and defiance to protect this core need for self-protection. The survival threat can be so visceral and real that the mere suggestion from a store clerk to put on a mask is grounds for murder. While this example is more exceptional, it captures the depth of provocation that covering the face—masking the mask—can engender. In contrast, public health statutes that do not mask the mask, such as the ban on smoking or the requirement to wear seat belts, pose no issue for the anti-maskers, for these do not require the defiant narcissist to expose his underlying deficiency through keeping his ego, represented by his face, under wraps.

This dynamic can therefore help us understand more fully the unconscious forces behind the anti-mask movement and its accompanying acts of defiance and rage. And, as is typical with pathological narcissists, all kinds of manipulative strategies are employed to justify their position, including the twisting of data, outright lying, and employing various forms of gaslighting such as the popular claim in the anti-mask movement that it's actually the pro-maskers who are the selfish ones. 

Another example of such manipulative tactics is the popular claim that some people cannot wear masks for medical reasons and thus nobody should be required to wear masks. Despite the obvious absurdity of such an argument and the self-evident conclusion that someone who cannot wear a mask in public for health reasons should not be out in public in the middle of a pandemic, positions such as this are repeated over and over again by anti-maskers, in an attempt to rationalize away their willing participation in the mass destruction of human life in this country.  

Because the defiant narcissist cannot reveal (neither to himself nor to the world) the true reason behind his defiance, he instead conjures up all sorts of false justifications and rationalizations for why he is so fervently defiant, even in the face of a worsening pandemic. For anti-maskers, the most popular rationalizations include the claim that mask wearing is dangerous, that the pandemic is a hoax or an orchestrated conspiracy, and that the virtue of “freedom” takes priority over the need to upkeep public health and save human lives. 

On the other side of the spectrum, the compliant narcissist actually benefits from wearing a mask and instituting policies to force others to do so. For him, masking the mask serves to more fully underscore his identification with the feeling of deficiency that accompanies his core wound of emptiness and his deep commitment to sacrifice his own autonomy on behalf of the weak and vulnerable. This type of personality structure will take advantage of the (in this instance) legitimate scientific data to further his own project of securing narcissistic supplies for his own self-identity. 

For the defiant narcissist, his face expresses his inner posture of defiance and thus its erasure through masking is a grave threat; however, for the compliant narcissist, his face expresses his inner posture of weakness and thus its masking is not a threat at all but rather an affirmation of his internalized identity of deficiency and self-effacement. The project of forced compliance and mandated face coverings further supplies the compliant narcissist with affirmation of his self-effacing ego structure and its commitment to shoring up victims everywhere.      

In our current situation of the pandemic, the narcissism of the compliant structure happens to align with the behaviors necessary for the greater public good, since the correct public health measures—that is, legally mandated universal mask wearing—are ego-syntonic and match his narcissistic goals. However, in other crises, such as in a hypothetical case whereby we would need to protect our country by using aggressive force, the pathology of the compliant narcissist could easily be as destructive and counter-productive as the defiant narcissists currently are, since they would be more likely to allow themselves and everyone else to be mauled over rather than fight. 

In either case, the phenomenon of masking the mask exposes deep psychological issues, and we are seeing some of those rise to the surface in what is the greatest civic crisis that we have seen in many generations. To be sure, we are currently witnessing in the United States how unchecked narcissism can lead to societal catastrophe and unfathomable loss of life.

The Mask that Unmasks

As discussed above, the ego-self, or personality, is a mask for the deeper wound of deficient emptiness at the core of our being. When we mask this mask with a face-covering, one of two psychological reactions are likely, depending on our narcissistic style. If we are the defiant type, masking the mask undermines our protective defenses and exposes the deep vulnerability of our deficiency, which leads to rage and violent rejection of the face-mask. If we are the compliant type, masking the mask affirms our protective defenses by underscoring our identification with deficiency and our crusade to protect the weak and vulnerable.  

For both of these types, the face-mask serves to expose the deeper mask of our ego-self, the particular personality structure that developed in order to compensate for the profound sense of void at our core. In exposing more clearly our ego-self and its defensive mechanisms, the face-mask is thus an invaluable tool for deeper self-awareness and understanding. Wearing a face-mask paradoxically reveals more of our true face, the place where our inside and outside meet. And in this clearer revelation of our true inter-face, through the process of better understanding the nature of our particular ego structure, we have the opportunity to move one step closer to our inner core, to the very place that we have been unconsciously masking.

This is where the deeper transformational work of masking the mask is possible. Because of the unique power that our face holds as an interface between our inside and our outside, to consciously cover the face can be experienced as a radical act of subversion. In a sense, we are blocking the movement of energy that flows through the face from the inside to the outside, and in redirecting that energy back toward the inside we illuminate more clearly the distinct features of our inner world. 

Thus, when we cover our face we have the opportunity to more consciously expose and turn toward that gaping hole at our center. It is difficult to permit the deficient emptiness to be fully present in our experience because of the painful sense of lack and of desolation that often accompanies it. However, this inner cavity of deficiency, while painful to feel at first, is actually a portal back to our true self, to the innocent, pure presence of true life that flows through our core. So, we want to capitalize as much as possible on the transformational potential that is available to us in this dark time of our outer world, and in this dark space of our inner world.

The first step is to feel into the hole itself without rejecting it (like the defiant type), or identifying with it (the compliant type). When you feel into this hole, you may feel waves of terror, like your guts are being ripped out, or like you are falling into a black hole of emptiness, or it may feel gentle and smooth like silk, or something else completely. See if you can allow whatever arises to come and go, staying present to the immediacy of the experience using the raw sensory capacities of your body and heart as much as possible. This means to touch into the texture of the space inside the hole as if your consciousness has inner fingers, feel into it as if your heart has tentacles, sink your inner teeth deeply into it and taste it with your inner tongue. 

While this may sound abstract if you have never tried this, it's actually a very natural and visceral process, and one that has been recognized as transformational by many ancient spiritual traditions. If it feels safe to do so, you can check this out on your own and see what happens, or find a trusted friend or teacher to hold supportive space for you to explore more deeply. The suggestion is to just be present inside the space of the hole of deficiency with innocent curiosity and without goal or agenda, allow yourself to not-know anything, drop all concepts, and see if you can explore this inner space just like a child might explore a brand-new toy.

One thing that can happen if you approach your experience in this manner is that in time you may discover that the space inside the hole is actually not deficient or painful at all. It is actually just pure empty spaciousness, and vast in its nature. And then, if you allow this experience and stay present and open to it, you may start to sense a flow of living presence gently gushing up from its mysterious depths, filling you with the nourishing bounty of the innocent essence of your true nature. This wellspring of palpable presence is the birthright of your soul, the living waters of divinity that is the essence of life, the magical fluids of creation. 

In the ancient mystical traditions, this elixir of life, this divine nectar that bubbles up from our innermost core, is oftentimes referred to as the goddess or the divine feminine. According to these traditions, she is the essence of our soul, the substance from which life oozes forth into manifestation. The goddess lives in darkness, in the innermost cave of our body and heart. She reveals herself to us more clearly when we consciously shift our gaze away from the surface and squarely into the depths. She is governed by chaos, and she guides through paradox. Her teaching is this: When we conceal what is revealed, what is concealed is revealed. When we consciously mask the mask, the mask is unmasked. 

This principle was known to the ancients, which perhaps is why many religious and mystical traditions maintain practices and rituals that involve covering the face, especially for women. While there is no question that misogynistic forces informed these practices throughout history, at their core lies the principle that our inner essence, the divine feminine, is revealed more clearly through its concealing. The more our objectification of the surface is covered up and divested of our gaze, the more our gaze is turned inward toward the true source of beauty, the divine light that emanates from our core. 

Thus, perhaps these practices were meant to enhance and heighten our ability to feel more deeply into the cave of our heart, the inner chamber of presence where the temple of true life is hidden. So, when we wear a mask, we are not only saving people’s lives, but we also have the opportunity to utilize it as a tool to help us open up to true life, to the wellspring of living waters that flow at the core of our innermost being. 

The year 2020 has been calling us to return to this ancient feminine wisdom, to the art of embodied enlightenment, to the healing of our broken relationship with the earth and with each other. Faced with a situation that requires us to literally go inside, with a worsening pandemic that needs us to efface ourselves through concealing our outer face, we are paradoxically also being invited to reveal more clearly the fluid interface of body and soul that flows through our core. The only way for us to survive this pandemic is if we conceal our outer face—if we mask the mask—which will not only save countless lives, but will also enable us to perceive our true inner face—to unmask the mask—which can then reveal to us the true land of the free, the beautiful essence of our being, our shining inner face of eternal freedom.

Zvi Ish-Shalom, Ph.D., is a professor of wisdom traditions at Naropa University and is the founder and guiding teacher of Kedumah, a contemporary approach to the ancient wisdom of spiritual awakening and personal development.  Zvi is the author of the book The Kedumah Experience and teaches workshops and retreats internationally.


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