Pandemic Masks and Psychology

Here we are in the middle of a pandemic, and whether or not to wear a safety mask covering one’s nose and mouth in public has become a highly politicized issue. Let’s put politics aside, however, and – in a coping context – look at some psychological speculations about why some people will not wear a pandemic mask.

To get a feel for some of the dynamics I am proposing, let’s take an extreme example, a narcissistic personality disorder. Extreme narcissists have very fragile self-esteem and need regular “booster shots” of praise from others. On the outside, narcissists are the self-proclaimed omnipotent ones who claim to know best, but inside they are filled with self-doubt and feelings of incompetence, being unloved, and worthlessness. These inner core impulses are very threatening to the narcissist psyche, and must be suppressed and kept hidden or else they will flood the holder with anxiety.

Narcissists must constantly fight against letting these impulses out and having to face them. Thus, they need continual praise, support, and validation from others. Those who disagree with them, or who challenge them, must be bullied, subjugated, and defeated to provide reassurance that, “I am in charge.”

The narcissist mind is like a balloon filled with “I-am-perfect” air. If it develops a small leak that threatens the self-perceived perfection, the leak must be quickly plugged or psychological chaos will ensue. Any circumstance that threatens that I-am-perfect air must be quickly dispatched.

The pandemic mask. For a narcissist it is a leak in the balloon. The mask signals vulnerability – a need for protection. Vulnerability means weakness, and weakness is a dire threat to the narcissistic psyche: “Wearing a mask tells me and everyone that I am not perfect.”

According to this analysis, the macho bravado of going without a mask is simply to cover up the fact that, deep down, perhaps at an unconscious level, feeling incompetent, inferior, and unworthy makes the narcissist fear that wearing a mask would put those insecurities on display for all to see. For the extreme narcissist, that would be a fate worse than death.

Am I suggesting that all those who do not wear a pandemic mask in public are narcissists? Absolutely not. I am suggesting, however, that there is a strong likelihood that wearing the mask can activate internal conflicts in insecure people: the macho guy who fears showing any sign of weakness in himself; the son, daughter, or spouse who fears family criticism; the young person anxious about being ridiculed by peers; the vain woman who fears looking older or less attractive; the member of a group who fears ostracism. All these people are tormented by insecurities at some level of their mind, and the mask makes these self-doubts visible to oneself as a mirror, and visible to others as a projector.

There is, of course, a coping lesson here: Accept your emotions and your insecurities. Do not let them dominate you and point you toward denial of who you are, and toward avoidance of facing your life challenges. Rather, let your emotions guide you to making empowered decisions based on solving a problem at hand. In short, be “secure in your own skin.” Choose actions not because you want others to judge you on their terms, but because you judge your actions to be in your best interest. Knowing your limits is not weakness; it is an enormous strength.

Wearing a pandemic mask is not succumbing to your demons; it is demonstrating personal empowerment, autonomy, and confidence in being able to face risk in an intelligent way. That’s what we call coping with stress!

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