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Friday 01-January-10

The Mask Theory of Eccentricity

I've blogged in the past about eccentricity, a topic that is of interest to more people perhaps than might admit it. In musing about the subject, I've come up with the 'Mask Theory of Eccentricity'. I've not done endless research on this, it's just conjecture, though I have studied psychology and hope that it makes useful sense.

The metaphor of wearing masks is not new and we wear them to protect our vulnerable inner true selves. We also need to fit in with society and so wear masks that project social conformance. Masks lie, however, hiding our true selves, albeit with fair purpose in protection and acceptance. They are useful in being largely-positive forms of coping mechanism that help us to handle the difficulties of social life.

My Mask Theory of Eccentricity identifies three styles of eccentricity: Ego, Fear and Truth. Although these are not mutually exclusive and any eccentric may have a combined reason for being so, many will tend more towards one basic driver of their eccentric ways.

None of these styles is bad, by the way. Eccentrics are human too and usually moderate how they behave so they do not harm others. Indeed, eccentrics can be popular as 'interesting people' and often have the advantage of tacit social permission to break more rules than 'normal' people.

The styles may also be deliberate or unconscious. The self-aware eccentric knows the effect they have on others and either adopts the eccentric mask for deliberate effect or does not mind how it affects others. Many eccentrics, however, do not realize the impact they are having and are either confused by the way others respond to them or are blind to the social effects of their eccentricity.

Ego

There is a pattern of eccentricity which is often (and wrongly) assumed as being so for all eccentrics, in which the person seems to have a large ego. People with a strong sense of self also have strong identity needs and eccentricity feeds this by allowing the person to stand out and be different from others. Being different may also get them attention that also boosts the ego. We tend to notice and remember people that stand out, and wearing an eccentric mask will, almost by definition, get attention.

Ego-eccentrics who also seek social acceptance need to be careful in sustaining this by being only moderately different: there is a fine line between difference that attracts and difference that repels. Some may even leverage their difference to take leadership roles, playing on the courage and outspokenness needed to adopt this position.

Fear

In the fear model of eccentricity, the eccentric also puts on a mask to become eccentric. They may dress differently or join fringe social groups or just act in unusual ways and seem on the outside to be larger than life, yet on the inside, they are timid and fearful. The mask of eccentricity acts as a distraction for them, rather than the attraction of the ego-eccentric, drawing away their own thoughts from their fears as they inhabit the seemingly outgoing persona. As a reversal of timidity, the strategy is also often very effective at fooling others into thinking the eccentric is happy and outgoing when they are really cringing inside.

Fear-based eccentricity can be particularly unnerving for others, when the person combines it with some of the more destructive coping mechanisms. Particularly when coupled with a demanding ego-eccentricity such characters can give true eccentrics a bad name.

Truth

The third style of eccentricity is fundamentally different to those based in ego and fear, although externally it can be initially difficult for others to understand this difference. In the truth style of eccentricity, the person becomes eccentric by taking off masks. They often know they need to wear masks for everyday social interactions and do not need to put on extra masks to boost their ego or hide their fear. When they get home and when they are with friends, they can show more of their true self which, unsurprisingly, is unique, nonconformist and generally quite delightful.

Masks are filters and we see the world through them. True eccentrics, in removing masks see more truth, which is another reason for taking down the facade. With an open curiosity and a disregard for rules in which they see no value, true eccentrics are fearless explorers. A conversation with a true eccentric is likely to be wide-ranging and may jump around from topic to topic as the butterfly of thought makes new connections.

The most natural of eccentrics wear few masks ever. What you see is what you get and who they are. They speak the truth as they see it and are comfortable in their own skin with little need for disguise. Curiously, such people are often liked and admired, as much because we want to be like them but are too fearful or caught up in ourselves to let go. True eccentrics who do not fear others are more accepting of them, including those of us who feel unable to expose our inner selves. This acceptance also contributes to the affection that true eccentrics receive.

Many of us still wear masks when we are with friends, and friendships can be based  more in what we want or fear than concern for the real other person. True eccentrics have true friends who accept them for who they are, even if they do not conform.

As well as the likable eccentrics there are also the obnoxious ones who simply do not care what others think of them and seem to eschew masks or other pretence. These may be obsessive visionaries and some of our greatest artists and leaders have been this way. Others are really ego-eccentrics who care only for themselves or naked fear-eccentrics who respond to others with a fight-or-flight reaction.

 

I am a member of the London Eccentrics Club, which, in the great tradition of London clubs, is a friendly gathering of like-minded people. We are also different-minded true eccentrics who have no need or desire for the constraints of fear or ego. The idea of the club is that as you walk through the door you take off the mask and are accepted as you are, a gentle seeker of truth who delights in exploring new worlds with others of a similar ilk and with a healthy disregard for limiting rules.


Your comments


"Mask" or "Shield" ?

It is a dangerous world David, all creatures are resourceful.....sometimes the more vulnerable, the more resourceful.

Perhaps Psychological theory ought to be amended: "....fight or flight or mask(shield)..."???

The larger population is often intimidated by "eccentrics"... they(we) worry "what if they know something we don't??

Again, good article, great perspective.

-- Peter


Dave replies:
Hi Peter and thoughtful notes - thank you.

'Mask' is a term I've seen used elsewhere and it seems to work and resonate with people. A mask is a shield when it protects the person from attack. It is also a devices that projects a false persona.

Vulnerable people, especially when cornered (and they may feel that often) can indeed be resourceful and surprisingly aggressive when they see no other way out. They take off the mask of vulnerability and put on a tiger mask!

Yes, fight, flight, mask/shield -- all are ways of coping.

And yes also, anyone who is 'not like me' can be scary, even the gentler 'true' eccentrics who certainly do not intend to scare whilst just being themselves. 


Very interesting.  I'm working on the French singer Serge Gainsbourg.  Do you know of him? If you saw the recent film about him you know that the director, Joann Sfar, used a life-sized marionette to play Gainsbourg's alter-ego.  But Gainsbourg in his "real"? life also played with masks, notably via the character of Gainsbarre, whom he "invented" to incarnate his more vile social behaviors, whereas, according to those who knew him - extremely "pudique" (modest and shy). I'm looking in the film at the origin of the "mask" - which seems to stem from the anti-Semitic posters of Occupied France.  The notion of shame is important.  (Schandenmask?) But Gainsbourg seems to put forth a socially attractive/reprehensible persona to distract from some inner shame.  There's a strong in-out dialectic going on.  May I quote your article? Can you help me by sharing some of yours sources?  Thanks!  

 -- Ellie

Dave replies:
Hi Ellie. Yes of course you can quote the article. Gainsbourg is known in the UK for his sexy sixties song 'Je t'aime' with Jane Birkin. He also played with masks in his name (Gainsbourg is not his original name). Sources sent via email to you.


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