Psychotherapist Nicholas Rose asks: Is a mask ever just a mask? How are you doing with the new face covering rules?
Making it mandatory to wear face coverings in shops, supermarkets, shopping centres and transport hubs on Friday was a communication to us all, but how it affects us individually is uniquely personal. In this article I will write about this as a change “event”, and ponder the experience of having to wear a face covering and the issues that come with other people wearing (or not wearing) one.
To help with my thinking I wanted to seek out someone else’s experience and Stephen at Foster Books in Chiswick kindly agreed to speak to me about this on Saturday. I asked him about how he and his team were finding the new mask wearing rules. Even though we agreed to have a quick chat it soon became clear that this was actually a really big and complex topic. But I noticed that as we talked it had the power to make a connection between us rather than divide us.
Stephen told me that overall most people were coming into the shop with face coverings and that when people were not wearing them it could be because of the exemptions. For Stephen, when thinking of the change as a business owner, he said:
“I think that the uncertainty around face coverings has been unhelpful and so I hope that people will now feel more confident about going back into shops”.
I came away from our conversation with a sense that the new rules were changing people’s behaviour and that is what I could write about.
So I’m wondering about how you experienced yourself in the moment you learnt about this latest development? What feelings came up for you, what were your initial thoughts and did you have any physical experience? It is likely that your initial reaction will depend upon just how much you have been affected so far by the pandemic and/or what this will mean to you as it comes into effect. If you did not register any response to the news then that in itself is interesting, given it seems to mean so much to others? If you did notice a response then it might be useful to spend a bit of time to reflect on that? I would suggest that whether you had a positive, negative or no response then it can contain important information.
A powerful response shows that we have a significant investment in the event and one of the first things that occurs to me with this is around self-care. How are you in yourself? Any changes in how you are feeling generally, changes in life balance, feedback from others? You may have been directly and terribly affected by the pandemic in which case I hope you are looking after yourself and getting support where you need it.
Even if you don’t think you have been too affected it’s worth thinking about just how much time, change, thinking, extra work, interruption has been connected to the pandemic for you and then notice how you feel in answering this question. In this context I think about how we can often know ourselves better through our relationships with others but at the current time if you are exhausted like everyone else is exhausted, it is important to remember that doesn’t make it alright?
The next important moment is likely to be when you first need to go shopping. Maybe you have already been wearing face coverings, or wearing surgical masks instead, made your own or purchased one.
Maybe you are exempt from wearing a face covering or not entirely sure if you are, maybe you have been in the shielding category and so this will be the first experience of going out at all or maybe you have been out every day anyway and already had experience of wearing face coverings for travel of work?
Maybe you feel confident and certain about the new rules or maybe you are unclear about them? I suggest that the size of the change for you is the most important thing to look out for. Knowing that this is significant for you, in other words bringing its importance to you into your awareness, is the best possible way to ensure you are both prepared and you manage stress.
During my infrequent visits to Chiswick High Road I’ve thought about how it’s almost as though nothing has changed and that there are moments when maybe it is possible to forget about what is happening; face coverings and masks have been few and far between. The experience of seeing someone in a face covering and a mask firstly shaking me from those moments of “escape” whilst also leading me to pay extra attention to the presence of the people with the coverings and masks both with a jolt whereby the pandemic comes back into my awareness and then questions about the wearers enter my thoughts. Not being able to see their faces feels alien and there’s a sense of disconnect and the possibility for connotations around being hidden or hiding so do you make eye contact or not and even if you do how can you know whether or interaction is friendly, the previously apparently simple, now rendered awkward?
The prominence of masks and coverings will now be significant and our attention is likely to be drawn more to people without, than those with. The change is likely to bring heightened senses that serves initially to reduce those moments of “escape” and involve us changing focus on face coverings and masks, the alien nature of this new experience likely to again trigger defences, revealed by thoughts containing questions about why someone isn’t wearing a mask? Are they exempt, are they a protester, do they not care about others, do they know something valuable, maybe you find yourself paying closer attention to their body language and their face to see if they are relaxed and friendly? And then as there will be the increased number of people in masks, will eye contact be more likely or less? Will we sense civility and even find ways to embody a smile when the mouth cannot show one? Or will we become more insular and avoid attempts at eye contact?
Whatever your experience, face coverings are another significant change for everyone and I return to the suggestion that reflecting on it can be really valuable. Please stay safe and well.
Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Couples Counsellor and Coach
UKCP registrant, MBACP (accred), UKRCP
PGDip, MA, Adv Dip Ex Psych
Nicholas Rose & Associates
Counselling, psychotherapy and coaching for children, adults, couples and families.