Unveiling the Mask

Learn More About Self-Reflection & “Unveiling the Mask”

by Kelly Moore, LPC

Self-reflection is not an easy process – it can be painful and scary, and it takes both strength and courage.

For personal growth to be real, positive and sustainable, though, we need to make regular assessments of our motivations and interactions with others. This type of critical introspection involves a close look at our faults as well as our strengths. This can be one of the most difficult aspects of therapy, and yet it is essential in order to sustain the positive growth that we so often seek through therapeutic means.

To break down the barriers that often prevent people from completing honest self-assessments, some therapists incorporate creative tools into the process. For example, at SUWS of the Carolinas, a therapeutic wilderness program in Old Fort, North Carolina, the majestic outdoors functions as an alternative to conventional treatment settings:

  • The wilderness removes distractions, simplifies choices and teaches valuable lessons while providing an ideal milieu in which to address therapeutic issues.
  • The outdoor setting provides students with an opportunity to engage in therapy with fewer distractions and to enhance personal introspection.
  • In wilderness programs, students can no longer rely on familiar social and cultural structures. As a result, they are forced to confront, learn about and rely upon themselves.

One of the most effective aspects of wilderness therapy is this isolation from normalized structures, and from the pressures and distractions than often accompany them.

Wilderness therapy is most effective when complemented by a variety of other therapeutic approaches in order to assist in the process of self-introspection. Art therapy is one of these approaches.

Art therapy combines of artistic activities with therapeutic goals, allowing students the space to express their concerns, ideas and issues differently than conventional verbal approaches.

  • Since we often use verbalization as our main form of communication, we can be skillful at controlling our responses and refraining from expressing what we do not want others to know or what we ourselves are fearful of admitting.
  • Art is a less traditional communicative medium for most people, and therefore more difficult to manipulate.
  • Using art in therapy can decrease defenses and serve as a catalyst for both self-introspection and communication between therapist and student.

In the wilderness, art therapy also uses the natural surroundings of the environment to help students relate and become comfortable in their new “foreign” surroundings. Therapeutic activities allow students to break down many of the barriers associated with their new surroundings and focus on personal growth.

One of the many art interventions utilized with students at SUWS of the Carolinas is the Mask Activity, where students are given a blank mask as their artistic canvas.

The mask, like the human condition, has two sides — the one that is presented to the outside world, and the one that reflects the inner persona.

Students are asked to think about the variety of personas they present to the world, in different contexts and around different people, and consider the difference between these personas and their internal sense of self. After this reflection, students are presented with a variety of artistic tools and given the space to fill in both sides of the mask.

On the outside, the mask can either represent how we believe the world views us or what we want to portray to the world around us, while the inside reflects how we really feel inside.

The mask is a tool to facilitate self-reflection and assist with personal introspection. As a group, or one-on-one with a therapist, students can reflect on the choices they made with their own mask, comparing and contrasting the inside of the mask with the outside.

The therapist also now has a concrete tool to use to reach the student, using the artwork as a catalyst for a deeper discussion of the difference between the perception of outer and inner personas, and the choices the students have made to convey this difference. In this way, the student can work towards gaining a deeper understanding of their own layers of both conscious and unconscious material, and how the external choices they make in interactions with others may be influenced by deeper issues.

With the same core goal as wilderness therapy, art therapy can help students to strip away the layers that are distracting them from focusing on their essential core issues. Therapeutic art activities such as the Mask Activity encourage critical introspection, which in turn increases the likelihood that the students will make real, significant and lasting progress during their wilderness experience.

The wilderness therapy offered at SUWS was the dynamic solution needed to help my son with his behavioral issues. When my son left SUWS, he was completely changed for the better and also created new bonds and unforgettable memories! I can't recommend SUWS enough for anyone in a similar situation!

– Britney A.