Anxiety Behind the Mask, Part 1
When I was 9 or 10 years old, I was an insatiable Iron Man fan. I used to race to the local drug store every day to see if a new issue of my hero’s adventures had hit the stands yet. I still admire Stan Lee and those who developed the Iron Man character: he was truly an iconic figure for a pre-adolescent boy in the mid-1960s. Well, it’s 45 years later, and Iron Man is receiving great attention — arguably much greater than in earlier days. “Iron Man 2” was the lead-grossing movie for much of the 2010 Spring season, and the Iron Man 1 and 2 movies are estimated to have grossed in excess of $935 million.
There is no question that the Iron Man figure captures the imagination of many in our culture.
What is the fascination that Iron Man exerts? Why is this figure a cultural icon—and not just for 9 year old boys? What is it that he shows us about ourselves as a culture, and the issues and problems that we collectively face? Please bear with me as I relate some of this modern myth – for it actually has a surprising amount of symbolic and psychological depth.
According to the story line, Iron Man is the alter ego of the wealthy industrialist Tony Stark (played in the recent movies by Robert Downey). In order to escape a situation where he is held hostage by some despicable outlaws, Stark fashions a suit of practically invincible armour, and overcomes his foes – all details covered in the original “Iron Man” movie. Stark then goes on to improve and enhance this very sophisticated flying suit of armour, to the point where it is mighty, mobile, and both beautiful and technologically advanced to an incredible degree.
In Jungian terms, Iron Man as a symbol for our relationship between the social mask, the persona and the inner human. It represents the yearning that the social mask be smooth and impenetrable: the fantasy of being beyond weakness, mistake and humiliation.
Undoubtedly, we need a social mask – we cannot just “let it all hang out” in social situations. The result would be chaos, and we would be extremely dangerous to ourselves and to others.
But how devastating must the underlying shame be, to lead me to wrap myself in the fantasy of untouchability, to strive for invulnerability, to ensure that nothing is ever going to touch me. We have to admit that it is a seductive fantasy–one that we might easily be tempted to try and pull off. Particularly in a culture like ours that so values external appearances.
We are so utterly afraid of our own vulnerability and weakness. We can so easily live in terror of our own true nature. It can be so hard to let ourselves be what we are, to know ourselves, and to let ourselves be known. Part of us is utterly convinced of the need for the pretense of invulnerability. Yet part of us knows what we really are.
Stark says, “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one.” That’s great for a myth and a fantasy hero. Heroes in myth are always something other than simply human. However, complete identification with the persona, “the suit and I being one” would be a form of living death for a real human being. It’s easy for us to live in such terror of our vulnerable selves, those parts of ourselves which are not strong and beautiful. Yet they are there, and if we cannot acknowledge them, and give them their due, they will surface in very destructive ways, such as anxiety and depression, as symptoms of the underlying shadow self.
Somehow, we’ve got to come to terms with the human inside the armour, and to learn compassion and acceptance for that person, just as he or she is. We have to abandon perfectionism, and get beyond the toxicity of shame. Often, it’s just at this point that case studies or Jungian analysis is a necessity.
To be continued in “Anxiety Behind the Mask, Part II: Imprisoned in the Armoured Self”.
I’d welcome your reflections on the nature of “social armour”, and the social mask. Have you ever experieced situations where, to your surprise, someone was suddenly vulnerable? Where you were?
I wish you every good thing as you travel on your individual journey to wholeness,
Brian Collinson, Psychotherapist & Jungian Analyst
VIDEO CREDIT: ©Marvel Entertainment, LLC //marvel.com/movies/iron_man.iron_man_2
© 2010 Brian Collinson