By the time I got to know my granny, she was a little old lady who wore aprons with pockets full to the brim with bits and pieces. She had short, grey permed hair and glasses that hung from a cord – sometimes so full of crumbs that birds would perch for a feed. She was also, quite surprisingly, an enthusiastic wrestling fan. Nothing could interrupt the wrestling on TV on a Saturday. It was her seam of rebellion in an otherwise sedate retired life.
Wrestling is an odd one. On the surface it appears wrestlers are mortal foes. Squeezed into the ring, moods soured by tight lycra, their only goal to annihilate each other. Yet, in reality, they are in cahoots.
KrackerJak is a Professional Wrestler and journalist (a lovely combination, don’t you think? I picture him bodydiving at politicians when they won’t answer the question). KrackerJak has combined his talents in this article, by peeling away the mask from Professional Wrestling.
“So you’re saying pro wrestling is fake?” he asks himself a rhetorical question. “No, I’m saying it’s scripted. But wrestling did spend 100 years pouring energy into extending the illusion of legitimate competition… to the point that rivals were forbidden from travelling together between shows.” It would be embarrassing then if opponents were found hanging out with each other. KrackerJak recounts just that: “super awkward when mortal enemies Hacksaw Jim Duggan and the Iron Sheik were arrested while travelling in the same car in 1987.”
Wrestlers have a name for this – “breaking kayfabe.” As KrackerJak puts it, “the web of illusion that disguises the contrived elements of wrestling. Giving away results, publicly appearing out of character or writing articles like this, spoils that illusion and reveals the inner workings of wrestling to outsiders.”
In reading up on wrestling (my granny would be so proud) I discovered an interesting thing. Professional Wrestling is “a type of athletic theatrical exhibition and entertainment involving wrestling matches whose progress and outcome are planned in advance.” Whereas Wrestling is a professional sport performed by athletes at sporting events such as the Olympic Games. Names are funny things. Sometimes a little inaccurate, sometimes totally disingenuous. Take the World Series – an annual baseball competition that includes just the United States and Canada. If you believe those two countries are the world, then that makes more sense.
But I digress. “Breaking kayfabe” is interesting because in our topsy-turvy, Alice-in-Wonderland, Through-the-Looking-Glass world, appearances often hide what’s beneath. Take leadership teams at work. From the outside they seem to be getting along just fine. Below the surface, however, might be seething molten magma. The team’s effort and energy? That would be focused on keeping the tectonic plates from tearing apart. Beware the person who contemplates breaking kayfabe – dissension isn’t good for promotion.
I once worked on a project where the client’s senior leaders were in battle. A place where the language was littered with sentences like “no, no, please, after you” when walking through doors. Or “of course I agree” after a discussion about budgets. Or “I trust you implicitly” when they were debating strategic direction.
What they really needed was a Babel Fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. If this little fish had translated, they would have heard: “No, no please after you... I need to be behind you, so I can stab you in the back.” Or “of course I agree… that you’re a total idiot. We all say it when you’re out of the room.” And “I trust you implicitly… to walk us off a cliff.”
It was interesting that subterranean cracks showed up in private, when the leadership team’s guard was down. After a long day of work and a few drinks they got snarky. When the facilitator suggested they might discuss it the next day she got this: “Discussion? Why? We all agree?” Unsurprising really. Revealing the cracks to an outsider would be breaking kayfabe. Publicly appearing out of character would spoil the illusion, reveal the inner workings.
Doesn’t this all sound familiar? Like the wrestlers, only in mirror image? Where the wrestlers were meant to be fighting, the leaders were meant to be on the same team. With an audience the leadership team were ever so polite. But on their own? That’s when they took to scrapping like wrestlers.
We often wear masks whilst we’re at work – playing a part, just like the wrestlers. I’ve spoken to over 100 people going through changes in their lives and the idea of acting out a role or pretending to be someone else came up many times.
Annette started her career in a brand consultancy. “We had a very dominant company founder… gregarious, quite loud – like a clown always putting on a show.” Annette became concerned that everyone was expected to “fabricate” who they were. “Intellectually I understood it. But personally, it was something that went against me. To fabricate a brand or to pretend to be someone that you’re not.”
Annette said junior team members were drilled on this. “They were not allowed to be afraid to do a presentation. It was like ‘pull yourself together, put on a show.’ I just I don’t think it is healthy to aspire to become that person if you’re not.”
Pete talked about low self-confidence and imposter syndrome and “wearing a work mask. Pretending to be who I was. But I was struggling with trying to have that confidence.”
Louisa agreed. “I’m not really a naturally creative person. I was good at the business side, but the creative stuff didn’t come easily. So I was putting a mask on every day. Having to be this really creative person.”
This is what Jenny said: “I wasn’t aligning with my own values by pretending to be somebody else at work. Having to pretend I was really passionate about something that I was good at it, that wasn’t my driving passion.”
It happens outside work too. Rory had counselling for depression and even then he would sometimes hide himself. “I can remember arriving for a session one day smiling. And [the counsellor] said I know you well enough Rory to know that when you’re smiling on the outside, you are not on the inside. That was heavy. But she was right.”
Anne was having challenges with her partner. Usually when he said things she disagreed with she would keep quiet, but think “I’m just going to pretend I haven’t heard anything.” But one day she ran out of steam. She said to herself: “I just can’t ignore that. I need to stop pretending like everything’s fine. I disagree with what he says. I need to stop pretending and hiding my emotions. Just be myself.”
Let’s take a leaf out of the professional wrestlers’ handbook. It’s OK to put on a good show now and again but we need to know when to take the mask off.
This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.