Hiding Behind Our Life Mask
How many of us can directly go to a moment when our face and actions said and did one thing and our emotions, feelings and thoughts were something very different than what you were presenting. There is always a reason we go through life putting one mask after another for an infinite list of reasons.
But the main reason is fear: fear of judgement, fear of loss, fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear being rejected, fear of not being liked or loved….as you can see, the list goes on and on.
The feeling of living behind a mask often springs from a disturbance in one’s early years with unexpressed anger. The most threatening of emotions, anger between child and parent is also inevitable, as no parent can fulfill all of a child’s needs. A famous child psychoanalyst, the late D. W. Winnicott, said that “a parent’s job is to neither retaliate nor abandon the child in the face of the child’s anger. The parent’s duty, he would say, is simply to survive that anger.
There will always be frustration or disappointment in relationships. Parents who can allow a child to hate them temporarily, who can survive that hatred and return love, are bestowing the greatest of gifts.”
When a parent is too needy because of depression, loneliness, overwork, unhappiness, alcoholism, selfishness, intolerance, insecurity or a host of other factors, a child will instinctively put the parent’s needs ahead of her own.
A child’s life mask can harden into an adult shell
In creating a false front to manage parental demands, the child puts a mask into place, a life mask that soon hardens into an adult shell. Instead of learning that anger is tolerable, the “as if” person learns only to maintain the connection at all costs. And the costs are high; something wonderful is lost when the ability to express real anger is suppressed. What is lost is authenticity. Spirit becomes impoverished. Whole aspects of the self, disappear.
But coming out from behind that life mask is a very tricky business. A person who tries to reclaim her anger by just “getting in touch with her feelings”—hitting pillows or verbalizing her rage to family and friends—usually turns into a just an angry person acting like an angry child. An adult expressing infantile aggression is not a pretty sight.
More than just the recovery of anger is necessary to come out from behind the mask, the new understanding of loving self must be accepted and claimed. It’s almost like learning a new language. That language says it is alright to feel anger and express it from within without expecting costly consequences from outside factors.
When the false self can be tricked into giving up some of its hard-won control, you then begin to start feeling like the real you has shown up and is present. How all that begins is in baby steps of unconditional acceptance; loving self, flaws and all.
When we present ourselves to the world without the life mask and keep it real, we offer the same opportunity for others to do the same. Most of us are familiar with the idea of keeping it real and have an intuitive sense about what that means. People who keep it real don’t hide behind a mask to keep themselves safe from their fear of how they might be perceived.
They don’t present a false self in order to appear more perfect, more powerful, or more independent. People who keep it real present themselves as they truly are, the good parts and the parts most of us would rather hide, sharing their full selves with the people who are lucky enough to know them.
Susan Z’s Verdict
Whenever we feel that who we are is not enough and we need to be bigger, better, or more exciting, we send a message to ourselves that we are not enough. Meanwhile, if we are lucky enough to know someone who is not trying to be something more than they are, they walk into a room and bring a feeling of ease, humor, and warmth with them. They acknowledge their wrinkles and laugh at their personal eccentricities without putting themselves down. They inspire us to let go of our own defenses and relax for a moment in the truth of who we really are. In their presence, we feel safe enough to take off our masks and experience the freedom of not hiding behind a barrier. They are great examples to observe.
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