Can I be me? The pain of wearing the good girl/boy/person mask
“Can I be me in front of these people?” How often have you worried that you wouldn’t be loved and accepted if others could see the real you? Do you sometimes find yourself wearing the mask of the ‘good girl/boy/person’? If so, you’re not alone.
Social Isolation and rejection are the cruellest of fates for a human because we are pack animals. You need your tribe in order to feel safe and secure. So you often may feel the need to wear a disguise, showing only the ‘pleasant’ parts of yourself, in order to be accepted by that tribe.
Wearing a mask leaves you feeling unseen, unheard and unloved
However, wearing that mask comes with a cost because it stops others from seeing the real ‘you’. It decreases the level of intimacy between you and others.
Furthermore, parts of you are left feeling unseen, unheard and unloved. Which can feel painful, lonely and isolating.
The mask of the perfect pop princess
I will never forget the day I watched “Whitney: Can I be me?” the documentary on Whitney Houston. The music industry carefully curated an image of Whitney as the beautiful, sweet, pop princess. Perfect. We watched in horror as Whitney descended into a spiral of drugs, blaming her husband for her undoing.
The documentary reveals that Whitney’s upbringing was far from this sanitised ‘perfect’ image, and that drug-taking was normal in her family. She was being forced to wear a mask of perfection for her singing career. She was not allowed to show her real self. The gap between that mask and her real self was too much for her to bear and she descended into despair and drugs, which ultimately ended her life.
(This documentary used to be Netflix but I reckon it’s still somewhere on the interwebs)
Only the ‘mask’ parts receive love
When you wear a ‘mask’ version of yourself (like a Spiderman costume) there a disconnect between who you are on the inside and this outside version, which can feel really jarring.
Yes the upside is that others don’t see the ‘bad’ bits. However, the downside is that only the mask parts are shown to others, so they are the parts that garner love and attention. Leaving the other parts of you unseen, unheard and unloved. Which can leave you feeling like an empty and hollow version of yourself
We all long to be loved for who we really are
You know that moment in the film when the other characters finally see behind the mask of the superhero and realises that it’s their friend and you’re like “yessss!!”. It’s satisfying because the hero/heroine is finally truly seen for who they are. And the other characters still choose to love them. All parts of them. And deep down we all long for that too.
Keeping the mask up can lead to burnout
Think how much effort Spiderman has to go to, to hide his true identify. Not only is it frustrating not to be seen for who you really are, it’s also really energy-intensive to maintain that mask, which can lead to burnout and exhaustion.
This mask is usually put on in childhood
Did you have to behave in a certain way to get love and acceptance as a child? It’s likely that ‘little you’ made an unconscious decision to behave in a certain way in order to secure more love. Shutting down or alienating all the other parts of you that didn’t result in love/attention/acceptance.
Little you quickly learns: these parts of me are loveable and these bits are not.
It’s like you’re wearing a mask of acceptability to others and the rest of you is hidden on the inside.
Wearing a mask can feel like you are living out of alignment with your real self
Not only does it get tiring wearing that mask, but it can feel like you are living out of alignment with your real self.
Using my own life as an example: If I was academic and athletic as a child I got love and attention from my Dad. The other parts of me got minimized in order to get more attention and more love. Academic prowess and career achievement became my number one focus to the detriment of the other parts of my life.
I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy studying, but another part of me loved ballet and messing around with guinea pigs and horses. And that part got pushed to one side for a big chunk of my life.
Luckily, in adulthood, I started therapy and started letting those parts of me have a bit more oxygen. (Yes, I got guinea pigs as an adult and it was awesome).
Learning to love even the not-so-nice parts of yourself
One of the pillars of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is accepting who you are, warts and all.
You may have inherited many of your parents qualities and not just the good ones. Your challenge is to accept those parts of you that you don’t particularly like, instead of alienating them.
We all have those not-so-pretty parts. It’s part of what makes us human. (I bet even the Dalai Lama gets spicy when his plane is delayed by 12 hours.)
Therapy is about learning to love, accept and speak kindly to all parts of yourself, even those darker sides of you. You can find out more about how I work here.
How I learned to be more of myself with you
When I first started as a therapist I thought I had to be a certain way to be a professional therapist. We’re taught that we have to be a ‘blank slate’ for you. However, a wake-up call came in a group therapy session when that mask slipped and a client giggled “I love it when you are really yourself”.
(I’d asked the movement class to creep around the room pretending to be Goblins in the hall of the mountain king. If you ever want to pretend to be a Goblin in your session, just ask 😉)
The real me is slightly sweary (quite a lot actually), I will often use humour in your session, and very often I’ll go off at a tangent, inviting you to try a movement experiential based on a word you just said.
Zero prim and proper therapist to be seen.
And when I am more myself, it seems to invite you, my clients, to be more yourself too.
I get to see the real you in therapy sessions
One of the greatest privileges of therapy is that you tell me more than you would normally share with your loved ones. Obviously, there’s less risk with me. I’m not your spouse, family member, friend. What you say to me goes into the vault of confidentiality.
In therapy you get to try stuff out in a safe space before you take it out into the real world. So why not give it a go.
If I drop my mask, will you drop yours? Show me something of the real you. I guarantee it’ll be worth it.