Take Off the Mask
As a kid, I loved Halloween because it was the day it was encouraged and expected that I would put my energy into altering my appearance. I could be anyone or anything I wanted to be. I could wear makeup or clown shoes or put a coat hanger through my braids to transform into Pippi Longstocking, and I’d always complete the ensemble with a cheap, flimsy mask.
I had a love/hate relationship with those masks. Bright side: For this one day I was anonymous, choosing who I wanted to be. Down side: the unforgiving plastic instantly created a personal, suffocating face sauna and the eyes and mouth holes never matched my facial structure, making breathing and seeing a legitimate challenge. The kicker was the unreliable elastic string, specifically engineered to snap 15 minutes in to the trick-or-treating excursion.
Recovery has exposed me as a chronic mask-wearer. I not only spent most of my life trying to change the way I felt but I also put my energy into controlling what people saw. Out of my own deep fears, I sought to cover up my struggles and my pain, terrified that I would be rejected if I were actually seen.
We’ve all tried to wear masks. These masks are uncomfortable, unforgiving, and unreliable. Despite our best efforts, within a few minutes they become obstacles to breathing, seeing, and connection. We wear these masks out of our deep fear of being seen on the outside how we are feeling on the inside.
We often hide because we believe the mask is our only shot at gaining acceptance, belonging and love. Recovery offers the alternative to covering up—it offers the chance to reject the masks and accept ourselves. In order to heal, the masks have to come off.
Our amazing Art Therapist, Rebekah, wrote the following reflection after a recent session:
“How do I present myself to the world? Do I give the world what they want to see, a man or woman who has it all together? Do I present as perfect and in control? Do I present as a hero ready to rescue anyone in distress while underneath wondering if I will be accepted if I am unable to be the nurturer 100% of the time?
Is it ok for me not to be ok? Do I use sarcasm to hide my fear—the fear the world will see me as weak as I see myself? Do I hide and make myself invisible, sliding under the radar so no one will see my shame or the overwhelming pain I feel?
Do I show up as the know-it-all in order to prove to the world I am worth listening to? Do I dress up or dress down to cover up my insecurities or the fear that I’m not worthy of approval?
What do these masks do for us? They have sometimes protected us from pain and risk. They have kept us safe in unsafe situations. However, they become toxic when we believe the mask is real or when we don’t know how to let our guard down in safe places. Our masks keep us from vulnerability and connection. Yes, it’s risky to show the ones we love what truly lies beneath the surface and we may not even want to face it ourselves, but real connection is where the healing begins. When we take the masks off, we can face the reality that we have fought for so long to hide. We can learn to process our pain, fear, grief and feelings of inadequacies in a safe place instead of covering them up. Letting go of the mask is difficult, but it’s the only way to move forward.
But what if people can ‘t handle the real me? What if it’s too scary and I’m rejected or hurt? What if I can’t handle facing the pain? It is a risk, but without facing pain, the fear and anger will stay with us, and we will remain in false and shallow connections, feeling alone in a crowded room.
The first step is to be honest with ourselves about what we have kept hidden. Be aware of the real feelings, not judging ourselves for covering things up, but recognizing that the coping mechanism of hiding doesn’t work. We can give ourselves permission to let our masks go. Through our vulnerability, we show others that they are safe to let their masks go as well. We don’t have to hide. We don’t have to rescue others. We can support, listen and be present. When we heal our own pain, anger and fear we can be present for others.”
It’s time to be authentic. It’s time to learn self-acceptance. We’ve been afraid of being ourselves for long enough. It’s time to take off the mask, embracing the love and acceptance of a Higher Power who sees us as we really are.
-Chris Gibson, MDiv