You know what’s hard? Keeping up appearances. I’m not talking about “keeping up with the Jones’ (or Kardashians),” I’m talking about maintaining the daily façade of health and strength when inside there is really pain and fragility. It takes courage and vulnerability to answer the question, “How are you today?” honestly and not provide a canned and disingenuous response. There are many reasons why smiles attempt to mask the underlying exhaustion of this task like cologne endeavoring to cover up the stench of foul body odor and they can almost all be traced back to fear. It’s a scary thing to be vulnerable with others; fear of rejection, fear of disconnection, and the fear of having to experience the pain that comes along with not being accepted and loved for who we are at our core. For many of us, how our vulnerabilities were handled when we were children play a significant role in how me manage our vulnerabilities as adults. Did you grow up in an environment where it was safe to make a mistake? Were emotions and fear safe to express? Did you receive comfort and nurturing when you were less than your best or did you feel shamed and punished? These experiences in our childhood leave imprints and manifest in our adult lives on a regular basis.
Masking our vulnerabilities is not always easy, but to avoid pain many of us become experts. In my conceptualization there are varying levels: there’s the mascot level; full emersion into a persona that bears no resemblance of what is actually happening on the inside, worn full time, and the person is unrecognizable without the costume. The masquerade level; easily accessible covering to disguise, can be put on and taken off quickly and frequently, difficult to determine the difference between the person and the mask. And the oxygen mask level; not used to camouflage, but to get through difficult times, once out of the danger zone mask is put away, the person is not attempting to appear as if things are going well but does try to minimize the magnitude of their circumstances. A person can function at one of these levels or all of them depending on the situation. These are also not conscious decisions, but methods of survival and pain avoidance that we move in and out of without realizing it. To be clear, this is not condemning masking or suggesting that this is necessarily a “bad” thing. There are a multitude of unsafe people in the world and many of us have several in our lives. In fact, these unsafe people are not usually enemies, but those who are by proximity and relationship close to us. Sometimes we are masking to prevent our private information from being spread or our susceptibilities from being used against us. Other times in our roles as caretakers and support we don’t want what is going on with us to create additional burdens for others. Regardless of the context, the emphasis of this conversation is the importance of being able to de-mask in safety.
When I think of my own personal journey and reflect on the numerous discussions I have had with others about this topic, a common theme for those of us who have found people and places where we can take off our masks is Non-judgement and Unconditional Acceptance. These two attributes are so powerful, that it is often through experiencing them that people come to judge themselves less harshly and learn to experience radical acceptance of themselves. The challenge is then two-fold; intentionally seek out people and environments that provide the safety needed to be genuine and authentic and seek to be a safe person and create safe environments where people can be in your presence without judgement and condemnation. In both scenarios we become better.
If you are struggling to de-mask and need a safe person and environment, Labors of Love would love to be that support for you. Contact us, www.thelaborsoflove.com.