The figurative mask – what is it and why do so many of us wear one? Probably more importantly for this exercise, why do I wear one? And why is it so important to me? I wrote this piece a few months ago and thought I’d share it here.
I wear a mask, one that makes me appear to be strong and capable, cheerful, outgoing, warm, nothing bothers the mask, it continues to smile no matter what is happening to the woman behind it. The mask is a way to hide my bruised self, a way to hide or disguise the feelings that are raw and vulnerable. It is safe, it allows me perfect control over what people get to see.
This mask used to fit me so well, seamlessly even – but in the past couple of years it has started to chafe, it feels heavy and no longer seems to fit, holding it up gets to be exhausting and occasionally it starts to slip. What once felt as though it was made from fine china, light and smooth, easy to keep in place, now feels to be roughly crafted from wrought iron, it is heavy and rubs painfully.
I don’t want to wear it anymore, but I don’t want to burden people with the real feelings I have.
Ever since I was just a little girl my role in the world has been to provide for others – I am the one who gives nurture, but behind that mask is a woman who needs to be nurtured. I am the one who is strong and alert, but behind the mask is a woman who is weak and tired. I am the empathetic one who gives support and love, but behind the mask is a woman who is in need of empathy, support, and love.
It really doesn’t matter where I go, I will look for the person who seems to need something, and I will be drawn to them. It is the only way for me to truly find a sense of fulfillment, to find a person and give to them – time, emotional support, friendship, care, anything I can find within myself or within my means to make them feel the best.
It is like a drug. At first I get a high – I love to help, I love to care, it makes me feel useful and happy, it is a beautiful feeling. Sometimes I just get the high, and it is very addictive. But there are others times when I have gone too far, then comes the crash – emotional exhaustion, depression, a sense of loneliness because I can’t show my own vulnerabilities and thus feel unseen. After the crash comes guilt – I feel selfish and fake because I did not allow someone the chance to help me and get that good feeling themselves, and shame that they think I might be fake. Then there is distress – I feel trapped and as though I do not actually have control, guilt leads to feelings of anxiety and self loathing. Then the cycle repeats.
There are many that tell me that balance is key, that it is okay to be both the person of the mask and the person behind it, that both lots of feelings are valid – they say that it is okay to have needs and it is reasonable to expect them to be met. But I do not know how to do this. I only know how to be the “perfect” friend, I only want to be the giver, not the taker – this is all I know how to do, it is all I feel comfortable with. There is no safety in showing need, to me that feels not like “balance” but instead neediness, weakness, vulnerability, selfishness.
I only know how to let people take, a few do so without asking, but mostly it is because I am inviting them to do so. I want to give and I want them to take, but I do not want to receive (No, maybe I do, I just feel bad admitting it), nor do I know how – I do not feel worthy of that.
This is where social anxiety comes into the story. It protects me, it keeps me safe – staying home and only associating with those I trust to see me vulnerable, my husband and to a degree, my children. I am too tired to keep holding this heavy mask, but I am so terrified of it falling, cracking, horrified that others might see the needy person who has perfected her smile. It is safer and easier to stay alone.
I once tried to open up, I hesitantly let people in, but I chose poorly – or maybe I just was not open enough, honest enough about what I was feeling? I felt rejected by their lack of response and in doing so I broke that fragile hope that is was possible for me to find the fabled “balance”.
I am scared – I do not want to leave the safety of my sanctuary, it frightens me. I am scared of falling apart, I am horrified at the thought the mask might drop down. I am terrified of being seen, judged, or pitied. It strikes fear in my heart to think of falling apart and having people suggest that it was a way to get attention, to be noticed.
Yes, avoidance is considered to be a poor and maladaptive coping skill, but despite that, I just want to be alone – I’m not longer lonely, not very often anyway. I don’t want to burden people with my presence unless I know that I am going to be able to keep the strong and cheerful me present. I do not want to be a disappointment.
Is it really that wrong to stay alone if you are comfortable there? Is it a problem is you feel safest there?