How do you feel about the way you appear within the context of your life? Are you truly yourself? Do you feel that you can be you, no matter the social situation you're in?
If you regularly feel that you can't just relax and be yourself, you're probably sick and tired of it.
There's a good chance, too, that you put on different masks so habitually that you don't even notice when you're doing it. Maybe you've done it your whole life.
You may feel weary and don't know why.
I've been writing lately about burnout, exhaustion, and conserving your energy. It is a huge drain on your mind, body and soul to frequently pretend to be, or feel like you need to be, someone else. Similarly, it's very draining to regularly act like you feel one way when you really feel another, but don't allow yourself (or don't feel it's safe) to express your truth.
A friend and colleague of mine, clinical psychologist Merry Lin, writes candidly about her journey through recovery from burnout in her book The Fully Lived Life. (This book was written for a Christian audience, but the points I excerpt below are relevant to anyone.) Dropping the habitual masks she put on to please and impress others was pivotal to transforming and healing her life.
A short excerpt:
"Faking your way through life is believing that if you let people know the real you, they won't like you. Maybe it seems that nothing you ever do is ever enough. The tapes that play in your head say that if people really knew what was going on inside you, they would lose respect for you. Maybe you keep trying to pretend to make others happy, including God, and you are exhausted, physically, emotionally and spiritually. While you play those roles, juggling those masks you have to wear and hiding your pain ... the pressure increases to keep pretending you have it all together. Consider the cost of our souls when we do this, the loss of ourselves ... I would never discover my true identity ... unless I began identifying and laying down my masks, and so I began a process of stripping down the defenses I had built up over the years."
Here are some questions that Lin suggests you consider, to help you drop your own masks. I recommend you write them in a journal or notebook and explore your answers in writing. Perhaps address a question a day, to let your truth emerge deeply over a period of time.
- Think about all the times in your life when you felt you had to be "on," when you couldn't be honest with how you really felt, when you chose to pretend to be someone you weren't. What's the cause of that?
- If I were to ask you to describe yourself, could you talk about your strengths and weaknesses with confidence? (In other words, do you know who you really are?)
- Are you always the same in how you act regardless of the situation you're in?
- When you are around others, do you ever feel strained and uncomfortable and find it hard to relax?
- Has anyone ever told you that they thought you were one way, but then when they got to know you better, realized you were another way?
- Has anyone ever commented on how you act differently around various people?
- Do you ever act like you don't care what others think, but deep down it really stings when others judge or reject you?
- Do you ever pretend to like someone you really don't?
- What might some of your masks be? The "I've got it all together" mask? The "I'm a victim mask"? Think about different situations in your life—work, school, church, home, with friends, with family, etc. What mask might emerge during those times?
Obviously, there are times when it is adaptive to protect your true self or your thoughts and feelings. Some people and situations are unsafe and it is wise to hold back. That said, if you identify yourself as frequently donning masks in "unsafe" situations (where you fear criticism, belittling, anger, etc.), it may be worth looking at how to reduce your exposure to these people and/or situations.
As you become more aware of the circumstances in which you don a certain mask, don't be frustrated if you can't change your behavior right away. You've likely been doing this for years, perhaps even your entire life. Be patient and gentle with yourself. As I always tell people that I work with, the first step in change is simply to watch out for and notice when you engage in a behavior that you want to change.
Notice what event or person triggered the donning of a mask. How did it feel when you were wearing it? How did you feel afterwards? Did it achieve anything? Was there a negative result? What would you like to do differently the next time you're in that situation, in order to be more authentic?
Awareness is everything. Don't put pressure on yourself to change overnight, and be compassionate with yourself. Trust that if you set the goal of being more real, via the dropping of your habitual masks, you will be able to do this with time. And it will feel so good!