Inspired by Halloween, I started thinking about how so often we "dress up" or conceal our true selves in our relationship and our lives. It's all too easy to "put on a mask", so to speak, instead of being authentic and vulnerable with our partner and ourselves. Typically, we learn to wear these masks early in life and they're essential to helping us survive different situations, such as unhealthy family dynamics, school, etc. Eventually, we can lose awareness of the mask that we're wearing and put it on without being consciously aware of what we're hiding. I will be talking about just a few of the common masks that I see people wear (myself included at times). There are many more than just these few examples, which means you may wear a mask that looks very different from these. Consider which masks you've been wearing:
If you've been wearing the mask of the peacekeeper, you may be finding yourself doing a few different things consistently. First, is that others' needs may likely be coming before your own. If you're putting other people first and keeping them happy (co-dependency, anyone?), the boat (that is, the relationship with that person) may be less likely to get rocked. Second, you've probably started giving the same answers for how you're doing when you're asked that question: "fine", "good", etc. Sometimes, this is true, but the reality is that we all have hard days. If on your hard days, you're not letting anyone (even yourself) know that you're struggling, it means something is getting swept under the rug and avoided.
How can I take off the peacekeeper mask?
Taking off this mask may feel scarier than you think at first and will take active practice to un-do some old habits. If you've noticed yourself giving inauthentic answers for how you're doing, take the words "good", "fine" and anything else similar out of your vocabulary. Peacekeepers typically give these sorts of answers automatically because they're safe, acceptable, and what people want to hear. If you're having a good day, you can find other words to use such as "excited", "hopeful", "happy" and so on and if you're having a bad day, this is an opportunity to practice saying that you're "overwhelmed", "exhausted" or "disappointed", to name a few. You'll know that the peacekeeper mask if coming off when you're thinking before you speak and checking in to make sure that what you're saying is how you're really feeling.
The Hot Temper
While typically we think of anger as a "negative" or "bad" emotion, anger serves many helpful purposes. It spurs us to take action or say something if we get angry enough and it also keeps people at arm's length - we don't want to typically get too close to someone who is acting angry because we don't know what they could do. For those who wear the hot temper mask, they learned this at some point: if I yell, people back off; if I get frustrated, they won't ask me any more questions. Those who wear this mask typically wear it because they either saw other people around them wearing it and came to view anger as a normal part of communicating with others or because they want to, quite frankly, be left alone. Either way, it's a good cover-up for more tender emotions that feel uncomfortable to access and it gets them the space they're often looking for.
How can I take off the hot temper mask?
I tell my clients that anger is not an emotion we feel in isolation. Sure, we feel angry, but we also feel something else in addition to it. Typically, we feel either hurt or afraid of something. It's a lot easier (and in some situations, safer) to show anger that it would be to let someone know that they hurt us or to let fear take over. The key to taking this mask off is vulnerability - something that people who wear this mask may be completely unfamiliar with. Therapy is a great place to start with working to understand what lies underneath the anger. It can also be good to just ask yourself when you feel angry about something, "What else am I feeling?" It takes time to let yourself feel anything else because feeling anything other than anger may be overwhelming. Even if you're not ready to show that sadness, fear, disappointment, or pain yet, even just acknowledging that you feel anger AND that other emotion is a good place to start.
The Busy Bee
We have many names for the busy bee in our society - type A, perfectionist, and obsessive, to name a few. Someone who wears this mask seems to always be doing something. It's important to point out that they're not necessarily busy because of mental health symptoms (like ADHD or bipolar disorder) or that they're being busy because they like it. It's because they don't know any other way to exist. They don't know how to sit still. They don't know how to do nothing. They don't know what it means to slow down. Ask them to try it and they will likely start to feel anxious. Wearing this mask can be viewed as a positive thing and certain environments require it, which is why the person who wears the mask likely doesn't see it as a problem. The problem though is that we often use being busy as a way to not feel our feelings. It's easier to do something than it is to feel something. So when the mask comes off, when the action stops, then what?
How can I take off the busy bee mask?
It's important to first acknowledge what you get out of wearing this mask in the first place because chances are, there's a lot of positives that come out of you wearing it (such as job promotions, a feeling of accomplishment getting things done, compliments from others, etc.). This is why taking it off is not so easy. Rather than taking this mask off permanently, it's best to discern when wearing it is helpful for you and when you don't need to. Maybe you do need to wear it at work, but not at home with your kids. Maybe it is important one day a week when you're cleaning the house, running errands, etc., but maybe you can take it off the next day. As you slowly start figuring out when to wear and not wear it, I encourage you to devote some time to practicing this. Start by sitting still for 5 minutes a day doing nothing (not even checking your phone). It will likely feel like an eternity at first, but keep doing it as a way to practice taking your mask off and being still. Eventually, it will get easier. And eventually, you'll find out who you are underneath everything you do.