The playwright Martha Boesing said, “The question laid out for each of us is whether to hold on or drop the mask.”
What does that mean, really? What is the mask is Boesing addressing?
I think that she means the mask that each of us dons over time—particuarly in childhood and adolescence and young adulthood—in response to myriad stresses and anxieties, but also in response to praise and rewards and “successes.”
Each of us is vulnerable to doing an ongoing calculus of how the world around us is responding to our core goals, passions, emotions, perspectives, appearance, choices, etc. And we then can unconsciously edit ourSELVES to please others by taking fewer risks, not rocking the boat, abandoning some of our unique perspectives, opting to shelf our creative pursuits, making sure we keep quiet about our true opinions, growing a thick skin to not register injuries, even (in extreme cases) avoiding intimate relationships (whether friendships or romantic connections), altogether.
Of course, the greatest toll of donning a mask is that we then often avoid engaging in intimate relationships with ourSELVES. We—who we really are—go underground and hide out, for fear of being misunderstood, judged, unlovable, exquisitely vulnerable and in pain.
That would be a profound enough loss, but the parts of ourselves we bury—the parts underground or behind the mask—don’t wait quietly to be discovered. They want to exist. They want to be known. They struggle for air. And keeping them from emerging causes anxiety and depression and sleeplessness and, certainly, all manner of physical infirmities, including autoimmune conditions, headaches, backaches, high blood pressure, arrhythmias, probably even cancer.
If we could only let go and let the masks drop, we could express ourSELVES and realize the potential gains of our core creative instincts and gifts, our inborn ability to love ourselves and others. We could be more courageous in all things for having stopped running from the truth about one thing—who we truly are, absent all the unconscious camouflage—the masks. We could resonate with the talents and struggles and triumphs and fears and passions of others because we would be in touch with our own.
How can we achieve this? One way is by retracing our steps. At some point in our journey through this life we encountered resistance. If we can identify where and when and how that happened—often in very early chapters of our life stories—we can see that our masks materialized when we were far younger, far more vulnerable and far less able to decide whether to don them, or not.
We can then take small steps to remove our masks. We can start telling the truth about our relationships and ourselves. We can start pursuing goals we find truly worthy of our time and our hearts. We can start embracing other people for their potential and finding synergy with the best of them.
Mind you, this process needn’t take years. The road back to YOU, the process of dropping the mask, is a process of guided introspection. It is also a process of gathering resolve. It is a process of setting aside paper tigers from the past that inspire fear, but have no real claws.
Begin the journey. You are worth it. You always were.
Dr. Keith Ablow
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