Halloween is fast approaching, and it is the one time a year everyone is given permission to hide behind a mask of their choosing. Which has me considering, what kind of masks do we put on (all year long) that allow us to hide behind who we truly are?
Consider this, how many times has someone said, “hello, how are you?” to you when you’re feeling crummy or you’ve had a fight with your partner or your boss just gave you a poor report and you’re worried about your job, and instead of sharing your vulnerability, you put on a cheerful mask and said “hi, I’m great, how are you?” even though inside you feel like you are slowly dying?
The truth is that we all wear masks to hide out pain, our fears and anxiety. Our emotions dictate what masks we use when the pain is too great for us to self-reveal. It’s when the mask is no longer good enough for our wellbeing that we must have the courage to reveal our truth so we can begin to heal.
When families call me about their loved ones experiencing a substance abuse or mental health crisis, they often feel great shame. They feel inferior or helpless, because they don’t know how to help their loved one. They are often embarrassed to show, and may feel hopeless. Likewise, their wife, husband, partner, brother or sister, son or daughter feel great shame and guilt as they struggle in the midst of their addiction. There is a constant inner conflict that causes the addict to repeat harmful patterns, and their reactions are often intense and irrational. Everyone involved in this cycle is hurting.
I work with families and their loved ones to uncover the masks they hide behind, so that they can remove the mask and embrace being their authentic self. Daniel Goldman, in his seminal work Emotional Intelligence published in 1995, put forth the idea that expressing emotional feelings is a critical skill. In my experience, this is true. Families held hostage by addiction are not well versed in expressing their feelings or their hidden hurts, so they must be gently invited to unmask themselves and explore what’s beneath the surface.
Let’s unpack some of the masks and armor people may put on when they are drowning in shame, sorrows, fear and hurt. Karyn Hall, PhD, suggests that there are several different types of masks people wear.
- The People Pleaser Mask – this is the type of person who will do anything to seek to make others like them, because they are afraid if they are not liked the other person may turn on them. I recently spoke to a mother who found it impossible to invite her 29-year-old to move out of her home, even though she was unhappy and the son was verbally abusive. Why did she hesitate? Because she did not want to upset him. The mother was caught in the cycle of pleasing.
Ask yourself if you have you ever agreed to do something, even if you did not want to, just to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings? Now ask yourself if using your pleasing behavior and hiding your real feelings didn’t bring you more hurt than you and the situation deserved?
- Everything’s ALL Right Mask –Think of the head of a company and his wife, who sit on the board of a reputed charitable organization. This is the couple, who behind closed doors, ends up passed out on the floor because he or she fell out of bed after too many whiskey sours. To the public, they are the perfect couple, do-gooders with a golden reputation. Beneath the mask however, alcohol addiction has taken hold of their relationship and life. Consider: are there times when you have put on, in the words of Stevie Wonder, the “Everything’s All Right, Uptight” mask?
- Anger Mask – Did you know that 95% of the time, lurking beneathis sadness? I remember, as a young child, being so angry when I learned my father took his own life that I lash out at everyone. As a very angry rebellious teenager, I appeared to hide my true feelings of sadness and loss over my hero, my father’s death. It was only when I became older that I was able to grieve that loss and take care of the hurting little girl inside. Do you ever put on the mask of anger? If so what does it look like on you?
- 4. The Everyday Mask – This is a mask so many people wear. This is the one you wear to work even though your high school daughter did not come home till 3 am with her dress tattered and torn. This is the mask that shields you when you and your lover had an argument. Celebrities are great at putting on an everyday mask. It’s only when addiction makes their lives totally unmanageable do you see what’s really going on.
- 5. Happy Mask– Another way we, as Brene Brown says, “armor up” is when we put on a happy face. For these mask wearers, no one ever knows what your true feelings are because you are always smiling. You are the eternal joker, laughing and grinning, while underneath you hide a myriad of struggle and feelings.
Masks provide us all with emotional protection in the short run. No doubt, at times, they are very useful. In the work I do with families, and in recovery, we learn how to rewrite our stories. With the help of professionals, it is possible to take off our armor, to open ourselves to new ways of being and living.
In closing, I am reminded of a wonderful family I once worked with who were pillars in their community. When one of their sons fell prey to the disease of addiction, they were embarrassed, ashamed and full of fear. They told friends that their son was away at college, when in truth he was in treatment. They said they never had any mental health issues in their family, and didn’t have a clue how this could have happened to them. They said they were happy when they were sad. They said they could not go to Al Anon as someone might find out.
In time, through solution-focused coaching and counseling, they uncovered their masks. They began to face the demons of their childhood and move forward as parents who were adult children of alcoholics who had a son in recovery.
They went from fearing Al Anon, to finding healing there. As one of the parents wrote to me, “We love our two al-anon groups and have made great friends with a wonderful couple whose two sons have addiction problems. I led an al-non meeting at home a few weeks ago. It was a great experience, and I am also on schedule to do it again soon. I have come to realize that I deserve to be healthy–that I deserve to celebrate myself. I am worthy of being in good health. I don’t need to punish myself any longer. I owe so much to your prodding and probing, and homework demands. How good it feels to have let all those festering secrets out! Now, I am working to be more authentic and approachable.”
If you are struggling with the masks you wear, have anxiety or depression or have a loved one struggling with mental health and addiction, take the plunge and reach out. You will be glad you took your armor off! Like the person above, you deserve health and happiness. You deserve to let those festering secrets out.