As I was showing her into the room for the start of her session last week, a client asked “how are you?”. I launched into an extensive account of what was going on in my life, including my concerns about my cat’s digestive issues and my feelings about Brexit. Half an hour later, she got to talk about her stuff.
Of course, this didn’t happen.
Although I strive to be authentic and transparent in my responses to clients, it would be highly inappropriate and unethical for me to talk about myself in this way.
I simply replied “I’m fine, thanks”.
A mask is what we choose to show others and it hides from them – and ourselves – what we’re really feeling.
We all have to maintain some kind of professional mask in our jobs as it’s usually inappropriate to behave at work the way we do with friends or loved ones.
But what about in other areas of our lives? When do we reply “I’m fine, thanks” when, in reality, we feel the opposite? When do we risk dropping the mask and talking honestly about how we feel?
Wearing a mask generally isn’t about deception; it’s about protection. We can learn to put masks on very early in life in response to our experiences, particularly negative ones. A mask is what we choose to show others and it hides from them – and ourselves – what we’re really feeling.
People whose eating is emotion-driven often feel that they’re not allowed to show what they’re really feeling, especially if they’re struggling, and this can contribute to a sense of isolation. Food becomes a way not only to suppress difficult feelings but to compensate for a lack of support.
So what are some typical masks and what might really be going on when people say “I’m fine”?
- The Happy Façade: “I’m struggling but I don’t want to talk about it in case I make you feel uncomfortable.”
- The Brave Face: “I’m struggling but there’s no point talking about it because I just have to carry on.”
- The Carer: “I’m struggling but there are people worse off than me so I have no right to complain.”
- The Joker: “I’m struggling but I’ve got to laugh about it otherwise I might cry and never stop.”
- The Strong One: “I’m struggling but I’m not going to talk about it because vulnerability means weakness.”
Of course, there are times when it’s appropriate to put on a brave face or lighten the proceedings with a joke. It just becomes an issue when we do it all the time.
“But I can’t tell people what I’m really feeling because I don’t want to burden them”, you might say.
As human beings, we long for genuine engagement with others.
I get it.
You hate the thought of being one of those people who constantly moans and takes no personal responsibility for their issues.
But there’s a pretty big halfway house between saying absolutely nothing and delivering an extended monologue about all your complaints with no empathy for the person on the receiving end.
Because what’s the cost to us of continually hiding behind a mask?
The cost is we miss out on meaningful connections with other people. As human beings, we long for genuine engagement with others, it enriches our lives and eases our loneliness.
But if you’re always wearing a mask, people aren’t really meeting you – they’re meeting The Mask. In taking the risk to drop The Mask and reveal a little of our vulnerability, we allow people to really meet us.
More than that, we give them permission to do the same.
I was partly inspired to write about this topic by a post I read last year from fellow blogger Devoted and Divorced, entitled “Valley Walking: Living Inside Out” (click on the title for a link to her post).
In it, she describes how she simply couldn’t maintain any kind of mask following her divorce, and instead had to allow herself to be “stranded, exposed and vulnerable”. The result surprised her and it may well surprise you too. It’s a stunning piece of writing which I would encourage everyone to read.