The Masks we Wear September 2009
I've been reading a book about President John F. Kennedy's life, and I'm learning far more than I ever realized about the extent of his ill health. I have long been aware of the way President Franklin D. Roosevelt's wheel-chair use due to polio had been hidden from the public. And I knew President Kennedy had back problems-and later learned he had also had Addingon's Disease. But I had no idea of the extent of the physical constraints hidden behind the fašade of youth and vigor.
It turns out that he was actually a shell of the physical specimen that he presented to the public. In fact, he was barely able to function much of the time-and then only due to the extraordinary efforts of a team of three doctors who regularly poked, prodded, and medicated him in order to make it possible for him to function without crutches. And his myriad of gastric problems also created ongoing struggles with pain, diarrhea, and general upset that interfered with his ability to function normally.
While the secrets of the "famous" are often eventually revealed, allowing us to see the reality behind the public mask, all of us in one way or another present an image to the public that varies from the full reality of our lives.
Why is it that we're so afraid to let others know the truth about who we really are? One answer to this question can be found in one of my favorite books, Why am I afraid to tell you who I am? by John Powell. Here's his response to that question: "If I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it is all that I have."
However, if we look behind this way of presenting ourselves in whatever way we think will lead others to like us, the person they like is not really us; it's the fake image of ourselves that they like. So we aren't actually liked for who we are, but for who we're pretending to be.
The irony in presenting ourselves in whatever way we think will be the most "liked" (respected, admired, etc.) is that it prevents us from ever really being known. This, in turn, leads each of us to compare ourselves to others by looking at the way they present themselves (their "outsides") to the way we know ourselves to be (our "insides"). This invariably leads to a false comparison, always making us look "less than" the other.
But, of course, we're also trying to present ourselves to others in a way that leads them to compare our "outsides" to their "insides"-and conclude that they are in some way "less" than we are. This leads everyone to feel worse about themselves than would be the case if we could all be more genuine in our presentation of ourselves to the outside world.
Of course, in addition to the fact that our masks prevent us from being as close to others as we might otherwise be, it also prevents us from being authentically who we really are. While we may be quite skilled at presenting a false front, it does take a toll. It leads us to be unable to relax and be ourselves, constantly being vigilant in maintaining the illusions about ourselves that we have constructed for others to see.
I must admit that I, like most of us, try to present myself in the best possible light, whether or not that light is completely accurate. The one exception (and my saving grace) is that my husband knows the "real me." Since I don't hide anything from him, he is the one person who knows me fully.
While it's unlikely that most of us will drop all our masks, I encourage you to make sure there is at least one person in your life who knows you completely. Having this "safe place" where you can relax and be yourself can make a big difference in your ability to deal with all aspects of your life.