“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.”
- E.E. Cummings
October 2011 The scariest night of the year may be only a few weeks away, but there is something more frightening that lurks in our lives every day. Halloween may occur once a year, but the holiday that allows people to transform into something or someone else for one night is not the only time that people hide behind masks or take on an identity that differs from who they truly are. Every day we are faced with people who seem to be hiding behind something. In fact, we are all guilty of hiding behind masks so we can be loved, accepted, promoted, praised, and on goes the list. Now that’s scary!
Consider the sociological notion of "face.” "Face" is the social role that one takes on in a relationship that essentially defines his or her place and expected role in the dynamic of the relation. For example, when discussing matters at work with a supervisor, the way you carry yourself and project your personality is your "face.” This then becomes the way you should, or are expected to interact with your supervisor; hence the terms, "losing face" and "saving face." As a social rule, we tend to do and say things that we may not really want in order for others to see us a certain way so we don't "lose face."
So are we living a kind of Halloween every day? In some respects, yes. Think about all the interactions you have in a day. Consider the example above at work, or at school, with friends, kids, family, strangers, etc. To some extent, we all wear a mask. When was the last time someone asked you, "How are you?" and your response was the generic, "Good”? How honest were you about being "good"? Sometimes it's not such a big deal to avoid expressing your feelings fully, but when it comes to the people we hold close to ourselves, being honest and open is important.
Take a minute and think about five significant people in your life. How honest are you with them? Do you feel like you can tell them what's on your mind? Are you comfortable telling them you're having a bad day, and do you feel like they will support you? Do you trust them enough to share the bad moments of your life and do you believe that they will be there for you? The degree that you let people get to know the real you is your choice, but you need to feel comfortable and willing to make these deep connections.
Researcher Dr. Brené Brown has spent years exploring how people connect and flourish in relationships. In her research, Brown found that people who accepted and embraced their imperfections were able to form positive connections. These people were simply authentic. That is, they were capable of being who they truly are versus who they thought they should be. Brown also found that they were willing to take risks—to invest in relationships that may not work out, to pick up the phone to make a difficult call, to say "I love you" first, or to visit a doctor after a health scare. Yet, Brown has found that most of us seem to numb our vulnerabilities by masking our true desires and feelings, which leads to a cycle of dissatisfaction in life. Essentially, Brown found that feelings of shame about who we truly are keep us disconnected and unhappy.
Why are we so scared to be who we really are? Maybe it’s the dreaded V word—vulnerable—that seems so terrifying. Being vulnerable means letting people in and allowing for the possibility that they may not like what they see. Sounds pretty painful.
Connecting to others and letting people in is what we are meant to do. From the moment we are born, we depend on someone else in order to survive. We automatically allow someone in to our world because we are wired to seek another person. It's only natural that we continue to have others in our life. And to form intimate and healthy connections, we need to be genuine and willing to risk putting our true selves on the table.
One way to start removing your mask and to practice being real is to communicate honestly. Assertive communication is key to making this happen. However, being assertive should not be confused with being aggressive. Assertiveness means being direct and honest about your feelings, but respectful of the other person as well. Most importantly, you express your feelings without blaming the other person for causing them. You have a right to your feelings. Sometimes those feelings are not what someone else wants to hear, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be expressed. Think about those five important people in your life again. If one of them was hurt or upset by something you said, would you want to know? People often avoid being assertive for fear of rejection. Yes, rejection doesn't feel good, but masking your true feelings will eventually be more damaging and hurtful in your relationships.
The most significant move you can make to be authentic is to take the leap and practice letting people in to your world. Of course to be able to do that you have to first feel safe and secure in your relationships. If there are people in your life that compel you to hide your true feelings or make you feel like you have to be somebody else around them, it's important to consider why you feel that way. If you find yourself feeling safe in your relationships, but not able to be open, maybe it's time to take a risk and practice being vulnerable. You don't have to rip your mask off just yet, just gently start removing it. You may like what you see. *