I want to share with you a week that was incredibly eye-opening for me. It’s allowed me to see a mask I’ve always worn and the impact it has had on my life.
As part of a class, we were asked to interview people in different communities in our lives. The point was to understand who we are being with people from their perspectives. We were meant to see how people saw us. Ultimately, the result was to give us access to our self-expression. Before I share the result with you, I want to share with you how I felt before the exercise.
When I put the mask on
When I was little there were two times when something big was happening in my life and it made me feel that I stood out, and not in a good way. The first was when I was interviewed as a young child about my mental health and living with the mental health challenges in my family. I never saw the interview, and for years I worried about what I said or how I was portrayed. The second was when my grandfather went missing. Over the next 5 years as our family was on the news, and everyone I knew wanted to know what was happening. Each time someone asked about it I was sure they were asking me what was wrong with me that he would leave us.
In those moments it felt like I was weird, that there was something wrong with me, and our life. As a result, I began to only talk about the good stuff, I would share anything that provided a positive look at my life. This felt safe, comfortable and left me free of that curiosity and questioning I had previously felt.
It also left me feeling like an outsider, like the odd person out. I often don’t know the right thing to say, and I am sure you notice. Most of all, I was worried about what others thought of me and making a good first impression. This was important to me because I always believed once people knew about my mental health, my family struggles, about everything that is wrong with me, you would leave.
Pulling back the curtain
This way of being stuck with me. It has always felt safe, left me feeling strong and able to handle anything. I often hear people comment on how I will know what to do and that I have it all together. For years I saw this as a good thing and in some ways it is. I became someone who is reliable, a problem solver, someone who can help or find you help when you need it. I became caring, well-rounded, and resourceful.
But here is what you don’t see. What I have hidden from you for so long! I struggle! Daily!
This way of being has me not ask for help, even when I am drowning. It has left me feeling that people don’t really know me. Sure I’ll share my experiences, but only after I have survived the struggle. Of course, I will spend time with you and we will have lots to talk about. But mostly, I will focus on you and what is happening in your life, always looking for how I can help. I will wow you with my problem solving, knowing exactly what to do or who to call. I really do want to help, that has always been authentically who I am. And it is my defense too, by focusing on you, we won’t focus on me.
And, here’s what I don’t say…
- I’m struggling, sometimes I just want to have a good cry, to know I’m not alone
- I really know what it feels like to be hurting, and I just want to stop you and me from feeling it anymore
- I’m scared of what it would look like, to be honest, and just be me, as I am no matter what
Taking off the mask
I have always felt like I’m wearing one of those plastic Halloween masks from our childhoods. The ones that made it hard to breathe, that always had sharp edges.
So what did I learn when I did these interviews? That the people closest to me knew. They knew I was wearing a mask, and wanted me to know I could take it off.
They saw me as someone who deeply cares, who always helps, and they wish they could help me too. Most even knew that for me keeping on the mask was my biggest struggle! They shared that when I did give them a glimpse of it off was when they feel the most connected to me. Where they got to be with me, raw and real, it was here that they saw me.
What I can see now about the people in my past is that they were curious about what was happening for me because they cared. Before I saw people seeing me as there being something wrong, when in fact it was actually just their love and wanting to understand what was happening for me. To see how I was doing and if I needed anything. And of course, that required curiosity!
This experience has allowed me to see how wearing this mask has prevented me from the freedom to be me. To be contributed to and to be loved fully. It has prevented me from being real with the people I love most in my life. So this is me… officially taking the mask off!