Masks and fears


(Photo by Serrator at flickr)

My ex claimed, on returning from his “personal development” course, that he had removed his “masks” and was now behaving authentically. He criticised me for not removing my masks. And he blamed me for clinging onto the unreal version of him which he had initially presented to me, and in doing so rejecting who he really was.

As I understand it, the idea of masks is that we all hide our inner selves because we are afraid how people will react if we reveal who we truly are. I think it’s fair to say that we all wear masks – to some extent it’s part of our adaptation to being in the world. And I think it’s also true that as we grow as people we can learn to show more of ourselves, to be honest about who we are and what we want.

I believe in authenticity and this kind of personal growth. So I was very happy to support my ex in his journey of development, to be more himself, to be more honest and more at ease with me and others.

Unfortunately, from my side, what actually happened looked rather different. When I first saw him after returning from the course, he seemed brittle and closed off, unaffectionate, and talked mainly about trivial things. When I forced more serious conversation, he kept telling me that it was only my fears that were causing me to see his behaviour as distressing, and that it was not his role to deal with my fears for me.

Although he claimed to have taken off his masks, to be authentic and present, it felt at the time as if he had never been further away from me. I tried to identify any fears on my side that might be causing me to see him this way. But with hindsight I think my contribution to the difficulties was very small.

The real problem was that, although he claimed to have removed his masks, he had replaced them with thick defensive armour.

He may have come back from the course keen to be open and authentic, but his defences quickly slammed into place in response to a very mild bit of scepticism on my part. He himself later admitted that he was projecting his fears onto me. But unfortunately his fear provoked exactly what he feared – I was confused and scared by the way he had changed, and could not hide my distress. And my reaction to his defensiveness made him close down further. A vicious circle that neither of us seemed able to stop.

I fought to control my fears, and when I was away from him, generally succeeded in convincing myself that I had nothing to fear but fear itself. But the problems weren’t just due to me being unreasonably afraid, so inevitably I couldn’t solve them alone. The moment I was confronted with his defensiveness and coldness, the fears resurfaced all over again.

Now, looking back, I am utterly convinced that removing your masks is not something that you can learn to do in a week or even a month. I think it’s something you can only learn gradually, slowly peeling off the individual layers of mask as you come to accept yourself for who you are.

To put it another way, we wear masks because we are afraid, and you can’t remove the mask without first dealing with the fear that makes you want to wear it. I don’t think there’s a short cut.

And I certainly don’t think it’s ever fair to blame other people for not removing their masks. It’s a matter of trust, and trust cannot be demanded, just earned. You can encourage them to be open, and you can create a space where they feel safe to do so. But if someone genuinely opens up to you, as I did to him, they become incredibly vulnerable to being rejected, as he did to me.

My ex demanded honesty from me, at a time when his behaviour made me feel very unsafe. And although I was afraid, because I loved him and wanted to keep our relationship alive, I threw caution to the winds and was as honest as I knew how to be. In particular, I was honest about what I was feeling. Admitting to the powerful, painful emotions cascading through me – the fear, the jealousy, the confusion, the self-doubt. Not blaming him or asking him to respond to my pain with anything more than understanding. But at the same time, not hiding what I was feeling, even if I was ashamed to admit it.

He told me that my distress was overdramatic and was traumatising him. He ended our relationship and has not willingly spoken to me since.

It’s hard to put into words just how much that hurt.

Removing masks is a very dangerous thing, if approached the wrong way… and blaming someone else for not removing their masks is always the wrong way.

(continues in masks and fears part 2…)


6 responses to “Masks and fears

  1. It is fine for people to want to grow themselves, but they should not force others to do the same in step with their own changes. It sounds a little to me as though he really doesn’t care how you feel, but rather feels the world revolves around him. It is okay for him to change and be honest but not so much for you.
    I have always found that when people tell me they want me to be brutally honest, they rarely do, they just think they do. Let’s face it, if we all said what we felt we would have no friends at all.
    Living authentically does not mean that we shout out everything that we feel, it means that we admit how we feel to ourselves and decide at what point these feelings need to be shared with those around us. I can live completely honestly with my husband and he doesn’t have to know exactly how I feel about every little thing. The definition of authenticity is being the same person in every area of your life. If I am a nice person at home, I should be that same person at work, at school at the grocery store. It is being true to ourselves, not changing ourselves for others or changing others to meet our needs. I believe your friend wants you to change, so he will feel better.

  2. Schierling, thanks for your comments .

    I think the fundamental problem was that my honesty about the distress I was feeling made him feel like a bad person. So he wanted me to stop being upset so that he could feel better about himself.

    I don’t – and didn’t – think that he was a bad person, but he couldn’t face up to the fact that I had reason to be distressed by his behaviour. Which had the unfortunate result of leading him to behave in a way that hurt me even more… not a good situation.

  3. Hello Schierling, and please allow me not to agree with you completely on a certain point, namely that “if we all said what we felt we would have no friends at all”. I quite agree with you on the fact that most people who ask us to be “brutally honest” think they do more than they really do, though I believe that is more a matter of the degree of self-awareness and of honesty with self which these people have reached – not blaming them in the least! And even if friends should ask us for the blunt truth, we should – my best friend would be very proud to hear me say this! – be very precautious and take pains to evaluate the extent to which this person is able to hear what we truly believe and how to express it in such a way that it is receivable by them. I must admit that I have tripped on my own tongue many a time in that, sometimes causing consternation or incomprehension, sometimes sadness or even hurt. And YET… I do still have friends, and much do I owe them for their tolerance and indulgence. I can say I am closest to the one to whom I spoke the clearest, barest, sometimes most brutal truths. I know she would expect nothing less of me today, although I have received well deserved and fruitful lessons on how to adjust my discourse to the listener so as to be less brutal and thus more productive and helpful! I think there are ‘friends’ and friends, just in the same way as there is like-love and unconditional love. If you have the latter for someone, you accept them despite all their faults – or even sometimes because of them! 🙂 I know it is not the kind of love which is the most widespread, but where it prevails, just as Lirone said, a climate of trust and acceptance is created such that “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” can be unveiled without fear, leading to yet more love and understanding. I have the privilege of having such relationships with many friends. I know that whatever they say to me, they will say it not to judge me but to help me, because they care and because there is no truer or stronger bond than honesty. I also have the very rare privilege of having found a partner with whom this also holds true. So secure am I in the knowledge that he loves me to the core, knowing all my faults and failings, that I never feel I have to hide or protect myself. There! writing about it has made me shed a tear of love and gratitude… I have shared with him deeply personal things, some of which I might have felt ashamed to talk about. I have done so wittingly, purposefully, both as an exercise in self-acceptance and affirmation, and to show him the extent of my trust. He himself is very private about his deepest fears and interrogations, but my opening up to him, baring my soul as I do, is gradually helping him to have the same confidence in me and thus in himself, and he is also becoming more able to identify and face his own fears and to express them (little by little – easy does it!). And so love heals and helps us grow. I suppose I believe honesty to be an essential aspect of love. And though we do effectively need masks to help us through go about our daily business, if we cannot shed these with our friends, our true intimate friends, with whom can we ever? And if we can’t ever, isn’t it worth our asking ourselves what it is WE do not accept about ourselves? My concluding thought is that this has all really to do with self-love and self acceptance. If we truly loved and respected ourselves for whom we are in all aspects, I don’t believe we could ever fear rejection – we simply wouldn’t care: other people’s opinion of us wouldn’t matter because we would just accept ourselves as we are without needing outside appreciation.

    Well, here’s working towards that, friends!

  4. Pingback: Masks and fears - part 2 « Words that sing

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