(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.