What if your mask is the real you?

Debbie recently told me, “the confident, fun mask I wear for the outside world is the real me. It’s the self-loathing, frightened person inside that is the fake”. As a therapist, as in any role, we get used to certain responses from experience. When I worked as a bank cashier, many years ago; “how would you like your money?” would usually be met with “Oh it doesn’t matter, it’ll soon be gone”. When Brucie asked “What do points make?”, we knew what was coming.

That’s what made this comment so memorable. Masks are by their very nature, hiding the real person beneath. Inverting it in this way took us in a new direction that I wasn’t expecting. So what did she mean? In childhood, she had experienced more trauma than many would think possible. The constant attacks to her sense of self, to her self-esteem and to her belief that the world could be benign had become deep-rooted. I would have expected her to feel that this self, conditioned by her traumas would feel like the “real” her and her mask, a necessary tool to interact with the world.

But she felt it the other way around. There was something within her that held on to her true self. The one she would have been, had she not been bent and bullied by her traumas. This seemed empowering. A resolute defiance against the “slings and arrows of outrages fortune”. And yet, for her, it felt all the more painful to live in a self that wasn’t her. She could be herself to others, she could hide the imposter inside, contorted into someone else by pain.

We all wear a mask; the mother is not the lover. The teacher is not the angry sister. We slip them on and off without knowing. But what when the mask is all we have. We need our sense of self. The person we truly are. Debbie and I are working from the outside in, to restore the person she should be. It’s tough work to rebuild who we are but when the mask and her true self are in harmony, she can finally live her life in peace.

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