I’m not very good at expressing my emotions. Years of repressing them has made experiencing them a struggle. I depend on others to show me what to do in any given situation.
If others are laughing, I laugh along. Never mind if I don’t know what’s funny. If others are crying. Well, I’m in trouble. I’m no good at fake tears.
This is classic codependency. My true emotions are buried somewhere deep inside doing who knows what. Probably causing inner turmoil and resentment because they’re not being expressed.
I wall my emotions off because I’m afraid of judgment and derision. I wall them off in favor of the emotions of others. It’s better that way. It paints a prettier picture.
My emotions scare people. I distinctly remember a summer scene at the beach. I was with my family, and my husband (then boyfriend) was along for the crazy ride. I was angry that morning. My boss hadn’t paid me. And I was expressing myself. “Hush,” Mom said, “You don’t look good when you’re angry.”
I put on a mask. By the time my boyfriend come downstairs I was quiet and smiling. Everything in my life reinforced looking the part and being perfect. And I hold onto those ideals to this day.
I’ve perfected that mask. I am constantly working on perfecting that mask.
Another thing I don’t share is my needs. I pretend I don’t have any. That way you don’t have to take care of me. Ever. I’ll act strong and capable in the face of seeming insurmountable trouble and hardship.
But the fact is, I’m not. I’m human – just like you. I have needs and wants and desires and emotions. I’m just better at hiding them than most people.
Since I was a child I have never felt like I could be myself, not even around my family. I have always felt like I’m an alien observer to human life. But I have to find a way to fit in somehow, so, figuratively, I wear masks to hide my true nature.
And the best mask in my arsenal is a mirror. When I’m completely out of my comfort zone, all I have to do is mirror what you do and say. I fit right in.
Body language experts agree, the science and psychology of mirroring another human’s actions and mannerisms builds rapport. I’m careful with my body language around people – especially around people I don’t know well. Especially when I’m guarding myself from displaying too much emotion.
It’s an extremely manipulative thing for me to do. But it works, and it helps me feel safe in strange situations. The problem is it leaves me feeling like a liar. Like I’m not being true to who I really am.
Now, we all have different personas for different situations – different hats we wear. You probably behave a little bit differently at work than you do at home. Socially, this is a natural and healthy thing to do. We adapt ourselves to different situations.
My problem is I never have a moment where I feel like myself. I am never comfortable in my own skin. I must always wear a mask to hide my true nature from the judgment and ridicule of both the world and those closest to me.
There’s a poem that I love by Paul Laurence Dunbar called “We Wear the Mask.”
We Wear The Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
I wear a mask that hides not only my true self but also hides my mental illness. That’s partly why I started this blog, so that I could practice living without the mask. So that I could find an outlet. So that I could speak my truth.
I’m tired of hiding behind masks. I’m tired of feeling like I have to downplay and soften the expression of my emotions for the sake of others. I’m tired of pretending like everything is okay.
It’s not okay. I’m not okay.
But masks are beautiful, artfully designed things. And I have worked very hard on mine. It’s not as easy as just taking it off because the mask has become a part of my identity. Codependency is a part of who I am.
Changing the pattern – taking off the mask – requires time and patience. It means being okay with all the human parts of me, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the happy and the sad, the manic and the depressed.
Being sober means taking off that mask and owning my true emotions. Sobriety requires rigorous honesty. If I want to stay sober, I must stop lying to myself and to others. I must become completely truthful about who I am and what I want and need.
It’s a scary thing, this kind of honesty. It’s vulnerability. It’s living life without armor and shields – without masks, obviously. Showing my true face to the world.
One of my favorite writers, a social scientist — Dr. Bren
If I want to feel like I belong, if I want to feel like I am living honestly and truthfully sober, I must first accept myself and my emotions. I must stop denying their right to exist by plastering on a gaudy mask. I must start believing in my right to exist as a living, needing, feeling human being.
I must start accepting that it is okay not to be okay.
And I’m not okay.