What is Under Your Mask?

Belonging. It is one of the basic needs of our species. Driven from our biology, the need to belong ensured the propagation of the human race. On a practical level, belonging to a tribe ensured our safety.

This need to belong begins the day that we are born. Even with the greatest caregivers in the world (I like to think mine fall into that category), things happen in our childhoods that shape our views of others and of ourselves. There are things that parents cannot predict or protect their children from.

For many, there is not necessarily a traumatic event that occurs which leaves them feeling like they don't belong, but they feel unheard, not valued, validated, and or connected to their caregivers. This is the basic emotional need of all children. This lack of emotional attunement from caregivers is probably the most unifying thread I see with those I work with.

When we lack this sense of connection to caregivers, we feel untethered and work hard to seek a sense of grounding externally. We hang our value on external things or use things outside of ourselves to feel more connected. Enter money, status, alcohol, food, and sex (just to name a few).

We do everything in our power as an adult to find ways of belonging. We hide in status, titles, and busyness. We yearn to belong and we push and push to make it so.

We present a unified front of “togetherness” and competency.  We desire to present well on all fronts; our children well behaved and excelling, a great relationship with our partner, exercising and eating well, and professional accomplishment.

We construct the outward facade to convince everyone (including ourselves) that we matter. That we belong.

I recently found a journal from when I was 19 years old, in the first year of a 7-year battle with an eating disorder. The entry was talking about my desire to “have it all together". At the time, I was on our women’s college tennis team, majoring in chemistry, running like crazy, going to parties, volunteering, and playing my guitar on the green on Sunday afternoons. I had nailed down the mask that I want to portray; a girl who was smart, competent, attractive, social, and relaxed all at the same time. This was an impossible facade, despite attempting to live it for years.

We see the snapshot of balance, not the failed attempts and the fall after.

The entry said, “I don’t care if I am happy or healthy. I don’t care if I have it all together, I just want other people to see me and think that I do. I want them to think that I'm perfect." I had such blatant disregard for my own desires and needs. I was hanging my self-worth solely on the external.

I pushed my body for external results, providing it no care or nourishment. It didn’t matter to me at the time, so long as it looked good. So many of us do this with our emotions.

We stay busy and work, work, work (myself still included) because there are parts of us that depend on what we do, our external lives, for a sense of belonging and validation.

The more I heal my heart, the less I find this to be true. I once had disdain for who I was because I never felt like my internal matched what everyone saw on the outside.

I’ve come to learn that my true self was always there, just as it is today. She deserved nurturing and compassion during those years just as she does today.

We all have things in our past that we may regret. We have all behaved in ways that we are not proud of that are born from moments of suffering. We cannot take those things back. Many of us live with guilt and deep shame about those things.

Guilt is admitting we have done something wrong. Guilt can be productive when it moves us into corrective action. Shame is feeling like we, as a human beings, are wrong.

Shame binds and traps us. It keeps us in the dark. It keeps us from sharing our light. Shame does not serve you like it does not serve me.

The me who wrote that journal entry at 19 had a lot of internal shame. I felt like something was wrong with me, that I was defective as a person, so I acted in self-destructive ways.

At 31, with years spent understanding and dismantling that shame, I am proud to live from the inside out. I no longer feel any darkness. I realize that the darkness I felt was never mine to have. It was born out of external circumstance that I internalized at an early age.

My inside matches my out.

Are there still things I’m not proud of? Sure, I wrote my husband a lengthy apology text yesterday morning (complete with 5 pages of a book to read explaining the false narrative I was creating) because I took the stress of the week out on him by being snappy and resentful. He didn't take it personally. I apologized. We moved on.

We all have behaviors we wish to change. It is a part of being human.

You are not your behaviors.

You are not the things you have done (good or bad) in the past nor the things you will do.

You are a whole and complete person. Just as you are, today.

You may read that line and scoff. That’s okay. There is a part that is trying to protect your true self by not believing it. You’ve had to construct walls and layers of protection, sloughing off complements or truths about your goodness because it feels vulnerable.

As children, our hearts are tender and vulnerable. We construct walls and layers within our masks in an effort to protect ourselves. Every time we went to a caregiver for validation and felt rejected or invalidated, a layer of our masks grew. "Buck-up buttercup" is the foundation for some of the thickest masks I've encountered in practice.

It’s okay if you are afraid to take off the mask, afraid because you think the darkness will overwhelm. It can feel scary, but there is a light that you were born with that has been there all along.

The light remained, even through pain, even through self-destruction.

The light is still there.

I challenge you to think about a young child you love. What do you see when you look at them? Do you see purity and love? Would you do anything to protect them?

Now imagine yourself at that age, suffering, needing love and support. Could you comfort yourself as an adult in the same way you would comfort that child who you love today?

That child is still within you. They are there and they remain pure and deserving of love and compassion. You, right now, have the ability to soothe and comfort that child-like part of your heart. That part, the you within, deserves and needs that love.

You belong here.

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