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…
One of my favorite poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear The Mask,” captures the reality of many black folks and countless people around the world. Who among us has not had cause to wear a mask – to at some point conceal our thoughts, mute our voices or temper our actions? While it’s appropriate for us to be sensitive to our environment, we suffer when we repeatedly deny our truth and forfeit our authenticity. Survival, circumstance and fear might compel us to accommodate, but over time we frequently come to identify with our pretense, mistaking the mask for our true face.
Shedding the false selves that imprison us in painful dynamics is central to our well-being. We can do this by asking, “What habitual ways of thinking, speaking and acting drain us of our energy and power?” “What patterns do we need to confront and ultimately transform so that our true selves can emerge?” Answering these questions honestly helps us to identify our masks. By naming and claiming them, we move our distress out of the shadows to the forefront of our awareness. We can then gain even deeper understanding by exploring the wounds that lie at the center of our distress and asking, “What am I covering up that wants to be revealed and more fully expressed?”
When I asked and answered these questions, I was enlightened by what I uncovered. I had spent years playing the role of “Elastigirl” – the one who stretches herself thin to support and rescue others. I donned Elastigirl’s mask early in life in response to a loved one’s addiction. I later came to live in the mask, wearing it almost daily in my interactions with others. While I was born with a helping spirit, chronically overextending myself made me tired and resentful. It also robbed others of the chance to do their work and grow.
At this stage in my life, I’m learning that I don’t have to trade service for love and approval. I’m also coming to accept that there are others who will support me if I ask for their help. Removing my mask made it possible for me to experience these truths. May your efforts to live authentically be so handsomely rewarded.