My theory about why Halloween is such a popular holiday: October 31st is the only day of the year we are proud to be hiding behind our masks—the more elaborate the better. Alas, the other 364 days while we may show our visages to the world, our essence remains walled off. We both long for yet fear being seen in a way that feels true. But we have internalized the belief that who we really are is lesser than, not as good as everyone else.

Conforming to Expectations

Practically from the womb, we are taught what types of behaviors in certain situations are appropriate and will win us praise and love, and punished when we behave in a manner that feels natural and satisfying but isn’t deemed appropriate.

Many of my patients grew up feeling their parents’ love was conditional—behave the right way and you are rewarded.  March to the beat of your own drummer and you are called bad, ungrateful, in some tragic cases unlovable. It wasn’t safe to be genuine.

We are taught that certain standards of behavior are expected in different scenarios—at school, with family, peers, religious leaders, and in jobs… Indeed, it is vitally important to obey important rules: Yes, please do squelch the urge to walk out of the store with the expensive necklace you can’t afford. But each time you feel forced to buy an outfit you really don’t like because you still ache from kids laughing at you in school over your creative get-ups, you reinforce your lack of trust in your sartorial preferences and grow more detached from what really fits you.

Showing Your Authentic Self to Yourself

Hiding becomes so common that spontaneity—genuine reactions and innate self-confidence diminish, sometimes almost totally disappearing. How can you be secure in who you are if you are afraid to show your authentic self even to your self?

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Think of performers onstage—glorying in playing a character and garnering applause. But when they take off the heavy makeup, some fear disappointing others that they are not who they portray.

The weight of all that subterfuge is suffocating but starts to feel natural. Your genuine impulses have been ignored so often they have gone undercover. Many of my patients say something along the lines of, “Sherry, I am so used to acting a part, to being ‘on’ I don’t even think I know who I really am.”

Making Changes

The work of excavation is a slow but essential one. While undertaking any change, one small step at a time is the best way to proceed rather than wholesale destruction. (Don’t dump your job and your marriage simultaneously!)  I often ask patients to close their eyes and pull forth an old memory of a time they felt whole. *Pam shared, “I used to love to pick food up in my hands—chicken, ribs, whatever, and to shovel it into my mouth. My mother would slap my hand and tell me how gross that was; I was like an animal. If I wanted to eat with the rest of the family I had to use a knife and fork.”  Pam finished, sighing, “It’s been years since I’ve eaten anything but a cookie without cutting it into dainty bites. I don’t even eat messy with my husband!”

I told her to bring a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken to our next session…and to leave utensils at home.  She quaked, “Really? You won’t think I’m disgusting?” I said, “I will applaud your gleeful gluttony!”

The next session she brought in KFC.  For fifteen minutes she just stared at the food. I took a piece and gobbled it down like a cave-woman! (Normally I rarely eat fried foods and never, ever eat in front of patients but told myself this was for a good cause!)

Hesitantly she reached for a thigh, took a small bite, then another and another closed her eyes in ecstasy and made smacking sounds as she licked the bones. “Oh yum! I forgot how good this was.”

After the last crumb of fried heaven was gone I said, “How about doing this with your husband?”

“Oh no. I couldn’t! He’d look at me like I lost my mind!”

“Or maybe he’ll be glad you found it again.  What’s the worst thing that can happen if you take a risk?”

“Hmmm.”

The next week she came in, lit from within. “Sherry, *Bob was so happy I showed him the ‘piggy’ side of me. He confessed he normally did stuff like with friends or alone because he didn’t want to disappoint me. I’ve never felt more connected to him—or to myself.”

Little by little Pam began to reconnect with various ‘lost’ parts of herself.  Happily, her husband was extremely supportive of this journey, applauding his wife’s efforts to emotionally disrobe.

Six months later she took a very scary step—quitting the job that had never felt comfortable:  “Being a financial advisor has always felt so false but that’s what my family encouraged, so that’s what I did.”

Although she took a drastic pay cut to take a job at a non-profit, she feels rich in her soul.

Do the hard work of learning to accept yourself inside and out for the glorious, if flawed, creature you are, and mask-wearing will be a lark, not an act of self-loathing.

Last Updated: Jul 10, 2018