Taking Off the Mask: Letting Your Authentic Self Be Seen

Oct 29, 2023
authentic self, image of a woman removing a white mask

Halloween isn't the only time we wear masks.

In fact, I bet a good number of us wear masks a good chunk of the time. 

We hide our insecurities with bravado. Our flaws masquerade behind perfectionism. Our need to belong is shielded by agreeableness. We pretend like we're fine when we're not, that we're happy with things that bother us, that we're in control, that we've got it all together. We mold ourselves to meet others' perceived expectations, not always realizing the toll that doing so takes on us.  

I read a quote this week that was part gut punch, but it summed things up beautifully:

I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself. - Rita Mae Brown

 Let that sink in.


Why Do We Do It?

As important as healthy relationships are to our quality of life - even our longevity - forming tight bonds isn't always easy. We all want to be understood, accepted, and valued for who we are, not just what we can do or provide for others. Yet, opening ourselves up to intimate scrutiny can be incredibly uncomfortable. When we think about taking off the mask, of letting our authentic selves out for the world to see, we feel vulnerable.

And you know what?


Vulnerability Sucks

That feeling that comes when we're exposed and unsure of the outcome, of how others are going to respond to us or what will happen, leaves us with an icky, small, even shameful, emotional residue. That feeling is vulnerability. 

In those moments, our soft underbellies are exposed, and we're open to the possibility of getting hurt. What if we're honest with someone and they have a negative reaction? What if we let people see our flaws and they reject us? What if there are repercussions for our honesty and the blowback isn't good? What if we express what we really need and we end up disappointed?

A lot of times, those possibilities just seem too risky, so we mask up.

Nod and smile. Stay silent. Hem and haw. Beat around the bush. Act like you don't care. Lash out. Lie. Deceive. Pretend. Fake it. Minimize. Play small. Invalidate. 

With the protection of our masks, we jump back into our comfort zones, relieved that we are no longer fully on display.

Yet doubt takes hold.

When we hide our true selves from others, the little voice in the back of our minds lingers. It whispers things like, "Sure, everyone likes you, but it's a facade. They don't know the real you." 

"You have their respect now, but you'd lose it if..."

"They'll judge you if they know..."

"Bad things will happen if you let any of this show at work."

And so we mask to stay safe and to fit in, but it's not the same as belonging. 


But...Vulnerability Is Brave

Real intimacy, truly being known, requires the courage to be open about who you really are, what you really think and feel, and what you really want and need. 

I can't tell you how many people are moving through life right now feeling lonely, desperately longing for connection...while desperately clinging to their masks. The idea of expressing themselves wholly and honestly, even to their partners, best friends, or long-time colleagues, seems entirely too risky.

When we guard ourselves, we build a wall to keep us safe. But walls also keep others out.

It's a catch 22.

To feel a level of connection, real connection, we must be willing to take a risk, to be vulnerable. So while vulnerability sucks, it is also one of the bravest things possible. 


Being Real Is Worth the Risk

With courage and a willingness to be uncomfortable, I am learning just how valuable vulnerability is. For me, some of the most potent lessons came shortly after I stopped driving. 

Up until that point, I was quite quiet about my visual impairment. Driven by shame and a deeply convincing belief that I would be shunned in all the ways if others knew, I got really good at faking sight. Unfortunately, there's no real way to do that when it comes to driving a motor vehicle. So I had to take that mask off.

The first time I shared publicly about my disability was one of the scariest moments for me. But it turned out well, and I got to see that people weren't nearly as horrified as I'd envisioned they'd be. 

Fast forward a bit. My vision was becoming common knowledge but asking for help wasn't. Hiding and masking were still my defaults. Then I found myself at the studio where I used to practice swing dancing with a pretty big group, some of whom I'd known for years and some I didn't actually know at all. We were getting ready for a competition weekend. I was newly single and facing the prospect of walking into a large ballroom on my own. 

At the time, that was one of the most intimidating things for me.

Walking into a big room by myself and trying to find my people is hard. Because of the nature of my vision, I have trouble seeing faces clearly from any distance, so that leaves me wandering aimlessly, looking (probably more accurately feeling) like an idiot. It's daunting. 

So, I decided to be brave and announce to the entire practice group that doing that was difficult, and I asked if they could please wave or, even better, come over and get me, if they saw me walk in. 

Of course, everyone was supportive. I got hugs and texts and offers for rides. it was overwhelming.

Not all in a good way.

When I got home, I sobbed. Like ugly cry sobbing. 

It wasn't a feeling of appreciation or support or love. It was, what I have since learned is called, a vulnerability hangover. The recoil that comes from putting yourself out there so unprotected. 

It wasn't pleasant.

But it was powerful. 

On the other side of that experience came closeness. Some friends who had known me for years now knew me differently, and we both felt closer for it.

On the other side of that experience also came confidence. My acceptance of my vision and my trust in myself both grew.

I learned important lessons that day: 1) That the little voice that says others will reject you isn't always right and 2) That I can do hard things

Those lessons, which have served me well in so many ways over the years, were hard-won and absolutely would not have been possible without vulnerability.

As I prepare to don a costume in the name of Halloween fun, I am also thinking about how I can continue to take off my remaining metaphorical masks. I am asking myself, where am I being truly authentic and what am I shying away from? How might I let my guard down?

Do you have the courage to join me? 


 I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself. - Rita Mae Brown


Written by Dr. Ashley Smith

Co-founder of Peak Mind

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