The Masks We Wear: Overcoming the Fear of Authentic Self Expression as We Age
A look at how putting on the mask of "adulthood" hid my best qualities and why I finally decided to take it off.
“When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” C.S. Lewis
I stumbled across this quote from one of my favorite literary authors while searching for something inspiring to post on social media about being authentically you. It instantly conjured up a version of my childhood self trying to hide the fact that I still wanted to play with my Barbie Dolls during a 6th grade sleepover. I had to laugh a little at how important that was to me at that time, and how much fear I had around not being found out. And suddenly as I thought back to that moment, and then to the next where I once again felt the need to hide some part of my childish self, there was a moment of harsh illumination. One that was truly in the words of today, “triggering” for me. I was triggered in reading a quote from a man I’ve long revered, because it illuminated a long standing internal war I've waged within myself for as long as I can remember. A war where the childish version of myself stood in direct opposition to an imaginary adult version I felt I had to become some day. I realize now that it was a war I never had to wage, but because I chose to, robbed me of almost 30 year’s worth of feeling confident and happy in who I was and being able to act authentically as myself.
And it made me want to cry for my past self. Or scream. Or maybe put on a princess hat and go grocery shopping.
Ah, Fear my old friend, I see you’re back again. Yes, I made a friend out of my fear of being seen as I truly am, because what else could I do? I lived more closely with that fear than I lived with anything or anyone else.That chord of fear that I believe somewhere deep down inside lies within each one of us. The one we first discover in our own way when someone or something strums that chord and its hum we finally hear. The chord that hummmms “You don’t fit in. You’re not like the others. You're not loveable as you are." And just like that we’re suddenly aware and fearful of the parts of ourselves that make us unique or which help us to enjoy our experience in a unique way. You’re too sensitive. You’re too silly. You still want to play with that? You talk too much and get too excited. You’re too shy and read too much. You’re too hyper active. Hummmmm. Fill in the blank for what you were singled out for.
At times for myself that hum became so overwhelmingly loud that I could no longer hear my own thoughts, feel my own feelings, or connect directly with my own intuition.
In the past I explained away these painful moments that strummed this chord within me as just moments of needed self awareness. In fact I tried to be grateful for the hurtful comments or judgments made by others towards myself. I would hear myself thanking others for their unasked for critiques with a smile on my face, while at the same time biting back the bitter taste of hurt that rose up in my throat. In time I found myself wanting to hide my best attributes because they were judged to be weaknesses. My innocent nature was deemed naive. My belief in standing up for what was fair and equitable, seen as argumentative. My creative imagination, viewed as unrealistic. And in the end I decided to start hiding these parts of myself to spare myself the pain. If I was ever going to become that strong future adult version of myself I thought I had to embody, I would have to toughen up and leave the childish parts of myself behind. And so I emotionally disconnected from my own true self, my Spirit, put my head down and went to work becoming a “grown up”.
There is some part of the above that we can all empathize with. An authentic part of ourselves that at some point we began to hide in an effort to grow up and become an adult.
Maybe someone told you that your joyful laugh was too loud. That you talked way too much. That your inquisitive nature was annoying. That the topics which interested you were boring. That you were too passionate. That your excitement for something new made you look naive, unpolished or undereducated. The list is endless in the ways in which the innocently “childish” or authentically original version of ourselves can be made to feel like it has to be hidden or changed.
These critiques do not end in childhood, they continue on into our later years by careless comments from a boss, a new friend or a family member. We then rationalize these hurtful critiques and the hiding or changing of that part of ourselves called out because they are made by someone we respect. Who we see as being “grown up”. So we tell ourselves that we have to “grow up” too. And by “grow up” we actually mean “fit in”. We have to get tough. We have to stop being so sensitive. We have to turn away from our emotional selves, our inner spiritual child crying out to be seen, and we have to put on a brave face. We have to put on the mask of being an “adult”.
But what does growing up and becoming an adult actually mean? Does it mean putting away the best parts of who we are? Does it mean hiding our wishes, hopes and childhood dreams? What does this “adult” mask we force ourselves to wear represent for us?
To each one of us the answer will be different and yet the same. The mask is molded to look like the person who first told you that some aspect of your authentic self wasn’t appropriate or good enough to be seen or expressed.
I spent years trying to make mine fit. Until I finally woke up one day and realized that this was what I had wasted so much time and effort on.
I had spent the majority of my life trying to be someone I never wanted to be but felt I had to become.
Since that time, what I’ve realized as I’ve gone through my own personal journey of re-connection to my authentic self, having to scrub away decades of societal programming and self judgment along the way, is that the suppression of the childish nature within myself also suppressed my ability to enjoy the joyfully fun and shockingly unpredictable childish aspect of my life experience. Because I wouldn’t let myself laugh as loudly as I wanted to, I couldn’t truly enjoy another’s loud boisterous laugh. “Shhhhh, we should really keep it down.” I would say. Because I wouldn’t let myself openly express my own opinions and perspectives freely, I resented others who had the audacity to express their own. Because I wouldn’t let myself wear a princess hat to the grocery store, I wondered if the woman wearing hers was mentally ill for doing so. And right there, I had lost the connection to the beauty, the fun and the magic that is available for all of us to enjoy, because I had lost that connection to it from within.
What I’ve learned however, is that the true beauty of our experience is that this connection, once lost, can always be found! That childish part of ourselves is never truly lost. We may have to turn our gaze a little deeper internally for a while until we find that hiding child. It may take picking back up an old hobby, or re-reading a favorite book to remind you of that part of yourself and where you’ve left them hiding. But the fact remains that this version of you is always there. The version that is innocently and uniquely you. Waiting for you to finally ask them if they would like to come out and play.
There is that overused adage - “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Yes, it may make you want to roll your eyes as it does mine, but there is a lot of truth in this one statement.
Do you want to live in a world where you have the right to laugh as loudly as you want? To openly state your opinions and beliefs when you feel the need? Where the naive part of yourself is appreciated? One where you get to live out loud what you are truly passionate about? Or dare I dream it? A world where there’s a person making balloon hats for you and your coworkers to wear at your next work event? Or where you sit back and really enjoy the exuberance of the Mariachi band at your next dinner out, instead of scrolling through your social media feeds? Where you stop by that children’s park you’ve run by every morning for over a decade and decide to just swing. A world that is full of laughter, play, unconditional love and originality. That world can exist. And it’s built one person at a time. One person who fearlessly chooses to live in a state of authentic joyful childishness.
I think how sad our world would be if C.S. Lewis had not been brave enough to share his childish nature with us. His unique gifts and perspective unlocked so much wonder for me as a child and continue to do so today.
In the illuminating light of his courage, I’m making my New Year’s resolution this year to live more fully as my childish self.
To experience life anew. With a level of abandon and curiosity that forces me to wipe the slate clean and put down the heavy burden of self judgment. I plan to write more, embracing the imaginary world only I can connect to. I plan to genuinely express more, so that I get to enjoy more of the genuine self expression of others. And I plan to play more, drinking deeply from the wellspring of optimistic curiosity that bubbles up inside me. So don’t be surprised when my inner child comes knocking on your door to ask if yours would like to come out and play. Or … if you see a 41 year old woman wearing a princess hat the next time you’re out grocery shopping.
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