When I was around 25, I received a beautiful Christmas card from a neighbor that I hadn’t seen since I graduated high school. She had received my card and responded to my annual Christmas letter.
She was so happy for me, stating that I had the “All American Dream” life: A hard-working husband of the same Christian faith. Two healthy children: a boy, then a girl, two years apart, both doing well academically. A home in Florida with a swimming pool. I could work if I wanted to or be an “at-home” mom.
I just stared at what she wrote and thought to myself, “She’s right. I have it all. But why am I so unhappy? For The next few weeks, I mulled over what she wrote. I came to realize that I didn’t really know who I was. It was time to make a change. I came up with the following idea and what an eye-opener and life-changer it was!
I cut up some scrap paper and on each I wrote my various personalities, the masks, I used in different situations. In public, I was the dutiful Marine wife; behind doors I was the victim of a forced-dry alcoholic sex addict. Around my mother, I was the silent, yet seething obligatory daughter. In public with my kids, I was the Koolaide mom; in private, I was an over-controlling bully. At church, I was the pious teacher of children and leader of the women’s group. On the dance floor, I was the slutty center of attention. At work, I was an over-working martyr. Around the water cooler, I agreed with whatever gossip was being spread in the moment, in silent allegiance to all sides. Depending on who I was with, I cussed like a sailor or talked like a saint. I discovered that I had sixteen distinct masks that I donned, depending on the circumstances.
Living with a man I didn’t even like, I allowed my mom to push us to get married as soon as I graduated high school. He wanted children, so I was obliging. Not following through with my college plans, I took expendable jobs, already ready to fill other’s needs. I did the yardwork, painted the houses in and out, minor repairs, whatever I could so that weekends would be free to do what my husband or others wanted to do. I became a master at being what I thought everyone wanted me to be. All the while, smiling on the outside, pretty much dead within. As I sadly looked at these sixteen pieces of paper, I realized that I didn’t have an identity.
I was wondering if I was mentally ill, remembering the tv mini-series, “Sybil.” Did I have true multiple personalities? I mulled over those thoughts and did a little research. What made more sense was the discovery that I was a serious people-pleaser who had no direction. Just going with the flow, the path of least resistance. Physically and emotionally exhausting myself to help others so they wouldn’t hurt or abandon me. It was my sister-in-law who introduced me to the term “codependency.” She had a habit of bringing to my attention song lyrics and movies with a codependent theme. I realized that girls were being brainwashed to be subservient. I had been sucked into that vacuum.
I decided it was past time for me to create the real me. Using those pieces of paper, I began to change my behavior. I wanted to be the true me, the same person, whether I was in church, on the dance floor, at work, home or in the public. It took a lot of courage, discipline and inner strength to begin to “meld” into me. Along the way I had to learn how to worry less about how people judged me and to press on. The experience of being authentic and in my integrity were hugely empowering. I’m still a work in progress, but at least I know who I am. I am that, I am.
I encourage you to go within and discover your social masks.