In the work I do, in helping homeless people overcome addiction, we talk a lot about wearing masks. We wear masks that communicate to the world “I’m fine.” We do this because saying “I’m not fine” well, it doesn’t usually produce the best results. We almost immediately regret it and, though exhausted from keeping up the charade, we reach for the “I’m fine” mask, give ourself a pep talk about how our feelings don’t matter, we’re being a baby, we’re being selfish, we should grow up, get tougher, not be so sensitive. We shake it off and press on.
But we’re kind of dying a little bit inside. More and more convinced that no one really knows us, no one understands and no one cares. We are sure they don’t like our sad, scared, worried selves. We are, when overcome by those less fun, positive emotions, it seems, alone. We really aren’t acceptable unless we’re functioning, helpful, happy, funny, easy-going, thankful and easy to be around. People seem to love me when I’m in Wonder Woman mode, when nothing can stop me. But when I’m in “I’ll probably get cancer again in two years and die and my daughter will barely remember me when she’s an adult” mode…yeah, I’m not fun. I’m weird. I’m probably terrifying.
So, we isolate. But we want reassurance. Comfort. Some signal from the outside world, far away as it feels, that we still matter. So, we reach for these phones in some feeble effort to connect. We send a feeble text. Maybe just a “hi.” To someone we really want to be safe. Or we call. The voicemail we leave (or don’t) is upbeat. Who wants to call back a giant loser who feels sorry for herself today. “Just wanted to say hi!” But our hearts sink. Why isn’t this person answering? Did I do something wrong? I thought we were close. Maybe we aren’t. Our suspicion that we kind of suck is growing.
We look to Facebook for, what? Evidence the world hasn’t forgotten about us? The unlikely possibility that someone said something nice about us today? Posted something cute or funny to our timeline. Only to find that a couple of our friends have gotten together for cheesecake without us. They know I love cheesecake! What. The. Hell. We invite someone else to lunch. They can’t go. We feel like we’re drowning.
Our interactions become less confident. We withdraw. We second guess our every move. We seem to leave disaster in our wake. No wonder no one wants to be around us. It’s actually kind of funny when this happens to me. I swear it just gets worse and worse. Since everyone hates me, I consider moving to Nebraska – people seem nice there. Maybe I should become a monk or a nun. In one of those cool mountain top places where they make beer, maybe?
This happens to me about twice a year. For about 2 days. I convince myself I’m toxic and unlovable. I take everything personally. I resent everyone and I sit and pout like Jonah after the whole whale incident when God has compassion on the people of Ninevah. As Jonah is pouting, God provides a branch leaf thing over his head for shade. It’s a whole metaphor where God points out Jonah’s lack of compassion but I like the branch. It’s this glimpse into who God is when we’re, as Jonah says, “so angry I could die!” Don’t you relate to that? My final straw is usually following a series of interactions that deflate me, the deodorant breaks into 12 pieces and falls on the floor or I get 17 red lights in a row when I’m already late. Usually my shade branch leaf thing from God comes in the form of one really understanding person. And it’s usually someone who feels like this pretty often. For me, it’s like I’m off my game. For them, it’s a constant battle against depression, anxiety and crippling insecurity. I’m not talking about attention seeking, overly needy, constant drama llamas. I’m talking about the people you generally enjoy, respect and care for. Some of them are secretly really sad. Or anxious. They have counseling appointments and prescriptions. They have secret, huge, overwhelming problems. And they spend a lot of time saying “I’m fine. How are you?”
Do you know these people? No? Umm. I have to tell you something. There are people, friends of yours, who would never tell you they’re hurting. Would never trust you with their pain. Because you don’t seem like you want to know. They tell you a little and you move away instead of closer.
We’re so self protective when it comes to other peoples’ messes. Is it because we’re too busy? So tired from the 37 things we need to do before bed? Or maybe we’ve finally got our own mess under control for the moment? We only like people when they’re fun? We’re scared of other people’s pain.
If all of this is foreign to you and especially if you want to dismiss it, then you should probably acknowledge that people don’t trust you with their pain.
I have a couple of astoundingly emotionally intelligent people in my life that if I give them just enough of a peek into my momentary mess, they know what to do. The empathy just floods the place. Just from that step of them moving closer instead of backing up and slinking out the door…just by staying with me…this reminds me of what’s true. That I’m God’s kid. That I’m loved. That I’m ok. That I’ll get my mojo back. That I’m still lovable when I’m a mess.
I want to be this for others, too. I succeed occasionally – have glorious moments of getting to love someone well in a time of grief, fear or shame. But I mostly fail. I slink out the door, sometimes, too. It’s tempting to try to control things so that your mess is the only one you have to deal with. It feels overwhelming to invite more messes in.
But it’s one of the great paradoxes. Mostly, dwelling in the collective messiness together helps all parties involved. Now, if you’re codependent and constantly running toward every mess, that’s a different problem – I’m talking to the rest of us. The isolators, the people with boundaries a mile high. Those whose first thought is “not my problem.”
The best thing I’ve learned about the “I’m fine” mask is this: if everyone loves you when you’re fine, when you’re the best version of yourself you can muster – if they only love you when you’re wearing your mask, you have to be really honest with yourself about something. They don’t love you. They just love the mask.
Can we try to stop requiring people we claim to love to wear masks? Can we welcome an occasional breakdown as a moment of authenticity that we’re honored to be a part of? Can we try to create conditions that really invite people to be themselves? Because that, I’m convinced, is what really helps heal people.
The work of people like John Lynch, (grace) Dr. Brene Brown (shame, blame, belonging) and Dr. Henry Cloud (healthy relating, leadership) can help us get better, healthier and more authentic.
Here are some good books:
SAFE PEOPLE by Henry Cloud
DARING GREATLY by Brene Brown
THE CURE by John Lynch and others