Over the past five to six years, I have come to believe, and now understand, that the traumas, experiences, emotions and foods we cannot process, digest and evacuate will putrefy, fester and eventually wreak havoc on the body. I didn't come to this knowledge on account of study or intellectual prowess, but rather ... as is true of my nature ... I learned it in the school of hard knocks. First-hand experience.
In Part 1 of this article, I revealed many of my masks. I used them as armor on a regular basis - rotating through them like a wardrobe depending on the situation and my mood. Here they are again for review:
The Victim Mask: why does all the bad stuff happen to me
The Unworthy, Unloveable Mask: everyone always leaves me fear of abandonment thing, so I'll remain aloof, guarded and unengaged
The Workaholic Mask: I get a lot of praise and recognition here so I'll do more of it ALL THE TIME!
The Overachiever Mask: If I'm perfect and achieve a million goals that are unusually lofty, I'll finally be loved .
The People-pleaser Mask: Sure... walk all over me like a carpet with your muddy boots. My needs aren't validated, important or worthy of time.
The "I Don't Give a Flying F*ck" Mask: Nothing I do really matters anyway, so why bother. I'll just eat, drink and be miserable over here while you people figure it out.
The Resenter Mask: This is the passive-aggressive, silently brooding martyr that comes out when my inner-child wants to go play but can't because there's work to be done. She often uses the phrase, "well if I don't do it, it won't get done" while she's huffily doing the dishes or laundry.
In my defense, I didn't know I had these masks, and certainly didn't make a conscious decision to wear them. Truly, I had no awareness of my pattern until I became the silent witness of my actions thanks to a book called The Surrender Experiment. For one month, I challenged myself to become unemotionally charged by external stimuli and to regularly practice 'stilling my mind' via meditation. I think I was around 39 or 40 for context. I simultaneously abstained from alcohol, sex and gluten.
To say it was challenging is an understatement, but what it helped me identify were some thought loops and behaviors that were creating major points of recurring conflict in my life. It kick-started a multi-year journey into self-discovery that has lead to some radical changes for the better (as my partner can attest... I hope).
This simple experiment gave me the space and permission to compassionately question my beliefs, and interrogate how and when they came into existence.
It wasn't until a few years later when I was introduced to the concept of masks that a lightbulb moment occurred. Although I had become better at identifying my triggers, I hadn't yet made the connection between my triggers, the masks and my often involuntary reactions. My over-protective ego would subconsciously engage when confronted with a perceived threat automatically setting off a chain reaction of biochemicals (hormones, neurotransmitters, endorphins, etc.) in my body.
My endocrine system was the first responder on the scene firing messages to the brain and other bodily systems before I even had time to fully grasp, process or interpret the situation. The outcome of this ripple effect was the selection of the 'right mask for the occasion' completely unbeknownst to me.
Here's the problem: Every bit of this was happening because of learned behavior.
Let me explain.
I learned to put on the people-pleaser mask at an early age because I was always in trouble with my step-mom and was never 'good enough'. As a child who had already experienced abandonment (my mom), my irrational thinking was, "If I can make everything perfect and do exactly what she wants, then maybe she'll like me and I am loveable." My child self would either be rewarded or punished based on the success or failure of being perfect even if it meant doing what I knew in my heart to be wrong.
For the record, my step-mom was manipulative, calculated and emotionally abusive so pleasing her was highly improbable. An adult would've maybe tried a handful of times and then said, 'see ya', but that's not what children do. We don't have the skills, experience or brain development to conduct an in-depth analysis and make decisions based on rational thinking.
The anxiety that comes along with the feeling of walking on eggshells is actually a side effect of too much cortisol and adrenaline coursing through the body due to fear. The body is very good at creating shortcuts, so right or wrong my body learned to see encounters with energy similar to my step-mom as potentially dangerous and a 'threat to survival'. Therefore, it secreted highly acidic hormones in advance of encounters with her which in turn increased heart rate, re-routed all resources to the limbs for fight or flight, disrupted digestion and impaired the part of the brain needed for discernment. This became the perpetual state of being, my MO as it were, which had long term effects. Since I couldn't avoid my step-mom, I lived in a heightened state of fear creating chronic stress and anxiety.
Another example... by the time I was 17, I had adopted something between the 'I don't give a flying f*ck' mask and the victim. After 10 years of trying to be good enough and failing miserably (the story I told myself), I sank into a severe depression. It was shortly after I was uprooted from Texas (given only two day's notice) in high school, and sent to live in Boston with my step-mom. My dad was staying behind to sell the house and finish some work projects, and would join later when all the loose ends were tied up. I wasn't given the option nor was I allowed to say goodbye to friends or family. It was like being held captive against my will, and I fell into despair.
What I experienced in my body was likely adrenal fatigue; a heaviness and lack of vitality that created numbness to shield me from more disappointment and trauma. I literally had no more resources to care, or devote to the facade of happy, and lost all hope of 'being rescued' from my prison. In response, my body could no longer produce or regulate endorphins and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin which are linked to joy, euphoria and pleasure. I likely already had a reduced number of opioid receptors (due to a lack of maternal attachment and childhood trauma) which are responsible for helping us make good decisions, so there was no longer a mechanism in place to inhibit the adoption of destructive behaviors that would provide a momentary hit of happiness. I turned to alcohol and a string of guys so I could feel something - anything. I used both as coping and escape mechanisms.
So why is this important?
As I'm writing this blog and documenting my various masks, it's blatantly obvious to me now, how each of them kept me trapped in a scarcity mindset and perpetuated the infinite cycle of anxiety and depression I've encountered throughout my life. My masks were used for 40+ years to repress feelings and memories associated with the many traumas I endured as a child, and they absolutely were contributing to my declining health.
The overachiever, workaholic and people-pleaser masks were initiating the release of cortisol and adrenaline keeping me in fight or flight, and held in the thought pattern of, "if I can do XYZ, I'll finally be good enough and worthy of love." While the victim, unloveable and don't give a flying f*ck were troughs of depression-like lows in which I felt helpless. To bring me out of a low, I might drink more, eat more or have more sex. To keep me riding the anxiety wave, I might have more caffeine, get less sleep or overindulge in self-important activities to cram my day full in the 'name of productivity and achievement'.
What's important is the process of dissecting the origins of these various masks and choosing to understand how they came into existence. This is where the magic lies. One by one peeling away the layers so I can relate to myself and others in new ways that will have lasting effects for generations to come. In full transparency, there have been times throughout this process when I've encountered buckets full of shame, guilt, disgust, embarrassment, grief and anger. I have often harshly judged and criticized, and have more often than I like to admit, struggled to forgive myself and others. I have cried, shouted, laughed and danced my way through it, and have come out on the other side each time with greater appreciation for my protective young self that invented the masks.
I also have released or shifted the energy bound to the masks which has been liberating. I don't feel so burdened by life as if it were happening to me instead of with and for me. There is a difference.
This process has given me agency; I have a choice. I can choose to allow my body to dictate the outcome, or I can be keenly present and aware of my triggers, so I can respectfully probe before I react. I can remind myself in that split second there is no life-threatening emergency. I can use the many tools in my arsenal like journaling, plant medicine, sound healing, talk therapy, meditation, breath work and more to manage my stress response. I'm sure I will uncover more masks on my travels through life, and I'll gladly add them to the collection after I've completed the review and analysis. Maybe I'll dust one off on occasion to have a little fun; trying it on to see if it still fits or if I've completely outgrown it.
The point is to see them for what they are, and make a conscious decision on how you want to engage. I choose to honor my body, my family and myself by releasing these masks as a process of disease prevention.