Masks & Secrets

“Nothing makes us so lonely as our secrets.”

– Paul Tournier, Swiss physician and author

“We’ve all got a secret,” Doug told me, “and we all wear masks.”

Doug was upset over something his sister had said to him. Apparently, she had been helping her and Doug’s mother with some spring cleaning and came across Doug’s old report cards.

“Those report cards were filled with plenty of Cs, Ds and even the occasional F.”

I asked Doug to explain and was surprised by his admission. Even though Doug was bright, articulate and incredibly astute, he hadn’t done well in school. At one point, Doug had been placed in an “Opportunity” class for students requiring additional tutoring. He found mathematics incredibly challenging and confessed that, to this day, he still didn’t know his times tables.

I wondered if perhaps Doug had suffered from an undiagnosed learning disability. The negative impact on his self-esteem had been tremendous. Based upon his poor scholastic performance, Doug had concluded that he was a failure – a loser. Yet, terrified of being judged, he went to great lengths to create the impression that he was wise, worldly and confident.    

“When she found my old report cards, I knew the jig was up.”

Doug told me his sister had discovered his secret: he was a fraud. He had always been the wise and all-knowing older brother, but now that façade had begun to crumble. Doug wished he had returned to his childhood home, found and burned those old report cards. He was always afraid someone would find them and discover his secret and pull off his mask.

He recalled hearing her say, “You’re not nearly as smart as I thought.”

“That was unfair,” I said. “Besides, there’s more to being smart than a good report card. In any case, that was a long time ago. Look at what you’ve accomplished. That says something.”

“No,” replied Doug woefully. “She was right: I’m a fool pretending to be a wise man.”

I could relate to Doug. Despite doing all right in school (an average B and C student), I often judged myself as less than my peers. To rectify this situation, I accumulated and read hundreds of books on various topics, took courses, and made connections with bright, educated people. I wanted to be seen in a certain way and crafted a mask to achieve it.

For years, I felt just like Doug. I was afraid of being vulnerable, afraid to confront self-limiting beliefs that had held me back and stalled my progress. It wasn’t until I began my journey of self-esteem building that I found the courage to peek out from behind the mask.   

Like Doug, many of us buy into labels and judgements. When we’re young and dependent upon the “masters” in our lives for insight and understanding, we easily absorb everything that we see, hear and experience, both positive and negative. As a result, we internalize the actions, reactions and judgments of others and many times find ourselves lacking. As a result, we develop a series of negative assumptions about ourselves: “I’m stupid,” “I’m a failure,” or, like Doug, “I’m a fraud.”

A powerful aspect of self-esteem building is increasing awareness and connecting with your authentic self – in this case, the real you who dwells behind the mask. Not the fearful you. Not the unworthy you. Your authentic self is you at your core – free from the disempowering beliefs and negative judgements laid upon you. If you want to find this person and eventually remove your mask, here are some steps to help move you in that direction.

Get to know your mask and spend some time thinking about the secrets you hide from the world. How do you wish to appear, and why is it important? How different is that impression from the person who hides behind it?

Spend some time pondering the reasons why you created your mask in the first place. Chances are, it was an act of survival – a way to hide your “ugly” or “unworthy” parts from the world. However, looking at the reasons objectively, you might discover that the rationale for keeping the mask no longer exists. In all likelihood, the mask has served its purpose and is now more of an encumbrance on your personal growth and happiness.

The time has come to commit to being real. Some people never remove their masks for fear of revealing their secrets. Some people wear the mask for so long that they lose touch with who they are deep down inside. Don’t waste your life pretending. If you did well at something, acknowledge it. If things like school were a struggle for you, so be it – admit the fact and move on. Fear of judgment invariably creates more problems than not.   

Be honest with yourself and others. Be authentic. Be who you are and celebrate the fact. Now, that doesn’t mean you cease striving to be a better person, build your self-esteem, and achieve all you can. But it does mean you stop hanging onto disempowering beliefs that leave you feeling unworthy, undeserving and frightened.  

“Our lives only improve when we are willing to take chances,” wrote American painter, writer and naturalist Walter Anderson. “And the first and most difficult risk we can take is, to be honest with ourselves.”

When your mask comes off, you may feel a little raw and naked but also feel a new inner freedom. The more honest you can be with yourself, the more open you can be with others. Remove the mask. It’s the truest way to move forward on the path to self-discovery.

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