Is it possible for us to be ourselves, bare to the world regardless of which situation we find ourselves in?  For example, are you the same person at 6am drinking your first cup of coffee with your dog as you are at 11am in an overly warm conference room with six other harried coworkers?  Or at 7pm when you’re settling in for the dinner/homework/house work routine?

Last week, my DGC partner wrote a blog about our internal tension… being who you are when you’re relaxed versus feeling the tension when focused on who you think you ought to be.  And I agree with her that tension doesn’t have to be a bad thing – it can be a driver and a motivator.

But it led me to wonder two things… at what point is tension destructive and not productive, and why would I want to be anyone but who I am?

Tension and stress might come from situations at work that require careful scrutiny or an unpleasant conversation; it might come from one of my kids coming home with a poor grade or having a fight with  a friend; or it might come from soggy, overcooked pasta or a tough steak.  I am lousy with steak.  Ask anyone.

These are all normal, every day tensions. And they arise from situations around us, from elements in our world that we then must determine how to tackle and solve.  This is the type of stress that motivates action, that requires some thoughtful decision making and rational judgement, and that helps us move forward in our daily lives.

But there’s another tension suggested in Shirley’s post… the idea that we bring different personas to each situation. And that’s the tension that has us at high risk for breakdowns, meltdowns and shutdowns.  When you’re always playing a role, you’re spending a lot of energy trying to read the situation, trying to anticipate the person you’re with and trying to control the situation.  That’s exhausting. You’re the actor and at the same time trying to be the director, the cinematographer and the script writer.  That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on yourself.

And in which of those roles, are you being you?

We feel that we put something at risk when we are wholly just ourselves.  We become vulnerable because there is no mask to hide behind.  This opens us to criticism, to ridicule, to shame… and to true connections with others who share what we think, feel and believe.  So if I tell you that red is my favorite color, you can criticize me.  Or you could also tell me your favorite color and then we share something new about each other.  What is the most vulnerable you can be? Telling someone you love them.  And you may face rejection, discomfort, silence.  Or perhaps, just maybe, that person says they love you, too. The ability to be vulnerable means  your power is in owning your feelings and your self, and not relying on the reactions of others to make it good, bad, right, wrong, or true.

Here’s the juxtaposition.  You might argue that in playing all those roles is not just self-protection, but you are able to keep everyone happy and the situation under control; and each one of those roles is just a different part of yourself, because of course, it’s *you* playing all those parts.  And that’s true.  I’m not sure we can ever fully mask who we really are.

But if that’s the case, why not be true to yourself and reduce the stress of playing roles, interpreting scenes and controlling outcomes… and simply let you and all the facets of you been seen, live a real life ‘come as you are’ party.  Because when you wear a mask, it doesn’t mean there is less criticism, ridicule or shame.  It merely means you have placed a layer of synthetic something between you and the world, something to hide behind so that others won’t see that you’re hurt.  But then, that requires you to continue pretending that you’re not hurt. And so the game never ends.  And a game that never ends, a game you can never win, is ultimate a destructive game.  At some point, you’re too exhausted to go on.

And when you’re at that point, do you even know who you are anymore?

This is where we go through a midlife crisis, a divorce after 20-something years, a meltdown, a breakdown, a shutdown… because we’ve been hiding for so long behind our various personas that kept the rest of the world happy, that we forgot which one was truly at the core of who we are.

About ten years ago, my husband said to me, “For someone who talks so much and is so great with language, you never really tell me anything about you.”  When it’s the person closest to you in all the world who says that, you start to pay attention.  So, I sought out a generous old soul I know, and she said, “Why don’t you try just saying what you really think and see what happens?”

So I tried it.  And it took practice.  When you’re in the habit of wearing a mask, it isn’t easy to just put it down cold turkey.  I tested. I observed. I’d hide again for a bit and then come out again.  The idea of saying what I really thought wasn’t about being rude or mean, it wasn’t about blurting out my innermost secrets.  It was about no longer hiding behind a litany of meaningless words shaped to make other people happy – or at least, not judge me.  It was about slowly, finally, getting to know and get comfortable with me.  Me, in any situation.

So sure… we might approach a particularly prickly personality with care.  But adjusting our approach to a situation is different than playing a role.  I might choose my words with more care but I am not changing my message or creating a new persona.  I am thoughtfully choosing my words – but instead of a litany of meaningless words, they are delivering the message of what I really think.

There is power and strength in being who you are and believing that in any situation, you are enough.

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”
― Nathaniel HawthorneThe Scarlet Letter

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