Last week I sat down with a woman for an impromptu chat. She hadn’t come in to see me in particular, and the appointment I was checking on was actually a no-show, so there I was with an open time slot, and here she was wanting to see me but without an appointment. Life does that sometimes; it brings about opportunities for reaching out and it’s whether we recognize them and take advantage of them.
So there we were in my office and within two or three minutes she had laid out 5 significant sources of stress, any one of which was difficult to deal with on its own. Put all 5 together and you’ve got a juggling act, where she’s akin to a fireman putting out fires on an emergency basis without much time to get to root causes before another one flares up.
And then I asked, “How are you doing?” and she said, “Okay I guess”. But it was when I said, “No…I asked how are YOU doing? I really want to know”, that the floodgates opened. “It’s been so long since somebody really cared to ask” she said. Soon the garbage can under my desk was filling up with moist tissues and she was making a valiant effort to keep her makeup from smearing and running, if not entirely successful in the effort.
So I told her I was interested and did care about how she was doing and told her it’s pretty clear she’s holding a lot of emotion just beneath the surface of things if a genuine question about her health can provoke tears. “That’s what we do isn’t it?” she said, “Hide behind a mask to get by.”
Of course there are a couple of ways of looking at this imagery of hiding behind a mask. One the one hand it’s a good strategy for fitting in to situations we find uncomfortable. Look happy and you might fit in more, have less attention drawn to yourself, and not have to deal with prying people. On the other hand, the trade-off is shouldering a lot of burdens alone and without much support. Not to mention that ones mental health is in jeopardy when the problems we face go on and on without being resolved.
Sure we all have problems and issues. Some of us have to deal with stressors around basic issues like affordable housing, where our next meal is coming from, trying to exist on a bare budget month after month, being a single parent with no family support, living with mould and landlords who don’t take any corrective action. And others appear to have no stressors whatsoever but still do, they just get resolved relatively quickly only to replaced by other stressors at intervals they can generally cope with.
I don’t know that I’d advocate for a world where we stripped off those masks and all our stressors and issues were naked to the world. Many would be victimized even more by others, exploited for being vulnerable. Maybe that would outweigh the positives and maybe not. It would be much harder to walk through the streets and see people and immediately know all the issues they are dealing with. Could you deal with those issues? Could you save them all? I doubt it. And would the ones that you can’t save haunt you? Is that fair when you helped those you could?
Masks are coping systems in action. The face we show to the world, as in the case of the person I was listening to, permits her to assimilate, appear ‘normal’ (whatever that is), and try not to stand out. However, in the case of this woman, she was not so difficult to read. Although to be fair, because her problems are ones common to many of the others I see and listen to regularly, I get practiced at reading the signs, linking what issues generally relate to other ones, and my colleagues in social work are equally skilled in this regard.
Issues typically masked are associated with low self-esteem The low self-esteem a result of an upbringing by parents or a parent who didn’t provide a nurturing childhood filled with love and proper parenting. Then in school, the person may have had to struggle for acceptance, had poor grades, became socially isolated and as a result of that isolation retreated to a place of safety – crafting a mask. Then with low grades – maybe a dysfunctional family, higher education is beyond hope, and with the loss of that education is a destiny of low-income employment. Low expectations in the home life transfer to the working life, and when problems arise in the workplace, it results in quitting as a coping mechanism, but that brings about other problems and reinforces the failure as a norm.
Counselling and listening often helps by establishing a rapport and setting with a distrustful person where they can open up, take down their guard, and peel off the mask – even if only temporarily. Often what’s behind that mask is a wonderful, beautiful person who is wanting nothing more than to unburden and asking for help.
Interesting that a product people often apply to their faces is called, “Concealer”. It’s a facial product that conceals imperfections. But that’s the thing isn’t it? We are who we are and are worthy of love and respect even though we go through this world with our imperfections.