The feeling of living behind a mask often springs from a disturbance in one's early relationship with anger. The most threatening of emotions, anger between child and parent is also inevitable, because no parent can fulfill all of a child's needs. A famous child psychoanalyst, the late D. W. Winnicott, said that a parent's job is to neither retaliate nor abandon the child in the face of the child's anger. The parent's duty, he would say, is simply to survive that anger. There will always be frustration or disappointment in relationships. Parents who can allow a child to hate them temporarily, who can survive that hatred and return love, are bestowing the greatest of gifts. When a parent is too needy, however—because of depression, loneliness, overwork, unhappiness, alcoholism, selfishness, intolerance, insecurity or a host of other factors—a child will instinctively put the parent's needs ahead of her own. In creating a false front to manage parental demands, the child puts a mask into place—a mask that soon hardens into a shell. Instead of learning that anger is tolerable, the "as if" person learns only to maintain the connection at all costs. And the costs are high; something wonderful is lost when that naturally occurring anger is suppressed. Spirit becomes impoverished. Whole aspects of the self are vaporized.
Coming out from behind the mask is a tricky business. A person who tries to reclaim her anger by "getting in touch with her feelings"—hitting pillows or verbalizing her rage to family and friends—usually turns into a parody of an angry person. An adult expressing infantile aggression is not a pretty sight. More than just a recovery of anger is necessary to come out from behind a mask. The capacity to experience a whole range of emotions has been pushed out of awareness, and edging back into that forbidden territory provokes great anxiety. It's almost like learning a new language, except that the grammar and vocabulary are irrational; they can be learned only in the unstructured moments of life, when the false self can be tricked into giving up some of its hard-won control.
That's why dreams often hold the key to buried aspects of the self. One has to be asleep before one can permit unacceptable feelings such as anger to flood the psyche. When I was in therapy, I started to have recurrent dreams in which I ground my teeth until they fractured and exploded into bloody bits. These dreams gave way to a new set that involved frantic attempts to communicate with lovers or friends, but the telephone would disintegrate as I dialed. I couldn't stand those dreams; I'd wake from them unable to tolerate the violence of my own feelings. But I was trying to become whole, to be, in Steve's words, the central character in my own life, so it was up to me to figure out what the dreams were telling me. I-ultimately remembered being left in- charge of my younger sister when I was 5 years old, while my parents went to visit friends next door. There was an-intercom—the telephone from my dreams—connecting the two houses. Yielding to the demands of my family, wanting to please my parents, I pushed away my fear and anger at having to be too responsible. Later I came to pride myself on being a responsible person, but I couldn't feel whole until I recovered the more complicated emotions of my childhood, too threatening to acknowledge at the time.
Next: Rediscovering powerful feelings
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