Hand of unrecognizable person picking up mask against beige background
Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

In my nearly twenty years as a psychiatrist, I've had my share of learning experiences. But one of the most life-changing lessons came before I'd even begun my formal training. I was 26 and had just summoned the courage to venture into my own therapy. It was a big step for me. Despite being a caretaker in my intimate relationships, happy to listen to the revelations of lovers and friends, I was afraid of the self-disclosure that therapy might require. But I went, because I was bothered by a peculiar feeling of unreality. I felt like a facsimile of a person, although I couldn't say why. I was hoping to break through the sense of living behind a mask.

In my first session with my new therapist, I struggled to explain to him what I wanted to accomplish. I was a good nurturer, I told him, but I was vaguely dissatisfied in that role. The feeling of emptiness and falseness that surrounded me like a smoky haze seemed to limit my capacity for truly intimate relationships. My therapist listened appreciatively, but then he startled me by appearing to change the subject. "Are you aware of your posture right now?" he asked me. "Notice the way you're sitting." I remember thinking, What's wrong with the way I'm sitting? I wasn't at all aware of what my body was doing. Shifting my attention, I found that I was perched precariously on the edge of the seat; there was nearly a foot of space between my body and the back of the chair. I suddenly became conscious of how uncomfortable it was to be teetering because I wasn't planted firmly on a base.

"You give yourself no support," my new therapist murmured. I knew immediately he was right—and I also felt that in some way my sense of falseness was connected to that lack of support.

I had made the first step toward removing the mask. With the help of my therapist, I came to see that my inability to support myself physically reflected an inability to support myself emotionally. Noticing my body was the prelude to acknowledging a whole set of feelings that I had pushed away because they seemed unacceptable. Eventually I discovered that I had learned to hide my true feelings from myself in childhood, when expressing anything but positive emotions seemed to displease adults. What kept me from feeling real as an adult was this learned inability to recognize, feel and act on a full set of emotions, negative as well as positive. My interactions with others seemed false because they had no firm foundation in real feelings.

Next: How people experience feelings of falseness
I often return to this memory in my own work as a therapist because so many of the people who come to see me complain of similar difficulties with feeling real. Jennifer, a reading specialist in her thirties, also lived behind a mask. She told me that when she was a child, her schoolteacher father leaned on her heavily for emotional support, confiding in her—inappropriately—about his depression from being in a loveless marriage. Her job was to reassure him, constantly and lavishly: "I had to tell him that I loved him way more than I did," she confided. "I couldn't just say, 'I love you'; I had to say, 'I love you, please don't die!'" Because she was still a child, her survival depended on not losing her father's love and protection. She had no choice but to make his emotional needs her priority. For the sake of her father, Jennifer learned to disguise what she was really feeling, but she sacrificed her authenticity. She developed what the pioneering psychoanalyst Helene Deutsch called an "as if" personality: She could act as if she cared, but she couldn't admit to her ambivalence—the mix of love and hate, resentment and pity that would have made her real. To embody her true personality and recognize her true feelings would have been much too threatening to Jennifer's relationship with her father.

Another patient of mine, a musician named Steve, uncovered a similar oversensitivity to the needs of others at the root of his feelings of falseness. Steve told me he often had the uncomfortable impression that he was never the central character in his own life. He began to pick this apart in a recent session when he noticed what he thought was a partially stifled yawn on my part, and then quickly averted his eyes so as not to make me uncomfortable by witnessing my fatigue. He caught himself trying to protect me from his observations and said so.

I wondered aloud what might happen if he didn't protect me. "I'd feel too big," Steve said. His remark was revealing. When he was not paying attention to someone else, not being a nice guy, he felt there was something dangerous in him that made him "too big." Like most people who had learned as children to suppress unpleasant emotions, he had a fear that he might be overpowering if he were anything but supernice and overcontrolled.

Next: Where the "masked" feeling comes from
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
Revisiting and familiarizing myself with this level of rage was an inextricable part of reclaiming my spirit and vitality. It didn't make me into an angrier person, as I might have feared; rather, it allowed me to unravel the forbidden feelings, to let them breathe. Accepting my anger was like leaning back in the chair at my therapist's office. The benefit didn't come from the memories per se but from the removal of the fear of anger in my adult life. With a sturdier base of emotions—including my anger—to rely on, I no longer felt that I was teetering on the edge of reality.

I was reminded of this insight the other morning in my weekly yoga class. Our teacher asked us to stand, choose a partner and lean forward at the waist, touching the tops of our heads together. She then asked us to push with the crowns of our heads, so that we had to work hard to keep each other balanced. I could hardly feel my partner's head; her touch seemed very light. I soon discovered why.

"I'm scared I'm going to push you over," she suddenly called out, laughing but sounding genuinely concerned. It- was as though she felt I couldn't handle her aggression, even in the mild and benign form of pressing on my head. This is the feeling that creates the mask: the belief that another person can't handle the full weight of-your self, anger and-all.

It is no accident that dream interpretation, bodywork, yoga and meditation hold so much appeal for people who are struggling to feel real, to come out from behind the mask. Each practice, in its own way, makes space in the false self's life for a ray of the real to shine through. That this ray is not always one of light does not deny its life-giving properties. Plants need soil and fertilizer as much as-they need sun; the whole, healthy and happy person is made of anger as well as more pleasant emotions.

Next: Real women talk about their own masks

Who is That Masked Woman?

We asked visitors to Oprah.com whether they ever feel as if they are living behind a mask. These are some of their responses:

A friend once told me that your inner self is reflected in what you like to collect. She was shocked when I told her that I collect masks. I grew up in a family that owned a resort; we lived above the restaurant. As a teenager, I was often told to come downstairs to help out, and my parents would say that by the time my foot hit the last step (no matter what my mood), "you'd better have a smile on that face!" I learned to hide my feelings at all times, to become a people pleaser. I still feel as if no one knows the real me. My husband of 20 years says he does, but I'm not sure. I still collect masks.
—Sandy Sheehan
Hayward, Wisconsin

Yes, I wear a mask. I wake up every morning and dust my dreams off of it so I can put it on and face the world. It's my fear shield. As long as no one can see what's underneath it, I can always be the terrific person everyone wants me to be. Sometimes I forget to take it off, and I lose myself to the mask. I am now on a journey toward finding out who is under that mask. Why is she hiding, and why is she afraid of being found out?
—Allison Neally
Seattle, Washington

At work I am professional– in a good mood, upbeat and supportive. At home, I try to project a positive attitude and help my kids plan their futures. I rarely let my family know when I am depressed or how I worry about the future. When you have worn a mask for so many years, how do you finally take it off?
—Virginia Reynolds
Lake Villa, Illinois

At is very rare for me to be without my mask of contentment with my life. I've been afraid that if I drop it, no one will want to be my friend. But a couple of weeks ago, I started a new job in which I am able to use my true talents and feel more like myself. I am even somewhat comfortable showing my vulnerable side to a few of my co-workers, being honest with them if something is new or past my comfort zone. What a liberating experience!
—Tiffani Smith
Vancouver, Washington

Wore the mask of the perfect daughter, sister, wife and mother, but I was not truly happy. Two years ago, I was having a disagreement with my husband and I raised my voice slightly. He corrected me by saying, "Not in front of the children." I was suddenly aware of the masks we were wearing, even as parents. I asked myself, "Why not argue in front of the children? This is real emotion I am feeling." From that very moment, my life started changing and I began the slow and steady process of giving my true self a voice. I am now determined to acknowledge that what I feel is more important than what other people think. I'm also teaching my two boys, ages 4 and 7, to acknowledge and express their feelings– both good and bad. I realize I sometimes wear the "perfect Colleen" mask just to feel safe, but I have learned to dislike that side of me. I am on my journey toward full self-awareness, and it's both challenging and liberating.
—Colleen Higgins
Southampton, New York

This story originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.

Want more stories like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for one or more of OWN's free newsletters!


Next Story