As Halloween approached memories from my childhood are bubbling up to the surface. One in particular captured my attention.
When I was about five, my Uncle Ed created a costume for me. Tradition was that we dressed up, went trick or treating around the neighborhood, and then the community gathered at the local firehouse for cider, donuts, bobbing for apples, and the costume contest.
That year, a pair of my light blue cotton pajamas became the backdrop for all of my uncle’s fireman medals and badges. I wore a mask–a man’s craggy old face and atop his head was a fire hat. I was the hit of the night, and the delight on my uncle’s face brought a smile to my own. I can still hear his cackling laughter echoing from the past.
Recently, I shared that memory with my friend, Anita, who was visiting for the week with her husband, Kit. As we sipped our morning drinks, I recalled walking around the circle with all of the adults laughing and smiling at all the young people dressed in our costumes. I, in particular, felt noticed, and later was awarded first prize for the best costume.
When I completed my story of that event in my childhood, I was stunned at what I had just discovered. Remembering the feelings of being noticed and being elated that I was finally visible to those around me, I suddenly recalled the sense of the mask on my face.
Behind the rubbery facade, it was safe to be seen. And I wasn’t really being seen for me. I was portraying a character that was far from who I really am. There was a certain comfort in that. And I also knew I was winning the approval of at least one person who was close to me.
That pattern of seeking approval from those around me continued far past my childhood, and it’s taken some discipline to overcome that habit. It’s a practice to show up as who I am, no longer worrying whether someone likes what I said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do––and trusting that it’s safe to be seen for me.
There is some risk in this. Potential lovers fade into the background as I adamantly lay down my deal breakers. And many individuals who knew me from the time that I wore many masks are unsettled by my confidence and authenticity. At times, I find our relationships shift and some distance is often required to preserve any of our common ground. It’s necessary to remember as my friend Hilda once said, “Stay in the present. Meet people where they are. And respond appropriately.”
The biggest hurdle of showing up authentically has been to no longer expect my mother to see me as who I am. She never really could, and I struggled for years to change that, often making poor decisions so that I would be seen by her, or surrogates that reminded me of her. There’s a relief in letting go of the need for approval, and with that, I’m able to call her weekly, to check in, to see how she’s doing, rarely sharing details of my own life. I merely listen to hers and answer the questions she has about my kids. In other words, I do stay in the present, I meet her where she’s at, and I respond with kindness.
On a recent trip to New York, one in which I was helping to prepare my mom for a move to my sister’s, I was visiting an old friend. Kathi and I first met when I compromised my values and stayed in a marriage that created an unhealthy environment for my children and me–all because I was trying to please my father, who condemned me for “breaking up the family.” To his credit, he didn’t know just how bad it was; to his discredit, he cared more about upholding the dogma of the church than my happiness. He didn’t trust my judgement, so to ensure his love and approval, I stayed another five years, until finally, I threw that mask away.
I hadn’t seen Kathi for a few years and during our visit, she remarked, “You’re finally comfortable in your own skin.”
And that I am. Occasionally, that old-but familiar–discomfort arises, I quickly assess what mask I’m wearing and why. It doesn’t stay on long, and it reminds me that being comfortable with who we are is a practice–and a journey. Like snakes, we must occasionally, shed our old skin as we make way for the greater potential of who we really are…one season at a time.