Most of us go through life with a public face, the one we put on to get through the day without unnecessarily pissing anyone off, and that is a fine thing. What isn’t fine is when we use that public face as a shield between us and the world on a regular basis.
When that public face isn’t a choice but our default way of being, we are in danger of not being seen. While that public face is fine – for the public – when we wear it all the time we are hiding what makes us who we truly are from those we care about. That public face becomes the enemy of engagement, growth and intimacy.
The day I realized that I wasn’t simply private but hiding was a really hard day for me. For the majority of my life I had convinced myself that my nearly pathological privacy had more to do with my semi-British upbringing than the truth, which was I was afraid of being seen.
I didn’t hide from everyone, I had a few close friends with whom I would share what was really going on inside me, most of the time. But the reality was that I was terrified that if people really knew me that they would find me as lacking as I found myself. There was a litany of things that I was “too”—I was too impulsive, too emotional, too sensitive, too disorganized, too, too, too.
That was the loop that played in my head nearly all the time. So I hid. I put on a mask of being thoughtful, calm, strong, organized. All of the things that I felt I was too, I turned those on their head and portrayed the opposite. I’ve come to realize that this is what we humans tend to do. We take the things we think are “wrong” with us and try to bury them under an avalanche of the opposite. The key word here is “avalanche” because, at some point, it all comes crashing down.
The final breaking point for me came when I finally wrote about my mother’s dementia diagnosis. I’d been struggling for years, holding that story inside myself and pretending I was fine. Fine was the furthest thing from what I was. I was a mess, a terrified, angry, sad, traumatized mess. No one knew how I really felt, it was as if the real me was invisible.
Not only was I invisible to others I was becoming invisible to myself. There’s only so long you can hide before you start to lose your true self in the character you’ve created to show the world. That realization was the beginning of my struggle to allow myself to be seen. I dove in at what I thought was the deep end, writing and talking about my mother. What I found was that, as painful and challenging as that was, it wasn’t the deep end.
The deep end is telling the truth, to oneself first and then others, about all the things we’ve been hiding. I was so committed to putting on a composed face that to unravel that facade was actually physically painful. But that was what I needed to do.
“Risk being seen in all of your glory.”
~ Jim Carrey
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a social face, the whole world is not entitled to every aspect of our lives, but that social face needs to be a conscious, specific choice. Not our default way of being in the world.
Once there was that chink in the armor that I had built around myself other cracks began to appear. I started telling friends that weren’t in my inner circle things that were true about me. Step by step I began to allow myself to be seen. When a friend asked how I was I told the truth. I wouldn’t necessarily elaborate, I might say, “I’m struggling right now and don’t want to say more about it at the moment,” – but I told the truth. To them and to myself.
Slowly, slowly I got braver and would reveal more and care less about what others would think. What I found was that as scary as being seen can feel, it is ultimately far less frightening than not being seen as who we truly are.
To be seen requires accepting that we are not the perfect person that we may fantasize about being. We have to accept that there are some people who aren’t going to like what they’re seeing. People who simply aren’t going to like us.
The truth is that we don’t need everyone to like us, we need the people we care about to like us. Going through life trying to protect ourselves from, well everything, isn’t going to make us happy.
Where don’t you allow yourself to be seen? What parts of yourself do you feel are so unacceptable that you shut them off from the world and yourself? Are you sure those parts of you are as bad as you think they are? Even if they are, does hiding help you address the parts of yourself that you want to change?
What if, instead of hiding, you allowed the true you to start to shine through? What if, instead of hiding, you began to open up to yourself and the world about who you are what you love, loathe, wish for, and fear. What if you brought your whole self to the table of life? Scary? Yes. Liberating? Possibly more than you can imagine.
The next time you have the chance to be seen take a step, small or large, in that direction. Let people in, and let the true you out. Then take another step and another. Keep going until the perfectly imperfect person that is you shines through.