When You Can’t Stop Putting on a “Perfect” Face
On the outside, you are put together. Always. You are well-dressed, and nothing is ever out of place. You show up on time. Always. You rarely seem rattled—or down or anxious. You rarely seem like you feel anything at all. People would describe you as easygoing, laid-back and flexible. And on the outside, everything seems to come easily to you.
On the inside, things are different. On the inside, things might even be messy, disheveled and hard. Really hard. On the inside, you’re sad or stressed. On the inside, you feel overwhelmed. On the inside, you feel alone. Like all human beings, you are complicated, and you feel a range of emotions, sometimes in one day.
In short, you are the opposite of what you portray.
There are many reasons why we wear masks. “When people have their feelings judged, especially at an early age and/or by primary caregivers, they learn to put on a ‘perfect’ face,” said Maya Benattar, LCAT, a music therapist and psychotherapist in New York City, specializing in working with women who have anxiety, trauma histories, or perfectionism. For instance, maybe your parents or caregivers told you: “That wasn’t good enough,” or “Try harder,” or “Anything less than an A is like failing.”
Maybe they told you: You should be better. You should be smarter. You should know the answer to that. You should have gotten into that college. You should have a higher GPA. “Sentences with ‘should’ often are connected to judgment,” Benattar said. And she’s noticed that it’s these very statements that her clients tend to internalize.
A mask feels like a layer of protection. A shield.
We also might wear masks because we’ve observed others wearing them. Maybe your parents wore certain masks to keep themselves safe, to be heard, to not get hurt, Benattar said.
Today’s mask might be yesterday’s coping strategy. Manhattan psychotherapist Panthea Saidipour, LCSW, shared these examples: A young child becomes quiet, careful, and agreeable around a hot-tempered parent. Another child becomes engaging and funny to enliven a parent struggling with depression. The child of a hardworking, stressed out single parent takes care of themselves and their siblings to reduce their parent’s responsibilities.
Masks also are reinforced and commended in our society. Teachers love having students who follow classroom rules; companies love employees who prioritize their profits over their own needs; and people love friends who are easygoing and down for whatever, said Saidipour, who works with young professionals in their 20s and 30s who want to gain a deeper understanding of themselves.
But masks are exhausting. You might stretch yourself thin trying to be compliant and accommodating. According to Saidipour, you don’t assert yourself or share your feelings and opinions, unless you’re certain they’re in agreement with others. You bulldoze over your own needs, and silence yourself. And eventually you are dehydrated, drained and disconnected from yourself.
Naturally, it’s hard to have profound, authentic connections when you’re not being authentic. Instead, your interactions and relationships stay on the surface, Benattar said. This can leave you “feeling isolated and like no one understands [you], which can lead to ‘tightening up the strings’ of [your] mask—it becomes a repetitive cycle.”
At work or school, you might expect yourself to know everything before you’ve had a chance to learn and practice; not ask for help, even though you’d benefit from it; and fear that you’ll look stupid or irresponsible if you don’t do something precisely right, Saidipour said.
Perfection, of course, is impossible. So setting super short deadlines, bashing yourself for understandable mistakes and holding yourself to standards you’d never expect anyone else to meet only sharpens and deepens your shame, Saidipour said. “Anything short of perfection can feel like failure, and can warrant an internal tongue-lashing.”
Sometimes, you wear a mask for so long you don’t even recognize yourself. It’s formed itself to your face, making it harder and harder to take off every night. Or maybe, over time, you’ve forgotten you even had it on. “After wearing a mask for so long, it may become hard to even know what you’re feeling inside, what you need, what’s actually working for you, and what you’re doing out of a sense of obligation,” Saidipour said.
This is OK. Because there are many ways you can loosen your mask, embrace imperfection and ease into being vulnerable with yourself and others. Below, Benattar and Saidipour shared their suggestions.
Be compassionately curious. Get curious about why you do what you do—without judging or criticizing yourself, Saidipour said. “The more you understand the backstory to your current ways of being, the more informed you’ll be on how to move forward.”
Saidipour suggested exploring these questions: “If you’re not being your true self with someone, what are you protecting yourself from? Is there a fear about the other person’s reaction? Is it based on a past experience with this person or is it your expectation based on your past experience with someone else?”
Whenever you’re making plans with someone, she suggested asking yourself: Are you doing so because you want to or because you think you should? If it’s the latter, where does this “should” stem from? “Is it an expectation from the other person or an internal sense of obligation? If it’s internal, what past situations have brought up a similar feeling for you? Who has had these expectations of you in the past?”
Get curious “about what you’re actually feeling, from as kind and gentle of a place as possible,” Benattar said. If you’re having a hard time identifying the specific emotion, then focus on what it feels like in your body and in your breath, she said. What sensations do you notice? Where are these sensations located in your body?
Get curious about what you need—and how you can meet those needs. What replenishes you? What excites and enlivens you? What inspires you? What do you want your relationships to look like? What nourishes you mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually?
That’s a lot of questions and issues to unpack and uncover and explore. So start with a question you feel comfortable reflecting on. Maybe you devote 10 or 20 minutes a day to checking in with yourself and simply asking: How am I doing right now? How am I really doing?
Get messy. “Another way to explore not being perfect is through messy play and improvisation,” Benattar said. She shared these suggestions: Make a collage. Dance in a silly way to your favorite song. Don’t completely plan out your day. “Leave room for creativity.”
(You can learn more about using creativity to navigate your life here.)
Ease into taking your mask off with others. Before taking steps to change your self-protection, it’s vital to explore it and understand the reasons for your behavior, Saidipour said. “Otherwise, those steps you take will just be another mask you put on—more external actions divorced from your inner feelings. The more you can deeply connect to yourself, the greater your capacity will be to connect with others in an authentic way.”
Being vulnerable with someone is taking a risk, which is required for real connection, Saidipour said. Remind yourself why you’re choosing to take the risk, and be patient with yourself, because your attempts might feel clunky and uncomfortable, she said.
Benattar stressed the importance of taking baby steps, and sharing a simple need with the person. For instance, you might say: “I’d rather drive in silence than listen to music” or “I need a hug.”
She also suggested working with a therapist. “Therapy is also a good place to practice and embody being vulnerable with another person, especially one who is able to be attuned and sensitive.”
Wearing a mask isn’t always problematic. “We all have different masks, different parts of ourselves, that we transition between depending on who we’re with and what we’re doing,” Saidipour said. After all, it’s very unlikely that we’re exactly the same with a supervisor as we are with our spouse.
“Ideally, we’re able to move seamlessly and comfortably between these different parts of ourselves, navigate between our own needs and others’ expectations, and can stay connected to our own sense of ourselves and to others.” When we can’t, it’s vital to understand why, Saidipour said.