I entered the field of professional counseling as a calling (long story for another posting). I felt a call to heal. I had no idea what that meant. I wasn’t sure what healing in this realm meant or how the process of psychotherapy aided in healing or what my role in helping others to heal and grow would entail. Looking back over the last 10 years of my career as a psychotherapist, I would say that though the process is comprehensive, it can be summed up in the tagline of Life’s Journey Counseling “Live your Authentic Life”. This month I take us into the world of pop culture and back to my couch as we explore what happens when we lose touch with our authentic selves.
Living an authentic life is not as simple as it sounds. It seems we should all just be able to be true to ourselves, our beliefs, to devote time to exploring who we are and who we are becoming, to look back at our past and recognize and honor how that contributed to who we’ve become in order to be the true person we are today. Insert #loftygoal #newyearsresolution #toomuchpressure. Somehow in the midst of working to find, manage and live these authentic lives, we often lose our authentic selves.
This is where learnings about my role as a healing professional have developed. Each day I have the honor and privilege of guiding people back to themselves. Not to create their authentic selves, but rather to return to their authentic selves. I see how very early in life our roles, experiences, and internal schemas all bring us to creating personas. Personas are how we want others to see us. Personas are not necessarily “fake”, but rather personas are the parts of ourselves that we enhance or exaggerate. I am going to use pop culture (which I am admittedly quite out of touch with!) as an example. We see a picture taken of a celebrity (let’s say a Kardashian) on a magazine cover. We can assume the celeb did not roll out of bed ready to start the photo shoot. Wardrobe was called, makeup was applied, hair was carefully constructed all to create a persona of the same person who woke up with bed head, scant eyebrows, light eyelashes and unlined lips. The persona is what sells magazines, clothing lines, and the brand. It is not “fake”, it is enhanced for public approval. At the end of the day, she can take off the makeup, throw her hair in a ponytail and look like her authentic self with the same face and body that she originated with (minus any surgical enhancements). She can look at herself and know her persona is created as a part of her, a representation of her, yet she also knows underneath it all is her authentic self.
Are you following me? (I cannot believe I am using this example. Must be holiday stress!)
Where this enhanced representation of our authentic self becomes damaging is when we create defenses to guard and even hide our authentic selves. When we start wearing masks. Whereas personas are integrated parts of a total self, masks become shields we build to help us hide from our true selves. Back to the celebrity example, this is when airbrushing, photoshopping, and photo editing actually change the appearance of the person to make it something it is not. This becomes a mask, artificial, created, and can be far from the authentic person.
Let’s bring it back to the therapy office.
If the roles we play as a part of our persona (the soccer mom, the breadwinner, the PTO president, the CEO, the favorite teacher, the corporate wife, the good daughter/son, the rebel, the 4.0 academic, the involved empathic volunteer, the attorney, the black sheep just to name a few) begin to take over, to engulf us to the point that we are continually working to enhance our selves, we start to live only with masks. We get so busy creating who we want the world to see us as that we forget to check back in with ourselves. When this happens, we move further and further away from our authentic selves. When we use masks extensively in every area of our lives, we begin to truly believe we are a sum of those masks versus staying connected to our inner self, our truth, our authenticity. Maybe we forget we really don’t even enjoy soccer (gasp!) or that being the always-in-charge CEO is more pressure and stress than we feel we can bear. Clients will say “I don’t even know what my favorite meal is anymore, I’ve been so busy pleasing others” or “I forgot why I loved this career in the first place, maybe I never even liked it”. When we are so far from our authentic selves, it is difficult to see any alternative. How do we go back? How do we stop hustling for other’s approvals (persona/mask) in order to find ourselves again?
This can be a very frightening process for many because when our personas become masks, they are no longer parts of ourself. They become external defenses of our inner selves. And over time, as we continue to design masks to ward off our vulnerabilities, we may appear in charge, strong and brave on the outside, but may find ourselves quivering on the inside asking “Who in the world AM I?”.
The role of a psychotherapist is to understand the psychology of each person in order to witness, explore, and companion people back to their authentic selves. When we sit with a neutral guide who can make room for all of our personas and see our masks, who can help us to learn when and why we began using these masks, who can hold space and offer clarity as we take the masks off to uncover what has always been there, our authentic selves, we find the true beauty within.