The Masks We Wear
Another facet to who we are and who we become, was suggested to me by a book called ‘The Lonely Hearts Club, A Novel’. Written by psychiatrist Dennis Friedman the book documents the experience of a group of mainly male patients who attend an exercise club after having heart attacks.
The six main characters who are all composites of Friedman’s former patients have nothing in common apart from the disease which unites them and the exercise class that they all join. The novel focuses on the meetings that the group, have in local cafes and in each other’s homes after their twice weekly exercise sessions.
In the beginning the men have very superficial conversations, but as the group develops you notice that each of them hides behind a mask.
One of them only talks in Shakespearean quotes, another talks about his sexuality and previous affairs. A third, a retired detective superintendent, talks in terms of right and wrong, likes to get to the bottom of things, constantly questions and is aware that others see him as a hypersensitive man who takes offence too easily. Another likes to play the victim and leaves the group in order that the others seek him out to encourage him to come back. A fifth is so obsessed with his lack of masculinity that he binds his penis and lives in a constant fear of it ‘slipping out’. His turning point is when he realises that he is much more open now. ‘After all, it can’t be that terrible to look male. Half the world does’. A French group member, who was a chronic people pleaser, feels like a wimp because he was discharged from the French Foreign Legion on health grounds.
As the weeks roll by it is fascinating to see that one by one the masks they wear start to slip as the men feel more comfortable within the group. Some reveal their secrets to find that the group does not judge them, whilst others, stop their usual behaviour pattern and choose new ways of relating. For example it is a subtle triumph when the Shakespearean quote man one day ‘spoke for the first time with his own voice’.
As the group develops, it is clear that the inquisitive policeman had undertaken many courses since his retirement including a Masters degree in Family Therapy
‘He had no intention of practising as a therapist. He only wanted one client and that was himself’.
‘He wondered whether they would be able to withstand their loss of anonymity. Would knowing who they were or even why they were, become a problem, since not knowing had clearly been an asset?’
‘Would friendship withstand the absence of illusion?’
‘When Benedict had said that stage two had gone off well, what he might have meant was that not only was stage three about to begin but the process of knowing who they really were rather than how they represented themselves in the real world had also begun’.
The Lonely Hearts Club provides an interesting insight into how we can put on masks to enable us to function but how in the end they stop us relating in an authentic way with others.
So in addition to programming ourselves using the Psychological Bingo Board in order to ‘fit in around here’, and limbically resonating with our primary care givers, we may also put on a mask to protect ourselves from emotional disturbance brought about by interacting with the family and the outside world
Groups can be uncomfortable places for people who have had difficult childhoods since they can bring back all the uncomfortable feelings of humiliation, exclusion and unhealthy competition.
Reflecting on why the group works for them all, the retired detective superintendent says:
‘He realized that the group, because it was so accepting and non-demanding, allowed all of them to value being rather than doing’.
‘His friends in the group listened to one another. No one talked over anyone or replied mockingly’
‘They were happy to be themselves when they were together. There was no one to sit in judgement over them, no one whose benevolence was essential to their well-being and no one to whom they had to kowtow because he was paying their wages’.
The Lonely Hearts Club illustrates the power of groups. Once we feel comfortable within the group, we stop playing a role and our authentic selves suddenly start to shine through. In the same way that one day we made a subconscious decision to adopt the mask to protect ourselves, safety within another group can provide the opportunity for us to make the decision subconscious or otherwise, to let our masks down.
So what is the relevance of the masks to relationships?
If we are raised in a family where we have to put on a mask (or adopt a persona) in order to fit in, we are likely to attract another person wearing a mask when it comes to having relationships. It takes something like experience the men went through in ‘The Lonely Hearts Club’ where they were able to be present in a non judgemental and accepting environment for our masks to fall away.
In my coaching practice I often see people who live behind masks. They might be very dramatic, talk all the time, talk very fast or constantly apologise for their comments or behaviour. The trick for me is to get behind the mask and when I am able to do this I usually find a person who has been sabotaging themselves and hiding their greatness.
If we create a relationship where both partners are wearing masks it is not difficult to see that in a sense we will just be playing roles in the relationship and not allowing our true selves to shine through. This cannot be good for having an authentic relationship and it will certainly not lead to accepting love and evolving love.
To me the ‘Lonely Heart Club’ shows the incredible power of groups. In my next blog I will talk about the healing power of groups.
This blog is part of a book called ‘The Evolution of Love’ if you would like to follow the story from the beginning please go to the blog I posted on 20th June entitled’ The Evolution of Love’ and read backwards to now.
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