When I was about 20 I travelled down south to a family friend’s 18th birthday party. It was an evening I’ll never forget, not least because the hog roast was pretty epic!
I’d been having a good time with friends and family, until I started to talk to my uncle’s neighbour.
Mid-chit chat, I was distracted by her gargantuan diamond ring, so I complimented her on it (quite the normal thing to do, I thought). However, her weird-ass response (literally word for word) was: “Thank you, you and your sibling are very different people aren’t you?... You seem to just be wearing a mask rather than being true to yourself. I can see through you.”
I felt a combination of confusion, probably slightly pissed, and categorically terrified that someone would be able to identify what I hadn’t even really realised I had, let alone wore; my mask.
I felt sick. I felt a wave of panic and a flood of blood rush to my cheeks. My internal anxieties about how people perceived me were literally on fire! Then it happened, I cried. A lot. The flood gates had opened, and oh my god was I desperate to close them off again!
In that moment I felt stupid, embarrassed and completely alone (although surrounded by an entire party of family and friends). I think I was muttering nonsense and going round in circles trying to justify why I was suddenly sobbing. Except I had no idea why I was upset, other than knowing this stupid bint from the house next-door had opened an internal door she had no damn right to open!
I can’t for the life of me remember the rest of that evening, I’ve probably blocked it out. However, I do remember not being able to turn my emotions off and seeing my family were clearly a mixture of concerned and confused.
I then started to feel guilty; guilty about how my family were now worrying about me. Guilty I had made a fool of my family and I at this 18th birthday party, and guilty that I might have caused a scene but even worse (my worst nightmare in fact) people would be looking at me. (Turns out, at this exact moment my uncle’s dog ate a load of oil off the hog roast and puked everywhere – maybe to help distract people away from me!)
Anyway, I don’t know if it was that same night or over the following days or weeks, but it was the first time that I admitted to my family that I “was a very unhappy person”.
Naturally, my family went in to “fix it” mode. A trait my family, and I, are well-known for (I know it can be annoying, just want to help, sorry). They helped arrange for me to see a counsellor, but when it was time for my appointment the flood gates were starting to draw to a close. This was probably because I don’t think I was prepared to acknowledge I had some inner issues nor was I fully understanding of their cause… Getting your head around low-self esteem when you’re a 20-year-old woman trying to find her way in life is pretty heavy-going! So I shut up shop and pretended everything was ok.
Following this incident at my uncle’s, it was the first time I’d ever spoken about my inner thoughts with my family (admittedly it was the very tip of the iceberg and many more years would follow until I really admitted to things). It was also the first time I’d cried (publicly) since I was badly beaten up in my early teens. When I was saying I was an unhappy person, everyone was adamant that the cause of my upset and being “down in the dumps” was because of this unprovoked attack. Yes, I definitely buried my emotions about how 9 March 2001 (the day I got beaten up) impacted on me, I certainly never spoke about it, but really that horrible incident was just another reason for me to wear my Ye-Olde mask, bury my head in the sand and pretend I was ok… I should have been an ostrich.
Now that party was about 12 years ago (I know, shocking isn’t it as I look 23…) and for the last couple of years since admitting I was depressed I’ve been trying to gradually remove my mask, piece by piece.
Despite continued chiselling, I have sadly (on occasion) reverted to putting my mask back on to help me through certain situations, just for comfort as well as habit I guess. But I have, thankfully, recognised and accepted it’s time to remove it completely and face the person that lives behind it.
One way I’m removing the mask is by doing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). And it’s awesome.
If you’re unfamiliar with CBT; it’s a concept that a person’s thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are all linked… and that negative feelings or thoughts can keep you in a catch-22 situation. By dealing with overwhelming problems (negative thoughts usually about myself in my case) in a more positive approach and by breaking them down in to smaller parts can help to improve the way you’re feeling.
CBT is about dealing with the present, not the past, and it really helps you to improve your state of mind.
Previously, my natural reaction to saying ‘I need to face up to my negative thoughts and be my true self’ would be to joke around by stating “my god, behind that mask is an ugly person” – but that’s not helping anyone, particularly me. And it’s completely against CBT!
So, by committing myself to this CBT process and removing the mask, slowly but surely, I’m not only continuing to help my own understanding of who I am and bringing more positivity into my mindset, but it hopefully also helps my friends and family to understand me more and strengthen our relationships.
CBT isn’t a one-off course of talking therapy, it’s a life style, and requires commitment. A bit like going to the gym (not that I’d know!). By breaking down problems (removing my mask bit by bit) and analysing if these thoughts/areas are unrealistic or unhelpful and recognising the impact they might have on one another I can then establish how to change my thought process and behaviours.
Upon twelve years of analysis and reflection I know what the silly neighbour was trying to say; she meant she could see I wasn’t comfortable in that social situation and was completely out of my comfort zone and was pretending to be ok. And it’s true, I was completely uncomfortable, I was having to be someone I didn’t feel comfortable being - I felt unhappy but was pretending to be happy. Pretending, pretending, pretending.
CBT is awesome, and I highly recommend it. It’s something I was trying to do by myself but with a bit of expert advice from a CBT therapist I’ve come a long way. There’s loads of free online support or books you can get about CBT, google it (because I can't be bothered to hyperlink them into this article for you)!
Try it, or perhaps recommend it to someone you think it might help. I’d be happy to talk to you or them about it and my experience if you want to point them in my direction.
PS. Apparently, the neighbour was a trainee counsellor or psychologist of some sort. Perhaps she was brilliant at reading people, but she was a bit shit at recognising when best to divulge her psychoanalysis! (Maybe she hadn't got to that part of her course...)
PPS. I was told my Uncle Ken (one of my dad’s best mates, aka an uncle who isn’t an uncle but will always be an uncle) gave his neighbour a decent rollicking about her unprofessionalism, which at the time did help me feel a bit better! However, I hope she one day reads this and realises that not only did she really well and truly ruin my night, but she also kick-started me in to acknowledging there was something going on inside my head that perhaps wasn’t quite straight forward/healthy. It took another ten years for me to face up to it all, sadly it also got worse for me over those years. But, although it’s hard to say this, I am thankful she pointed it out to me. Sort of.