The more I learn about anxiety, the more I realize just how widespread a problem it really is. There are millions upon millions of people all over the globe struggling with some sort of chronic anxiety disorder, often more than one type. Seeing how much people are suffering makes me really sad sometimes. It also pushes me to understand and overcome the limitations my own anxieties are still placing on my life.
One thing I’m becoming more aware of — and more pissed off about — is how often my own chronic anxiety is caused by hiding who I really am. Hiding how I really feel. Hiding my true self behind an emotional mask of what I think other people want me to be.
The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are. You trade in your reality for a role. You trade in your sense for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask. There can’t be any large-scale revolution until there’s a personal revolution, on an individual level. It’s got to happen inside first.
Characteristics of People with Chronic Anxiety Disorder
Anxious people tend to be intelligent, sensitive people. The world is a pretty brutal place that doesn’t have a lot of sympathy or patience for sensitivity. As a result, sensitive people often develop emotional coping skills called “avoidance masking.” Wearing an emotional mask is a way to protect the hurt parts of us that feel abused, rejected or misunderstood by the world around us.
I’d hazard a guess there’s not one person with chronic anxiety disorder who hasn’t hidden their true self behind an emotional and/or behavioral mask at one time or another. It’s a very effective coping strategy for protecting the sensitive parts of ourselves from a callous world. The only problem with pretending to be something we’re not is that, in the end, it makes our anxiety worse.
There’s nothing wrong with hiding what we really think or feel in certain situations. That’s part of being a sane, rational adult. But when we make a habit of hiding our true reactions too often, over time we lose touch with our real thoughts, ideas, and feelings. We can end up not knowing who we are anymore. We’ve lost touch with our true selves, which is VERY anxiety-producing, not to mention exhausting.
Some common emotional masks anxious people tend to wear include:
- The People Pleaser Mask. This is where you bend over backwards to make sure everyone else is happy. People pleasers (like me) are terrified of being emotionally attacked and do whatever it takes to make sure everyone likes them out of fear. Then we feel angry at ourselves for being afraid. We can do this so often, we don’t know what our own thoughts and feelings are anymore.
- The Angry Mask. Anger feels more powerful than hurt, fear or sadness and can be used to avoid these painful feelings. Anger also keeps people away and protects from feeling vulnerable. Most people would never guess that those who use anger to cover up their sensitivity are often deeply hurt on the inside. Emotionally sensitive people who use the mask of anger tend to be lonely and have major problems with self-esteem.
- The Happy Mask. Another way to protect yourself is to behave as if you’re always happy. No one ever knows when your feelings are hurt because it seems like nothing ever gets you down. You joke and smile even when people behave cruelly or are insensitive towards you. Fake happiness covers up your REAL feelings.
Overcome your anxiety and stop hiding your true self
If you’re tired of living with chronic anxiety, one way to overcome it is to start dropping your emotional masks and show the world who you really are. Here are some steps you can take to do this:
- Make the decision. You first have to decide you want to drop your “avoidance mask.” You must be committed to taking this action even though it’s painful. Letting go of your mask is not easy. It will help you succeed to realize this going in. Taking one small step at a time will probably work best. For example, you could decide to speak up about which restaurant you’d prefer for dinner as one initial step.
- Focus on self-awareness. Spend some time asking yourself what you really think and feel. It’s likely that you’ve lost touch with your feelings and preferences, so ask yourself and experiment and they will come back to you. Accept whatever comes up and trust that it will pass. Consider writing down what you liked and didn’t like each day as a way of getting back in touch with yourself.
- Be visible. Start expressing your opinions and thoughts gently and with kindness. Notice if you have the posture of someone who is trying to hide. If so, stand up straight and let yourself be visible.
- Face what you’ve been avoiding. Accepting your internal experience instead of avoiding it will allow you to check to see if your feelings have any base in external reality and to choose healthier, more effective ways of coping. Facing the external fears will help you overcome those as well. Being rejected or criticized by others is not pleasant, but you will find out you can survive it. Take small steps, and make sure you have support.
Living with chronic anxiety disorder because you’re constantly hiding your true self is no way to live. It takes time (and courage), but you can learn to break the lonely, isolating bonds of chronic anxiety disorder. I’m going to keep working on it, and I hope you will too.