Emotional HealthHealingRecovery 5 minutes to read

This time of year, I always think back to when my daughters were young and we would spend hours designing the perfect costumes for their school’s Disney-themed fall festival. It involved several trips to the fabric store and many late night sewing marathons to create custom versions of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Ariel, Mulan: petticoats, hoop skirts, hand-made rosettes, sequins, Ariel’s fin (I still have trauma reactivity about that project!), and yards and yards of tulle. While “we” sewed, the soundtracks played in the background: Whistle While You Work, Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo, Be Our Guest, Part of Your World, Reflection… The Christina Aguilera version of this song always got to me:

Look at me

You may think you see

Who I really am

But you’ll never know me

Every day

It’s as if I play a part

Now I see

If I wear a mask

I can fool the world

But I cannot fool my heart

Mulan: Reflection

Now, as I work with clients through Pure Desire’s clinical counseling program, I’m often reminded of these lyrics. The masks we wear evolve throughout the recovery process, but their purpose is the same: to fool the world and keep it from knowing the real us.

In The Genesis Process, Michael Dye refers to Protective Personalities as false personalities that we’ve developed because of our wounds, which protect us from being vulnerable: the Pleaser, the Rescuer, the Hero, the Martyr, the Super Servant, the Perfectionist, and so on.

In her book, Altogether You, Jenna Riemersma explores Internal Family Systems and discusses how our Managers and Firefighters work to protect our Exiles, which are parts of us that have been hurt and carry negative beliefs about ourselves (that we are worthless, inadequate, powerless, shame, etc.). Managers try to control things proactively (by pleasing others or by being a perfectionist, for example) to prevent the Exile from feeling pain. Firefighters, on the other hand, work reactively, trying to extinguish the pain after it’s already been triggered. Jenna’s Pure Desire podcast episodes explain this concept and I highly recommend a listen.

The first few months of the healing process is a time when most people are excited about the journey they are beginning, anticipating great and rapid growth, certain that they will never again relapse or experience heartbreak. It’s a time of learning to take off the masks, learning to be vulnerable and allow others to walk beside them and encourage them in their growth. 

However, somewhere along that healing journey reality can set in: relapse happens, a trigger reminds us of trauma, a family member brings up old wounds, life gets stressful. These challenges may cause us to again reach for a mask in an attempt to “fool the world.” 

There seem to be three major types or categories of masks (also known as Protective Personalities or Managers/Firefighters) that I see clients wear during this period. 

The Victim, also known as the Martyr: the distorted belief behind this mask is that “Everyone is trying to hurt me,” or “Everyone is out to get me.” Related to this is the mask of Self-Sufficiency that says, “I don’t need anyone.” 

The Villain, which can be interpreted as Anger: this personality blames others for their own problems or situations. the Rebel, who wants to do what they want to do no matter what, may rear its head under this category of mask.

The Rescuer, or the Hero: this mask feels they are responsible for others’ problems, feelings, or behavior. This mask might also have shades of I Can Do It Myself because asking for help is a sign of weakness. Or, maybe shades of Take Charge because I have to be in control so I don’t get hurt.

This is the classic Drama Triangle, which visually describes an unhealthy relationship:

These masks affect each and every relationship we have, keeping others at a distance and keeping them from knowing what’s going on inside us. If the person struggling with addiction or betrayal is married, or in a relationship, both partners may put on masks, switching through the roles of Victim, Rescuer, and Villain at a dizzying rate.

But when we think about it, these masks are really trying to help us. Their goal is noble: to keep us from being vulnerable, from being hurt again. Our masks know that people have hurt us; and their goal is to keep people at an arm’s length, so that they won’t hurt us ever again.

The problem is, the masks do their job so well that they actually prevent us from being able to receive the real remedy to our pain: relationships. 

True, authentic relationships with healthy people to whom we give permission to speak truth and to hold us accountable is what we most fear, but also what we most need if we are to experience health. 

The distorted beliefs behind our masks can be subtle, and we don’t always recognize our own feelings or beliefs. This is exactly why we need others to help us, to encourage us on our paths: healthy people who understand our struggles and who can help carry our burdens and build us up. 

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)

Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Galatians 6:2 (NIV)

Recognize. The first step is to recognize the masks are there and to realize the negative impact they have had in our lives and in our relationships. Figure out what masks you wear most often, perhaps with the help of a counselor.

Seek. As Michael Dye writes, “The most important thing in life is relationships; the hardest thing in life is relationships.” Relationships can hurt; they can be scary. But in healthy, supportive relationships is where we find healing and support. 

Give Permission. This may be the most difficult step because it requires us to be vulnerable, but we have to find one or two healthy people to whom we give permission to call us out when they see us reach for our mask again. Isolation is not our friend.

If you are struggling and not yet in a healing group such as Seven Pillars of Freedom, Unraveled, Hope for Men, or Betrayal & Beyond, please consider joining. You can find available groups on the Pure Desire website. Here, you will find a safe place to remove the masks and form healthy relationships with people who are on your same journey. The song, Reflection, continues:

But somehow

I will show the world

What’s inside my heart

And be loved for who I am

Mulan: Reflection

As we learn to break the isolation and let other healthy people into our world, our masks can be put away, and we can be known. And to be known, fully known, and fully accepted for who we are is the ultimate cry of our heart.

Songwriters: Zippel David Joel / Wilder Matthew

Reflection lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company, Walt Disney Music Co Ltd


Shari Chinchen

Shari is a Pastoral Sex Addiction Professional (PSAP) and has been part of the Pure Desire Clinical Team since 2011. She also is a Special Education Teacher at David Douglas High School. She has experience in performing arts and ministry. Shari is a contributing author to Unraveled: Managing Love, Sex, and Relationships.

1 Comment

  1. Robert Hekker

    Thank you Shari. This was a very helpful and resourceful read.

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