Emotional Health•Healing • 4 minutes to read
I have fond memories of this time of year when I was a kiddo (okay, maybe even older than a kiddo—some say I never grew up!). I used to love dressing up for Halloween at school and going trick-or-treating, and later dressing up our three daughters and taking them to harvest parties and going door-to-door for candy!
The point of masks for Halloween is to become someone else for a short time, and to hide or enhance one’s true identity. In reality, sometimes we wear masks for the same reasons, and oftentimes we become confused about our own identity—what is the mask and what is my true identity?
In his book,The Genesis Process, Michael Dye states that our amazing brains create these masks to help us survive childhood trauma and stressors, eventually helping us to feel safe in our close relationships. These masks help to keep us safe by blocking vulnerability, which unfortunately blocks us from truly feeling known.
When we have experienced the trauma of sexual betrayal, our masks are the ones on the front lines, guarding our hearts but leaving us feeling unfulfilled, unknown, and broken. In an attempt to help clarify some of the masks we as betrayal survivors might wear, I will describe some of my own. Can you relate to any of these?
As a child, I learned early on to wear the “pleaser” mask by observing my mother. We joked that my mom was the family “smoother,” doing whatever she could to avoid conflict and make life as smooth as possible for my dad, who worked long hours and was often concerned about money. The result was that I learned to control and smooth conflict by denying my own feelings and meeting the needs of others over myself. This attempt to control was based on the learned belief that I am responsible for others’ feelings, problems, and behaviors. I eventually carried this into my marriage and hid my own feelings and needs, believing that if I didn’t have needs, I wouldn’t feel rejected and hurt.
In the book, How We Love, Milan and Kay Yerkovich describe how a person learns the role of a pleaser in order to attempt to reduce tension in the family, gain approval or recognition, or attempt to manage others’ anxiety or irritability. Pleasers learn quickly that tension and anxiety is lessened when they make others happy. They become more and more attuned to—and eventually feel responsible for—the feelings of others. Moreover, if attempts at pleasing fail, pleasers will withdraw in order to feel safe. Pleasers also avoid conflict, which eventually leads to resentment and/or “stuffing” their feelings, which can lead to high cortisol levels and both mental and physical ailments. My own years of stuffing my feelings instead of having good boundaries led to anxiety and a peptic ulcer.
I also adopted the “perfectionist” mask as a result of being criticized about my appearance growing up. At least a half dozen times in childhood, I heard the words, “You’d be so pretty if you’d just lose weight.” As a result, the perfectionist mask helped to keep me safe by avoiding criticism, which reinforced the false belief that my value is based on my appearance. In addition, perfectionism in other areas, such as grades and music, were my attempts at diverting attention from my flawed appearance to areas that I could excel in, protecting my young heart. With betrayal trauma, we are sometimes led to believe that if we were only prettier, more sexual, more _________ (How would you fill in this blank?), then our spouses wouldn’t act out.
Another related one is the “I’m fine” mask. I was sick a lot as a child with asthma, coming down with either bronchitis or pneumonia several times a year. I learned that I received accolades when I didn’t talk about my pain, and I would hear my mom boast to others that no matter how sick I was, I never complained. To me, this is a close cousin to the “pleaser” mask, as denying my own pain had a payoff: attention.
There are lots of different masks that we can wear—Anger, Invisibility, Victim—all depending upon our lived experiences. With betrayal trauma, these masks may keep us safe and have temporary payoffs, but at what cost? Broken relationships, resentment, illness, and loneliness to name a few.
How do we shed these masks and walk in our true identity? The key is to identify and replace false beliefs with the truth, and the only Truth we have is the Word of God. In the book, Free to Thrive with Josh McDowell, Ben Bennett describes the process of shedding false beliefs for God’s truth as a “collaborative effort between our choices and God’s power.” Healing comes as we identify the false beliefs and replace them with the Truth of God’s Word.
For example, instead of believing that my value is in my appearance, I started to replace this belief with Psalm 139, telling myself, “It is written that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” Since behavior follows belief, my behavior will change as I start to believe differently.
In the New Living Translation, Romans 12:2 reads,
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think (emphasis mine). Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
As you continue this process of identifying and replacing, you will begin to believe God’s Word about you. You will also begin to see your true identity, which contains your God-given desires, and your giftings will flow as you exchange the lies for the Truth!