Befriending the Stranger

Before we can become who we really are, we must become conscious of the fact that the person who we think we are, here and now, is at best an imposter and a stranger.
— Thomas Merton

Manipulating and mastering one's image is crucial these days. Social media let's us present the outward looking face we want. We determine what someone sees and knows through various filters because there are great rewards to be had (follower increase, "likes" which studies have showed increase our dopamine levels-our brain's reward system). But maintaining for the sake of reward has its dark side. Think about public personas and their falls from grace and how quickly contracts are dropped in order to disassociate from their now marred/soiled image. (Hi, Ryan Lochte.) Which is usually followed by PR attempts to reassemble and salvage whatever can be done from the charred remains.  

When we unwittingly show we are less than perfect in some way, we pay a price. While our mistakes may not take on the depth of public scrutiny as celebrities, we have all certainly felt the sting of someone's disappointment, their judgment and in some cases, even relationships ending. This is not new...we've talked about this before. But it's worth continually revisiting. 

Because we determine to get around in the world as unscathed as possible, we layer our personality with various masks to protect our authentic selves from any form of harm that will leave us feeling rejected, misunderstood, shamed, lonely.  We become enslaved to our defenses and feel naked without them.

Ian Morgan Cron sums it up well, "Made up of innate qualities, coping strategies, conditioned reflexes and defense mechanisms, among lots of other things, our personality helps us know and do what we sense is required to please our parents, to fit in and relate well to our friends, to satisfy the expectations of our culture and to get our basic needs met...[Our adapative strategies] get triggered so predictably, so often and so automatically that we can't tell where they end and our true nature begins." 

The line of truth and facade becomes so blurry. Over time, we lose ourselves and don’t recognize the person staring back at us in the mirror.

These masks are quite successful at keeping us well guarded from painful relational interactions so we continue to rely on them. So much so that we forget they are masks and assume they are us. The line of truth and facade becomes so blurry. And who we are actually gets buried underneath the layers. Over time, we lose ourselves and don't recognize the person staring back at us in the mirror. 

This is a sad and sobering consequence. To not know one's self is truly a tragedy because you cannot be known and if you cannot be known, you cannot be loved wholly. We'll continue this ongoing conversation but I want to leave you with this beautiful exchange from The Velveteen Rabbit. May we all learn to have the courage to be made real. 

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?" 

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." 

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit. 

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." 

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" 

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand." 

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled. 

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always.” 

May we all learn to have the courage to be made real.

Tiffany Dang

Tiffany Dang, LPC, Austin, TX