Tear off the mask. Your face is glorious. -Rumi
All humans are manipulative. And if you're like me, you're already wincing and recoiling at this statement. Hang in there with me for a moment though. After clarifying and discussing with Dr. Steve Harris (my mentor's mentor), I want to offer what he so graciously took the time to share with me. So let's get our foundation set:
- Fact #1: All humans are manipulative.
- Fact #2: How the manipulation comes out determines the health of the person.
Still uneasy? Ok...maybe a clarification on the definition. Dr. Harris recognizes, "Manipulation as a word definitely gets a bad rap. But manipulation extends itself into many spheres as this definition shows:
Manipulation is the skillful handling, controlling or using of something or someone. Whether it's the sculpture you made in art class or how you convinced your friend to do your homework — both are considered manipulation."
Based on this, we can see that manipulation can have either an incredible result displayed throughout museums the world over or a painful, hurtful consequence laced with heartache and tears.
What does it look like in relationships? There are four forms of manipulation:
The first three are focused only on my needs. Negotiation is the only healthy form of manipulation as it invites the needs of others (note: "invites" is radically different from "take responsibility for"). Dr. Harris expounds on this idea, "Negotiation is the highest and most desirable form since it is more relational and mutually respectful. The others, tend to be either less direct, one-sided, or misrepresentational."
He continues, "Although when manipulations are exposed, they more often than not, reveal something less than desirable. But with negotiation, it stops being one person's act upon another, but both people trying to benefit." (Think: Separate/Equal/Open)
We seduce, deceive and/or intimidate to protect ourselves, preventing another from seeing us. It's incredibly vulnerable to recognize our own neediness and it's another thing to share that with someone. We would rather get our needs met without taking ownership of them because it's less threatening to our sense of self. Yet we become bitter and resentful when the other does not meet our needs because we refused to offer them. We are so focused on what is and is not being met that we have little to no capacity to see or give to the other person.
Dr. Harris points out no relationship is satisfying when both parties are "doing things to each other that may not be direct. We don't like hidden agendas. I think another thing that [we] don't like about manipulation is that something is less exposed, less direct, perhaps even less honest."
We long for what is true and authentic; it provides safety, stability, and security. Trust is inherent and required for any thriving relationship. It's why betrayal and deception can shatter what seemed like a sturdy foundation. In order to create and establish trustworthy relationships, we will need to be open and honest about who we are, who we are not, our longings, hopes, fears, dreams, failures, triumphs, sorrows, joys. "Perhaps the healthier manipulation becomes, the less it is manipulation and more mutual respect or mutual cooperation--the manipulation is transformed," Dr. Harris.
Will we choose to be people of clarity and truth, honoring our needs by sharing them with another and inviting their needs to be known?
I'm going to make everything around me beautiful and that will be my life.
-Elsie de Wolfe
Tear off the mask, your face is glorious. -Rumi
Depending on your story and life experiences, that question may feel loaded. It may have surfaced feelings of shame, embarrassment, disappointment, and loneliness. Or maybe you had the opposite reaction. Maybe you felt pride, confidence, and assurance. I wonder if the majority, though, felt uncomfortable with the question because of the answers swirling around inside.
For most of us, that question can feel threatening because it is tied to a negative belief we hold about ourselves. And to tell that version of the truth is exposing.
Consider the following and see if any resonates:
- I don't deserve love.
- I am worthless (inadequate).
- I am not good enough.
- I am insignificant (unimportant).
- I am different (don't belong).
- I am powerless (helpless).
- I am a failure (will fail).
- I am inadequate.
My guess is that one or a few hit something deep within. It touched your shame and you want to hide. We may not consciously believe these things. On an intellectual level, we can easily find falsehood in these beliefs. But on a deeper level, that intellectual argument hasn't traveled down to our hearts nor has it made its home there.
It's not a pleasant feeling to realize that part of our core self is made up of beliefs tied to shame. It's actually quite painful. But it is in this brutally honest place that we can amend those negative beliefs and cut ties with them.
Early painful and difficult experiences in our life become the lens with which we later filter other experiences. They are self-defining experiences. They are foundational on which our struggles in life rest. Early on, we came to believe that we are insignificant, we don't belong and we're inadequate and it colored (or rather, stripped) our world, how we see ourselves and how we are to approach people in relationship.
The process of diving into these pivotal moments in your story allows you to release yourself from the shame that has bound you. Dismantling shame's grip creates room to establish a new view of yourself. I've said it time and time again that this process is not for the faint of heart. My clients are some of the most courageous people I know; they are willing to intentionally look at their pain, to feel their pain, to grieve the losses they've endured. But it is here that they are opening a new world for themselves. A world that declares:
- I deserve love; I can have love.
- I am worthy. I am worthwhile.
- I am deserving.
- I am significant. I am important.
- I am okay as I am.
- I now have choices.
- I can succeed.
- I am capable.
Let's begin to be truth-tellers to the reflection in the mirror.
We all possess secrets. We've been entrusted to keep them. We have also offered them to others to hold with us or sometimes for us. At times we consider it an honor to be a confidante and other times it is a curse to be asked to hide something that should be revealed. Secrets are not just things we keep from the outside world; they are most often things we keep from ourselves.
In last month's issue of Pyschology Today, writer Carlin Flora explored the damaging effect secrets have on our mental, emotional, and physical health.
Founder and director of The Institute of Behavior Therapy, Barry Lubetkin explains, "Deep secrets are often traumatic events from the past such as a rape that has made someone feel vulnerable or a compulsion or obsession that feels too shameful to disclose". Other buried secrets according to Lubetkin include illnesses, a stigmatized identity, an addiction or a moral transgression such as a marital affair. Shame underlies much of secret keeping but secrets aren't necessarily secluded to the realm of shame. Flora says that "Hopes and dreams that people don't dare speak aloud are also secrets."
We withhold, not just painful memories but also celebratory or exciting things, because to acknowledge them requires vulnerability, to let people really see us, fears AND hopes. We wonder what people will think if they knew. Or if they did know, we don't want to know what they think because it may be different than what we want to hear. And if I acknowledge it to you, I am simultaneously acknowledging it to myself. Dare I speak aloud my deepest fears and fantasies? What if my fears become reality? And will I be able to bear the crushing weight of disappointment if my dreams do not come true? So we protect ourselves through withholding, denial and dismissal.
The mental bandwidth expelled to protect secrets takes a physical toll. According to Michael Slepian of Columbia University, "Secrets we consciously protect alters the body's stress response and "depletes mental resources". Studies conducted by James Pennebaker of The University of Texas at Austin "found that people who had a traumatic sexual experience as a child or teen were more likely to have health problems as they got older, particularly if they had hidden the trauma from others".
However, Pennebaker found that making sense of traumatic events had a powerful effect on the body. Those who spent 20 minutes each day for several consecutive days visited the health center "far fewer times in the following months than students who had written about a general topic or who revealed a secret but didn't delve into the emotions around it".
Clinical psychologist Nando Pelusi explains that secrets are a mirror of what one believes about themselves. Beliefs that one is incompetent, deficient, worthless, unlovable is often hidden beneath a traumatic secret. Pelusi advises the importance of "[taking] apart the traumatic event. Someone might always regret what happened, but if he looks at it in a safe environment, like a therapists' office, the trauma diminishes because it's been powered by secretiveness".
Examining and exploring the purpose of the secret and the beliefs that have held it in the dark can release the power of shame. Being willing to look behind the curtain to find a mere man instead of the all powerful Oz can be quite painful. The Wizard of Oz was constructed for a reason and we are slowly dismantling that image, facing fears of who we are and are not. But from there, if you are willing, you can find meaning and chart a new course for yourself with healthier, more accurate beliefs of your true identity.
Early on, we unconsciously learned to present certain things to the world (like a powerful man in sunglasses) so the world will accept us. Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins sums this up brilliantly about the transformation of his character Chiron in his film Moonlight, "Over time some people become less and less themselves and instead turn into this thing that they feel like they need to be in order to survive."
So we hide in plain sight. We keep our true selves tucked away beneath layers and layers of the false images we portray. Carlin Flora's Psychology Today article, "Unlocking the Vault", dives into our propensity to hide. She interviews Barry Farber, Professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, who explains, "A struggle plays out constantly between a wish to be known and helped on one hand and the avoidance of feeling the shame of acknowledging pieces of ourselves we're not pleased with." Like the Tiger, we want to present ourselves in the best possible way that causes others to think highly of us because that is what "counts in this world". And somehow, being human with faults, fears and wounded histories doesn't fit into that equation so we bury those parts of us into the recesses of our soul.
To hide our humanness, we put a lot of energy to maintaining these facades. So much energy is given to employing these covers and keeping them in tact that we can't hear what is happening inside us.
To quiet the noise of incongruence between the mask and the man, it's easier to assume the mask is the man. We lose track of who we are and unknowingly allow the self-protective ways of relating to take over. You wear this mask long enough and become known this way so it seems foolish to take it off. If you took it off, who would you be? Would you even recognize yourself? And would you be accepted without it?
Yet, you're tired. You're tired of being different things to different people. It's exhausting wondering if you'll be exposed. Ultimately, it's lonely being a stranger in your own skin. Something inside longs to breathe, to connect, to love, to belong, to be known. That part wants to be real, wants to be authentic, wants to be true. Being true means accepting yourself as human and loving and seeing those parts you deemed unworthy.
We can only test the climate of authentic revelation in a safe environment of compassion, kindness, patience and understanding. Without this, the masks and the belief of their necessity will be reinforced. As you shed those false layers, you'll come face to face with the painful reasons that caused those layers to originate. This uncovering is uncomfortable and can feel disruptive but it is necessary. You're knocking down what you've falsely built your world around in order to rebuild something true. This is wildly vulnerable.
But if you are willing to give yourself the gift of your own humanity you will learn like the Skin Horse, that "real" is a "thing that happens to you". When you are really loved, then you become real. Becoming real takes time "but once you are real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."
That sounds like a comforting invitation to me. Will you accept what being real can offer you?