I am a racist.

OppressionA few weeks ago I came out of a closet. I declared openly and unabashedly that I am a therapist in therapy. I explained why it was important for me to come out of that closet, and why we need more conversations where stigma and shame are replaced with pride and support. Now it’s time for me to come out of another closet. Turns out I’m racist.

Yes, you read that right. I. Am. A. Racist. This was quite a revelation for me and I hope you will not immediately close the window and rant about me on social media. Instead, I hope you will read this sordid tale of self-discovery and insight and allow me to confess my sins. Go ahead and refill your drinks, pop some corn, and grab a pillow. This is a long one.

emancipate-1779132_1920I attended the PolyDallas Millennium 2017 (http://www.polydallasmillennium.com/) this past weekend. The theme was about power, anarchy, and equality in polyamory. Ruby Bouie Johnson is the owner and producer of this highly successful annual symposium, and as a minority woman she is always sure to include a focus on social justice and equity across racial lines. As expected, many of the offerings this year focused on black power and equality.

RacismSpending my entire life in the South, racism is not a new concept for me. Like most white people, my narrative always includes the caveats of having black friends and never once engaging in any form of discrimination. I take pride in being what I perceive as fair, open minded, and socially justice oriented towards the plight of all minorities. I like to think that my personality, my upbringing, my education, and my career speak for themselves in terms of inclusivity.

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #1: I’m a complete and total moron when it comes to truly understanding the history of systemic oppression and placing that in context for today’s events and the future of a group of people struggling mightily for anything remotely fair and equitable.

Three days ago I sat in a room where I was one of the few white faces participating in a discussion about polyamory, rehabilitation, and the black American. Throughout the heated discussion I took copious notes about books and articles to read, podcasts to download, history to learn, and concepts to consider. Page after page of notes, furiously scribbled so I could keep up with back-and-forths that would rival Wimbledon.

And then came my moment. I opened my mouth and highlighted my ignorance. I freely admitted that I never considered myself racist but had to acknowledge that I was not doing anything to solve this problem on a larger scale. I asked for guidance. What could I do? Where could I start? Day in and day out how could I make a difference?

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #2: Why was I, an educated individual capable of higher order research, asking a group of people to generalize centuries of experience into a racial primer that I could easily digest? One person very correctly stated I could not have gotten to this point in my life without learning out to pick up a book and read. “Read Baldwin! Nothing has changed since Baldwin coverthen!” James Baldwin. A brave pioneer in the modern civil rights movement who lectured all across the South on racial inequality as a member of the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE). A writer so prolific in his reporting of racial strife that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1963, corresponded with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President John Kennedy, and had a larger FBI file (nearly 1,200 pages) than any other writer in that shameful era of illegal surveillance. Aside from the Baldwin reference, I have at least a working knowledge of Google, Amazon, and Ebsco. How condescending of me to request that a group marginalized by my majority take the time to condense their rich history into a Reader’s Digest version for my comfort and ease of understanding.

It was at this point that Ruby, who I consider to be a friend and mentor, said quite emphatically “You are a white person in America! Of course you’re racist!” I was taken aback. First time I’ve ever been called a racist. My blood started to boil and I could feel myself bowing up for a fight. A fight that I most assuredly would lose.

light-bulb-1002783_1920Good Decision #1: I kept my mouth shut and listened. I quickly realized that Ruby’s perspective was a valid one whether or not I liked it and whether or not I agreed with it. It was her lived experience. And I needed to hear it.

 

This was a valuable lesson in active listening. If I want to understand anybody at all, I have to listen to their stories and resist the urge to interject my own story or compare it to my narrative in a battle of who has overcome the most. One of the ways white people really screw up this conversation is trying to prioritize pain. There is no hierarchy here. All pain is valid. Acknowledging your pain and suffering does not negate mine. The reverse is also true. But ranking it to show that I have somehow suffered as much as generations of people systemically oppressed? Oh wow….not a good idea. That is not comparing apples and oranges. It’s more like comparing apples and Toyota’s.

In many conversations this past weekend and since, one thing has become very clear. White people love to hide behind the false mask of “I don’t see race, I see people.” After all, I give to the NAACP. I support local black businesses. I might even date a black guy. So I don’t see color. I see other people. I’m going to have to call bullshit on this one. When we say we don’t see color, what we’re actually saying is that we don’t understand the role that race plays in American society. We have been dehumanized by the system of oppression to the point we can lie to ourselves and others when we oh-too-comfortably say “I don’t see skin color” or “I’m colorblind” or “Love is colorblind.”

Don’t believe me? Ever watched someone you know move away from a black man on the street? Or shift their purse across their body? Or lock their car doors? Or avoid certain restaurants or certain parts of town? Or post meme’s about drug testing welfare recipients? Or #BlackLivesMatter right beside #AllLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter? Or laugh at a racial joke and later feel guilty about it….or not feel guilty about it? But we don’t see skin color, right?

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #3: You know I love Harry Potter right? “I must not tell lies.” I must stop lying to myself and the world around me that I do not see skin color. This is not a harmless lie. In fact, it is quite harmful. I absolutely do see skin color and it’s time I acknowledge it and respect it. Otherwise I will remain forever ignorant of the role that race plays in society.

Eldridge quoteWhat happens when I tell the truth? I am forced to confront a very harsh reality shared by Eldridge Cleaver. “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” His statement is frequently parsed. No, parsed is a white man’s term to avoid accountability. Cleaver is misquoted on a daily basis because most people forget the first sentence – “There is no more neutrality in the world.” He is absolutely right. There is simply no way to remain neutral on this issue.

Here’s the big one for us white people: we were NEVER neutral on this issue. We’ve had skin in this game since we first loaded slaves onto a ship and whipped them into submission on land we stole from the Indigenous Americans. It was NEVER possible to remain neutral. We have been too comfortable in the middle pretending we aren’t the problem and avoiding responsibility for finding a solution. We have been too complacent for too long, and that has made us complicit. We are the oppressors. We are the ones who benefit from oppression.

questionHere’s a thought exercise for you. Two kids grow up in a poor neighborhood side by side. Jane is black, Sue is white. Neither have much in the way of resources. They attend the same schools until they graduate. Both work two jobs to pay for college where they study business. They work at the same restaurant. Jane is a line cook for minimum wage. Sue waits tables and with tips averages $12/hr. On the weekends they both babysit. Well, Jane babysits and Sue is a nanny. Jane gets minimum wage, Sue gets $10/hr. Sue graduates college on time, and Jane needs an extra year because of funding. Sue is immediately hired as an entry-level manager. Jane is hired as a secretary for $10k/year less. Both came from the same neighborhoods, worked the same jobs, and earned the same degrees. Yet Sue clearly had the advantage. When Jane wonders about equity, Sue shakes her head and says “I’ve suffered just as much and look what I was able to do with it!”

handcuffed-1251664_1920In this thought exercise, which is based on people many of us know, Sue clearly benefited from racial inequity. She directly benefited from the oppression of another person and was never able to see it. Why? Because we are white and we do not have to see it! We get to avoid it, deflect it, lie about it, or remain ambivalent. It’s in our best interest to maintain this system for our own advantage. After all, for one person to have an advantage means another person has a disadvantage. This is not a level playing field. We are not neutral. Now imagine generations of such disadvantages in daily living and opportunities for advancement. What would that look like for your grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and their great grandchildren? I wonder if that’s what the first slaves thought about when they were stolen from their homes and shipped to this country. I wonder if they had any idea what would happen to generations of their progeny who are now my friends and neighbors and colleagues.

So if I can’t be neutral, I’m either part of the problem or part of the solution. Sure, ethicists and philosophers might caution such dichotomous thinking and even cite the logical fallacy of contraposition. But here is the starkest reality. Because I do directly benefit, I am complicit in doing nothing to stop this oppression. And having said that, it’s time to stop calling this oppression and start calling it what it is: white supremacy.

grunge-2025165_1280Mistake #4: White washing racial inequity as anything other than white supremacy so I do not have to feel bad about my advantages and do something that makes the world equitable and just. White washing allows me to continue to receive unfair and unjust benefits while denying my role.

So now that I acknowledge my role and my mistakes, it’s time to do something about it. Where do I begin? With more listening! Fortunately as a therapist I love to listen to peoples’ stories. I love to hear about their lives and experiences. So I’m going to start there. I’m going to listen more and talk less about me.

light-bulb-1002783_1920Good Decision #2: I will actively seek to understand the lived experience of others by asking them to tell me their stories. This is an active process, and not simply listening when somebody chooses to speak. I will insist on learning more.

MLKAnd once I have listened and absorbed and processed, and run through that cycle a few more times, I will then speak. I will have uncomfortable conversations with my peers. As Goody Howard put it, “you need to call in and call out.” For me, calling in is more about accepting that we will screw this up a lot and we need to be lovingly reminded of what is reality to keep us on track. Calling out includes publicly pointing out oppressive behavior so that the person knows they are wrong, and the people around them know it too. Putting into psychobabble, calling in is about using a personal connection to help someone gain insight and awareness for personal growth and change. Calling out is relying on a social learning paradigm to very publicly teach a much needed lesson to a bully and their supporters.

light-bulb-1002783_1920Good Decision #3: Calling in and calling out will become part of my daily routine. I will have uncomfortable conversations. Certainly this blog entry has been uncomfortable. Talking to my friends last night was uncomfortable. But the more resolute I became the more comfortable I grew.

As you can see, I was able to identity a FEW of my mistakes and some INITIAL steps I can take to do things better. Because right now I am a racist, but I don’t want to be. I want to be better. I want to do better. For me and for those around me. Because I can. Because I have power. Because until I do I am a white supremacist.

I cannot make any trite and cliched promises about my ability to negotiate grand changes in the oppressive system. I do not have enough knowledge…yet. I do not wield enough power…yet. I am not that important…and never will be. All I can ever do is keep educating myself by listening and reflecting and making active changes in how I approach the world. Oh my fellow white people, please join me. Let’s stop being racist.

racism-2099029_1280

 

 

 

 

Dear diary…life is hard.

Expressive Therapy

Sbux1Every morning on my way to the office I stop at the same coffee shop. One of the joys of this type of routine is seeing the same people over and over, and developing some form of bond. For sure I have a few favorite baristas, and there is one in particular where we have developed quite a flirtation. She writes love notes on my coffee cup, and sometimes not-so-loving but enticing notes that make Sbux2me smile or even blush. (Yes, I’m still gay…or mostly gay…and that’s another post for another day.) Nice way to start the day. I also see the same customers over and over. The mechanic from down the street. The nurse from the nearby clinic. The retail manager from the mall next door. It’s reassuring to know I’m not the only caffeine junkie trying to get a fix.

Lately I’ve noticed this same guy every morning. I’m intrigued by him. He sits at a table right outside the front door. He has a stack of books that truly is just over a foot tall. Various books with no clear theme. Yes, I glance at the titles each day because I’m just that nosy! He also has a notebook where he is furiously scribbling notes. Some kind of journal. I haven’t been nosy enough to stand over him and read what he’s writing. My curiosity does have appropriate boundaries most of the time. But from the open books in front of him I imagine him to be capturing his thoughts on what he’s reading. Possibly he’s researching his own book. Perhaps he’s reading for deeper meaning and making a life plan. Maybe it’s a form of bibliotherapy, which is a fancy psychobabble term for reading books that encourage us to think and heal.

harry-potter-1640525_1280I love to read. All the time. People who know me well understand I have quite the love affair with the Harry Potter series. First it was from the perspective of an adult who didn’t quite get the hoopla of a children’s book. Then I read them and enjoyed every word. Then I reread a few years later for escapism. Afterwards I started to appreciate the psychology of this magical world. Books are written about it. Classes are taught about it. Entire fandoms have sprung up around it. I revisit the entire series every few years and always find something new to think about. This year it’s quills and parchment.

In the HP canon, Harry attends school at a time when computers are establishing dominance in educational settings and ballpoint pens have been around for a century. And still Hogwarts relies on quills and parchment for schoolwork, and the wizarding world hand writes letters for delivery by owl. Surely email is faster for keeping up with family and other wizards around the globe. Carrying quills and ink every where you go? Geez. Seems like a pen in the pocket or purse would be more practical. But is practicality really the best measure of an experience?

fountain-pens-1828646_1280I don’t use a quill and have never seen actual parchment. I collect fountain pens. Right now I own just under a dozen. I’ve recently started journaling in a lovely Moleskine notebook I carry everywhere. I’ve also started writing letters and cards on a daily basis. In fact, I spend a fair amount of time finding reasons to break out one of my pens and hand write something. Anything at all. Which is really a big deal for me because I have the most atrocious handwriting. I hate it. It’s the reason I’ve avoiding hand writing anything I could for the past twenty years. And now all of the sudden I cannot put down the pen. What happened to me?

notepadI discovered a new connection between my mind and the paper when I use an actual writing implement. For me it is the fountain pen. For Harry it is the quill. Writing something out by hand requires deliberate thought. It is an active process. When I see the stranger at the coffee shop writing in his notebook, he is truly thinking about what he wants to record because there is no backspace. There is a reason so many authors and poets and speechwriters compose in longhand. JK Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel in longhand. Quentin Tarantino. Joyce Carol Oats. Neil Gaiman. They all write longhand.

As I said I have taken to journaling. Every day. Sometimes more than once a day. It’s a form of expressive therapy that focuses on my internal experiences, thoughts, and feelings. It’s an attempt to make sense of the past and the present so I can better see the future. Journaling helps me process what is going on in my head so that I’m more active in my own therapy sessions. It has allowed me to uncover themes to the events in my life, and my role in those events. I can revisit something that I know has a meaning even if it hasn’t become clear yet. Sometimes my journal is like Dumbledore’s pensieve…a place to record excess thoughts and examine them later to spot patterns and links.

travelers-notebook-2245970_1280Sure, I could keep a digital diary on my computer or my iPhone or iPad or whatever device non-Apple users prefer. But I’ve found true joy in putting pen to paper and what it means for me to transfer my thoughts through a physical act. Deliberate thoughts where introspection leads to a new insight or just the release of pressure from clearing my mind. Sometimes I write a paragraph, and sometimes I write several double-sided pages. Maybe it’s all one topic, and maybe it’s a bit more jumbled steam of consciousness writing to just “clear the cache.” Certainly a blog like this is a journal, but what I write here for public consumption is not nearly as deep or personal as what’s in my little black book.

What have I learned so far? For a long time I have really hated myself. My thoughts and words and actions have been centered on so much self-loathing and self-sabotage that I marvel at how I’ve gotten out of bed some days. My view of myself has been so harshly negative for so long. Some of it dates back to childhood hurts related to being bullied in school and my family of origin. Trauma has played a role. Some of it is tied to failed relationships and rejection. And most of it is simply tied to daily life events that affect us all, but that my distorted view allowed to spiral out of control in a repeating cycle of self-destruction.

Brain KeyMost of all I learned that I’m far more culpable than I wanted to admit. I am usually the architect of my own unhappiness. I have been one of the worst for taking care of myself despite what I advise clients. I learned that I have a creative side that wants to burst free and see the world. That I love deeply and passionately and have much to give others. That my view of the world, sometimes healthy and sometimes not, is perfectly valid so long as I use it to shape my life into something meaningful. That I am actually a fairly interesting person who deserves happiness and joy. And that I alone am responsible for making that happen.

Some of this was a bit tough to accept. After all, who wants to learn that no matter what happens in life we are ultimately responsible for our happiness or lack thereof? Getting over trauma requires an investment to be healthy again, and fair or not we have to do it. Moving past a failed relationship requires owning my part in the failure. Acknowledging positive qualities and traits is healthy and realistic, and good for me even when I want to discount myself. Seeing all the potential in life helps me set and achieve goals alone and with others. Yes, it’s been quite a journey and there is no end in sight. As long as my hand can hold a pen, I will be journaling to better understand myself.

Journaling just for me requires a level of honesty I was not ready to accept at first. I had to strip away the pretense of what I imagined a journal to be. This is not “Dear Diary, today Johnny called me a fag and everybody laughed at me. Still I think he’s the cutest boy in school.” This is real. It is deep. It is meaningful. It has helped me see the world and my place in it in a far more realistic way. I love that. And now I’m off the journal some more…

books-690219_1280

A Therapist Comes Out

ComingOutNo, I’m not coming out as gay. I already did that some 20 years ago. And yes, I realize Pride was last month. But still I’ve decided to come out of another deeply personal closet. This one might actually be a bit harder than when I thought I was going to shock my parents about sexuality … though they were not the least bit shocked and if anything were a bit underwhelmed by the revelation. I am coming out of the therapy closet. I am a therapist who sees a therapist for my own mental health and well-being.

DepressionIt would seem like a therapist should have no trouble admitting that he sometimes needs help just like anybody else. In my mind, I can easily accept that at some point in their lives nearly two-thirds of American’s will qualify for a mental health diagnosis like anxiety or depression or ADHD. I encourage people to live genuine and open lives where shame and pretense are cast aside. And now it’s time for me to do the same.

Years ago I was diagnosed with a depressive disorder. Like many people, I tried medication with limited success. I wasn’t ready to work on the “real” issues and thought taking a magic pill would solve all my problems. It did help to an extent, but since I avoided dealing with the root causes of my depression it was bound to relapse. And it did. Several times in my adult life. Recently I started a course of psychotherapy to unpack the longstanding issues that fuel my depressive states. I want to better understand myself and the things that have happened in my life so I can make lasting changes. I want to cast off the chains of depression and emotional oppression so I can be the happiest and healthiest version of me. I deserve that.

Depressed WomanMy fear in coming out as a working professional with a depressive condition is that clients would think I was unfit to do my job. After all, who in their right mind would go to a depressed therapist? Well to be clear, I have periods of depression that are cyclical in nature. They are not so debilitating that they prevent me from attending to my daily needs, going to work and doing a good job, socializing with my friends, and enjoying many aspects of my life. Does that sound at all familiar? A “mild” depression where you are living life, just not your best life?

I was fascinated with the notion that mental health professionals are supposed to be these perfect creatures living blessed lives of flawless grandeur. And when my clients ask, sometimes jokingly and sometimes not, how therapists get through their day without having somebody to talk to, I would give a standard answer about “being trained to compartmentalize and maintain boundaries.” That is a true answer. We are well trained to compartmentalize the things we hear and to maintain a professional distance to avoid a vicarious traumatic reaction to the struggles and stresses of our clients’ lives. But come on! We’re still people! We have feelings too!

So here I am, coming out of the therapeutic closet and seeing the world from the eyes of my clients. When I attended my first session with a counselor who specializes in treating mental health professionals, I was quickly assured that I am not alone or some anomaly. In fact, he said something that gave me pause for several minutes: “the best therapists have their own therapists, and it makes them better at their jobs.” I’m pretty sure I’ve said things that caught my clients off guard and helped them see themselves and their struggle in a different light. Or at least I hope so. With that one sentence I knew I was doing the right thing.

Why come out of this closet at all? Why take the risk of alienating current or potential clients by admitting that I also seek help? Because mental illness in America has been far too stigmatized for far too long. How can I in good conscience encourage people to accept mental illness as a variation of the human experience and be ashamed of my own struggles? I care not for hypocrisy, so it seems to me that if I want to encourage a shift in how we view those seeking help I need to change the way I view my own need for help.

Therapy 5What have I learned so far? Nothing groundbreaking. Nothing that I didn’t already know from my own professional training. And yet I’m learning more about me than I could imaging because I wasn’t open to the possibility before. I’m solidifying goals for my life. I’m unpacking a lot of hurts that impact my self-esteem. I’m learning to better care for myself and reach out when I need support. I’m discovering just how passionately I care about some issues and how I can help make my world and the world around me a better place. I’m learning to see the best in myself so I can be the best version of myself. All the same things I do with my clients, I’m ENJOYING for myself.

And I feel great! I’m no longer scared to say that I have a therapist. He helps me care for myself and better myself. I am living a healthier and happier life, and working towards being the best me that I can be. And I know that I am a better therapist for it. Not just because I have a better understanding of what it’s like to be “on the couch.” But because I have a better understanding of the change that happens when you take care of you.

LifeIsGood

What’s Really Wrong With Me?

WWWM

For the past decade I have been conducting psychological testing for various reasons. Sometimes a person wants to know if they have ADHD or a learning disorder. Sometimes we are looking at career options and want to determine if college is a good choice, or maybe if a specific job fits their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSA’s). Maybe it’s about a legal matter and making recommendations that are useful to an attorney or a probation department. Most often what I do is a diagnostic study to understand whatever is happening and make appropriate treatment recommendations. It’s the answer to the “what’s really wrong with me and what can I do about it” question.

In the course of hundreds of evaluations, something I’ve noticed is a lack of consistency and sometimes an outright lack of agreement among clinicians. Just this month I was beginning a therapy relationship with someone who disclosed every diagnosis along the Autism spectrum. Last month a client presented with “bipolar, major depression, anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, ADD, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, learning disorder.” What a laundry list! How is it possible for one person to have so many labels? How can one person run the gamut of an entire spectrum like Autism or psychosis? It’s more common than you think, and here are a few reasons why.

Point in Timesign
Any psychological evaluation represents a brief moment in time. Hopefully an evaluator thoroughly reviews your history, including medical and mental health records and prior evaluations. That’s certainly a best practice. It does give us more information (data points) to consider for diagnostic purposes. But even then, your evaluation a single slice in time of what that clinician observed or recorded (testing) on a specific day. Having a bad day? Testing might underestimate your best abilities. Forget your medication? Your mood might be a little more off kilter than usual. Or paying attention might be pretty hard. Leave your glasses at home? Probably going to make it hard to complete testing with speed and accuracy. Or the biggie…did you hold back some information? Sharing all the details is important for an accurate diagnosis.

Even if everything goes just as it should, it’s still entirely possible that a diagnosis can be right in that moment but not really accurate for your daily functioning. Or it might be accurate for problems lasting a few weeks or a few months, but not forever.

bullseyeMoving Targets
Another consideration is that diagnoses can be “moving targets.” There is a lot of overlap in symptoms for various disorders. For example, problems with attention and concretion can be related to ADHD, depression, psychosis, intellectual disability, learning disability, dementia….and on and on. Having mood swings? Could be a bipolar disorder, but it also could be a normal variation of depression or even personality traits. Behavior problems? Might be ADHD, depression, anxiety, Autism Spectrum Disorder, psychosis, personality-related, or a bona fide conduct disorder. See how easily this can all be confused? Yes, we get lots of training in diagnostics (psychopathology), but it takes good rapport and good investigative skills to understand what’s really going on.

This is never more true than with children and adolescents. Symptoms can look very different in young folks. Depression in a teenager often includes irritability, hostility, and acting out. Which can look like an oppositional defiant disorder. Some behaviors could be the result of medications affecting the developing brain. And, quite often, children and teens simply cannot verbalize what is going on the same way you and I can. They try, but they themselves might not understand it in order to explain it coherently.

Treatment = Change (hopefully)
Another consideration is that appropriate treatment really should change diagnostic labels over time. If you are taking medication and engaging in weekly therapy, your depression should get better and eventually that label should go away. Or perhaps your Major Depressive Disorder transitions to a Depressive Disorder NOS and then to nothing at all. ADHD frequently abates over time as the adolescent brain develops into adulthood. But not always, and more and more adults are given a label that traditionally had to be first diagnosed in children.improving together

The biggie here is Autism Spectrum Disorder. With appropriate and consistent treatment (social skills training, therapy, and possibly medication), it is very common for the more severe symptoms related to communication and social interaction to greatly improve to the point it really can be hard to see that a label is appropriate. The same is true for learning disorders. The schools refer to this as “response to intervention” and is now formally measured for those receiving special education services.

Arriving at the right diagnosis can sometimes be pretty straightforward. Other times it feels like I am a detective solving a mystery. The end result will depend on the available information, how willing people are to be open and honest, and the skills of the clinician. It is vitally important that you feel comfortable with the person evaluating you. You are far more likely to be open and honest if you feel safe and secure.

Feel free to contact my office if you keep asking “what’s wrong with me” and it seems like nobody can understand you.

Living behind masks

drama-masksWhen I was in high school I became enamored with a drama class. It was purely happenstance, as there was no other elective available for the last period of the day besides Spanish. In Arkansas two decades ago, I didn’t feel a great need to know Spanish. Drama won out.

I am secure enough to admit I was a horrible actor. I never got cast in any production. My projection was weak. My suspension of disbelief was lacking. Still, I was intrigued by the notion of disappearing into a character. Exploring a whole other world and living the life of another person. Being something other than I was. Something better, more interesting, more enjoyable. The drama masks, smiling and frowning, represented a world a possibility limited only by the imagination.

I forgot all about the drama masks until the mid 2000’s, when I met a drama therapist by the name of Lori Yates. She was a social worker at North Texas State Hospital, a maximum security forensic hospital. Lori is quite the therapist, willing to try anything and everything. Plus she is quite the cut up. Drama therapy obvious was a fit for her. One of her techniques was to have patients craft masks and then wear them during productions of their own creation and direction. Some of the masks at the hospital were extraordinarily beautiful, reminiscent of Mardi Gras or a masquerade ball. Others were dark and scary, and clearly represented pain and tragedy. All were intriguing.

Masks do serve a purpose. In sports, we wear masks and faceguards to protect delicate features and reduce the risk of injury. More often, though, masks are for hiding our identity…which can be a variation on protection if we think about it in terms of protecting ourselves from the ramifications of our choices. Superheroes were masks to protection their friends and family. Criminals and various bad guys where masks to keep from being caught. At Halloween we wear masks to be rewarded with candy…and as adults to (hopefully) hide some of our suboptimal behavior.

Wes Mask2This past New Year’s Eve, I myself wore a mask. The whole night I disappeared behind this mask, surrounded mostly by strangers who had no idea of my identity. It was quite liberating. I danced more freely than I had in years. I was not afraid to look around and see people. I didn’t shy away or avert my gaze. I observed. I witnessed. And then I imagined that probably most people wearing masks were having a more free experience than usual, just like me.

When I saw the pictures from NYE, I was struck by the thought that we live our lives behind masks. Physically invisible, but role-defining nonetheless. I “act” a certain way during therapy sessions. I’m different when playing softball. I’m more liberated when dining and drinking with friends. Somber and contemplative in church. At home with my partner and cats, I am probably something very few people have ever seen. Each role of my life is a variation on the core of who I am as a person. The physical masks may be gone, but still I live as different people depending who needs me and what I need.

I’m not sure I like this. As therapists, we frequently advise our clients to live genuine and authentic lives. We say this from an authoritative role of expertise based on training and experience. And quite likely there is the assumption that therapists live mostly perfect lives because of out training and experience. (If you only knew!) Who you are should be consistent in your life, or so we say. Imagine the shock and awe of having my best friend point out that I was willing to tolerate deplorable manipulative behavior from another friend because I was afraid to rock the boat. My bestie pointed out that this was not the first time, and I had tolerated similar behavior on the softball field. Though he did not make all the connections for me, I was well able to see it in myself. In my different roles, while wearing different masks, I had set up different standards of how I was to be treated.

Wes Mask1We all do it. Thinking about your roles. Think about the masks you wear. What do you expect as a wife or a husband? As a mother? As a child? How about as a manager or an employee? As a parishioner? Neighbor? What about as a friend? Now here’s the real question….are your expectations for how you are treated consistent across all those roles? Does it change depending on what mask you wear? Do you wear masks to hide from your own disappointment that you are not living your values? If I’m honest, this definitely applied to me. I didn’t realize it for a long time. And now that I think about what Lori was doing with those masks in the hospital, I see the real impact. Those patients had to express their needs wearing the masks so that they felt safe to build up to making healthy and assertive demands without the masks. Lori was teaching them to not hide behind roles and masks, and to see themselves as whole persons. Not broken and fragmented, and not having to play games to meet their needs Intellectually I get it; practically, I’ve been lacking in my own execution.

Removing a MaskToday I’m giving myself the same homework I’d give a client. I’m making a list of my core values and beliefs, what I want for my life and my world. And them I’m making a list of all my roles. Each role where I am not living my truest life gets a higher level of scrutiny so I can see where I’ve sold myself out. With insight and awareness comes the need to change something. Either my expectations or my actions. I’m pretty confident it will be my actions and that all of my roles will firmly reflect who I am as a whole and healthy person and I can stop wearing masks. I invite you to try this exercise as well. Let me know what you discover about yourself when you stop hiding behind the masks.