Rarely does a person emerge from childhood completely unscathed. Most of us learn to protect ourselves with defense mechanisms and personality traits that ensure our safety in the world. By adopting certain behavioral patterns, we unconsciously or consciously seek security and stability. We wear different kinds of masks to keep us from getting too hurt. However, in doing so, we close ourselves off from authentic relationships and stay stuck in the scabs of our childhood wounds.
By identifying our protective shields, we can begin to heal from past hurts and enjoy deeper intimacy with our loved ones. While our coping strategies are as varied as our personalities, here are ten of the most typical masks we wear.
Ask yourself: Which mask do you wear?
The Cool Guy
By all outward appearances, this person seems to have mastered whatever it takes to stay calm in all situations. Unrattled by conflict or chaos, this person possesses the composure of a Zen Master. However, beneath the surface, one of two things happen. His bottled-up emotions either result in a nervous breakdown, or he periodically presses the release valve when no one is around, snapping at folks subordinate to him. He lambasts the waiter for forgetting his coffee or fires off a nasty email to his assistant for a small error.
Humor is a brilliant defense mechanism. I use it myself. If you’re laughing, you’re not crying, even though they can look the same. That said, it can and does prevent intimacy. Sarcasm, especially, tends to be rooted in pain and is not without consequences.
The humorist tells a joke to skirt sincere discussions, to keep conversations from getting too real or deep. Uncomfortable with conflict, he will charm his way out of confrontation. His comedy serves as protective shield. As such, he doesn’t allow anyone in, and is lonely.
Some people unconsciously pursue perfectionism as a defense against annihilation. If everything is done right, then their world can’t fall apart. While the accolades and praise associated with being a perfectionist may provide some temporary relief, the perfectionist is always at the mercy of something going wrong, and therefore lives in a constant state of anxiety. Her stubbornness, obsessiveness, and lack of trust build a barrier between her and her loved ones.
Most of us know a martyr, a person who boasts that she has single-handedly saved the world with her selfless actions. While martyrs can bring families together with compassion, their exaggeration of sacrifices drives loved ones away. The drama with which they do good serves as a protective shield from the very people who they are helping. The martyr secures her place in the world by believing her role is critical, all the while making everyone uncomfortable around her.
Every environment in which we work and play is a 5th grade schoolyard with its shares of bullies. Their assertion of control can be subtle, a gentle manipulation to make you see it their way, or can be aggressive, even physical. While bullies appear to be confident in their forceful delivery of opinions and order, they are innately insecure. They want so badly to be respected that they will break the rules of appropriate conduct to get that esteem. Self-doubt drives their hostile behavior; an obsessive need to feel right that comes at the expense of others’ rights and feelings.
The Control Freak
The control freak uses order and power to achieve a sense of security. By making sure everything is in its proper place, he relieves his fear of the unknown, of ambiguity, of uncertainty. A mother hen, the control freak won’t let anyone out of her sight, and assumes responsibility for all those around her, even when they don’t want to be cared for. He becomes unraveled when anyone deviates from the plan.
Suffering from a chronic case of unworthiness and insecurity, the self-basher projects a negative view of herself to others. Perhaps unconsciously, she believes that she can insulate herself from hurt by hurting herself first. She, then, berates herself and insults herself as a protective measure against any potential zingers coming her way. Self-deprecation becomes a defense mechanism with which she avoids any risk of intimacy.
The people-pleaser will go to desperate lengths to win the approval of those around her, because her sense of identity is largely based on the assessment of others. Her values often vacillate depending on the input of the day because she looks to outside sources to validate who she is. This mask-type solicits the advice of friends, doctors, experts, co-workers, and mentors because she lacks a strong foundation. Easily influenced by others, decisions are especially difficult for her.
The timid person or introvert is deathly afraid of failure and rejection. He would much rather feel the pangs of loneliness than risk not being liked. Like the perfectionist, he is so afraid of making a mistake that he refuses to challenge himself. He blushes easily, is embarrassed easily, and doesn’t say much for fear of saying the wrong thing.
The Social Butterfly
Although the life of the party, the social butterfly is innately lonely. They compensates for feelings of insecurity with their gift of gab and small talk. They have many acquaintances but few, if any, real friends. Although their calendar is packed full of social events, but their life lacks meaning. They keep their conversations superficial because deeper dialogues may expose their anxiety or shed their confident persona.
Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist