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  • Nicki Claeys

Take Your Damn Mask Off

The word of 2020 is mask. In our world today it usually refers to the face coverings mandated in many cities, stores, and facilities. Even though many find masks inconvenient, we are finding a few perks. For example, you can go to the store with no makeup and completely unpresentable and no one recognizes you! Also, with temperatures dropping, the mask acts like a face warmer. I'm always trying to look on the bright side.

If I had heard the word mask any time before March of this year, I would have immediately thought of a beauty treatment mask. Between myself and two daughters, we own at least twenty different kinds of skincare masks. We love slathering on that colored goop and hydrating, detoxifying, and rejuvenating our skin. My husband inevitably gives me a weird look anytime I have one on. "I'm making myself beautiful for you," I tell him. He just doesn’t get it.

In October if I hear the word mask, my mind goes to a costume. Halloween masks are a carry-over tradition from the ancient Celtic holiday, All Hallows’ Eve. Back then people wore masks to protect themselves from bad spirits that roamed the earth that night. Today we wear them because it's fun, simple as that.

In many respects, we have carried this idea of wearing masks (hiding our identities, making ourselves look better, and protecting ourselves) into our daily lives. We each have our own individual identities, and for better or worse, we have personality traits that make us who we are. As we grow up we develop a sense of right and wrong, good and bad, likes and dislikes, and all the quirky things that make us the unique individuals you see today. Our life experiences can make us stronger but may also create insecurities, fear, and defenses mechanisms that can be pretty hard to let go of.

In turn, many times we don't appreciate our unique identity and would prefer instead for people to believe we are different than we are. We develop masks to hide our true selves believing in the false assumption that people will like this false identity. The worst part is that we can lose ourselves in this fake identity and forget who we really are.

The Protective Mask

We all have them now, just walk into a grocery store or school and you will see every person wearing one. Seven months ago most of us had never even considered buying a mask like this. We weren't doctors or nurses, why would we need one? But we were told that by wearing one, it protects others if we happen to be a virus carrier. Fast forward six months, we each have dozens of masks in our homes, all in the name of protecting another human. I believe you can agree with me that for most parents, specifically moms, there is a biological instinct to protect our families. Just watch National Geographic and you'll see it in the animal kingdom. Watching that Mama bear protect her babies is truly a beautiful thing. But when our need to protect goes next level and becomes irrational or overbearing, we need to step back and reevaluate.

My youngest daughter has always given me a run for my money. She has gotten into more trouble in her 17 years than I care to think about. Trust was lost and reestablished over and over before she ever even turned 16. For a long while, I sank into helicopter parent syndrome. I had to know every minute detail about where she was, with who, and what they did. I was the household interrogator. I might drive past the house she said she was at, I searched her phone regularly, I read her personal texts, and I searched her room. These things may not seem unreasonable to some. After all, I was doing it in the name of protecting my child. But after a while, I realized the personal toll it was taking on me. I was exhausted, anxious, irrational, angry, depressed, I couldn’t sleep, and the damage it was doing to my relationship with my daughter was even worse.

When I realized that my mental health was deteriorating I stopped and took a long hard look at myself. I got quiet, and looked to God for help. It took some time but it quietly came to me. The only way to help myself was to loosen my grip. I couldn’t MAKE her do anything, the more I tried, the worse it got. Her choices were hers. My role as her mom is to guide, love, and protect when necessary. But I can’t protect her from all danger. She had life lessons to learn just like I did. So, one day I told her, “I am loosening this up. If you slip up again, I will still love you but I will not rescue you. Your choices are yours and so are the consequences.”

Would you believe the moment I released my grip, she stepped up? She took school more seriously, her grades improved, she found new friends, her whole attitude changed. Half the rebelliousness from her was being caused by my unwillingness to let her live. Is she perfect today? Uh, no. But she’s open with me, talks to me (even about subjects I would prefer to avoid), and really loves and respects me. If I had continued giving in to my need to control and “protect” her, I hate to imagine where things might be.

The Gas Mask

Gas masks don’t usually bring up visions of anything uplifting, their connection to chemical gas warfare drums up feelings of dread. The human need to feel protected and safe is completely natural. All living creatures, plants included, have protective and self-preservation instincts. As women, we have been raised to be cautious when walking alone at night, hiking, traveling, etc. But there are some women that go from being cautious to having debilitating fear that can keep her stuck. It could be anything; losing someone, a past life trauma, a bad breakup, an accident, there are hundreds of reasons. This need to self-preserve and protect at all costs can lead to a sad and unfulfilled life. By refusing to take a risk, she is left with a life of what-ifs; what if I had made those life changes, what if I had left that dead-end job, what if I had left that toxic relationship (or friendship), what if I had taken a risk? If this resonates with you, it’s important to do a deep dive into why you feel stuck and what you can do about it. Yes, this will mean becoming vulnerable and having to open up to face some tough realities. But there are so many excellent therapies, coaching programs, and personal development courses out there! It may take time, but change and growth can be amazing!

Scary Halloween Mask

Whether it’s a classic horror movie mask like Jason’s hockey mask, Freddy Krugers scarred mask, or Michael Myers expressionless mask, or maybe even a zombie, alien, or generally creepy dude, they are all designed to instill fear. Let’s face it, we all have a dark side and have at one time or another run off or abandoned the people closest to us. The real problem is when we let our dark side take over. I’m not talking demonic possession or chasing people around with a chainsaw. I’m talking about the darkness like anger, frustration, and pessimism. When we allow those dark feelings to drown out the high vibrations of love, gratitude, and laughter there is a problem. These people often call themselves realistic, practical, and my favorite: brutally honest. But in reality, this behavior chases people away because of the person's inability to see the beauty, hope, and wonders of life. Often those kinds of people don’t even realize they are doing it.

I have a friend whose mother-in-law is one of these people. She's a glass half empty (and also full of poison) kind of woman. The grandkids don’t want to visit her, they all dread family gatherings, and my friend can do nothing right in the eyes of this woman. Then she gets upset because no one comes to visit or calls her. Never realizing that she herself is the reason for the lack of contact.

How would your friends and family describe you? Uplifting and fun or the family Debbie-downer? What memories do you leave the people you visit? There’s one thing that’s certain about Jason, Freddy, and Michael - they don’t get many party invitations.

Superhero Mask

Do you remember the plastic Halloween masks and costumes in the ’70s and 80s? We could barely breathe through the tiny mouth hole, and forget about actually trying to see anything. I can still remember the smell of the plastic and the feeling of sweat running down my face as I tried to wear it longer than 10 minutes. Looking back, they were quite terrifying looking, but for us kids, they were the coolest. Superhero cartoons were big, including Superman, Batman, and of course for the girls (remember this was the 80s), Wonder Woman. Today’s masks and costumes are better designed and are made of better materials than the claustrophobic masks of the past. The thing I remember about those masks besides the lack of oxygen was the creepy looks and smiles that were on the face of the mask wearer. It used to give me the chills. I always kept my mask face down when I didn’t have it on, I didn’t like to look at its fake grin. Thirty-something years later, I still have a very hard time with phony smiles and fake laughs.

Many of us long to maintain a superhero persona in everyday life. But the superhero mask is not one that is kept on easily. We try to be Super Woman in our own right by maintaining a full-time job, being the obedient soccer mom who always brings the best snacks, attending the spin class that we hate, maintaining a perfectly clean house, buying the things we can’t afford, and of course, keeping on the ultra-tight fake smile. But in reality, we despise this person. We are not living to our full potential or feeding and nourishing our own soul, or ever having any of our own fun. We're doing what we think we should be doing, not what our soul is actually calling us to do. If you haven’t seen the movie Bad Moms, it’s time. Yes, it’s Hollywood, but it spoke volumes to me when I saw it years ago.

Celebrity Mask

When you were a kid did you have dreams of being famous? Did you dream of being a rock star, singer, or actor? I would have settled for a smaller celebrity role like the class president or being interviewed on the local news. Everyone has the need to be recognized, admired, and esteemed. But trouble sets in when the focus becomes more about fame and fortune than it does being a real and authentic person. I see middle-aged women posting “look at me and my fabulous life” photos more than ever. I thought being in the Cool Girls’ Clique ended after high school but it seems like it still exists even in midlife.

As our bodies begin to sag, wrinkle, and gray, women (and an increasing number of men) flock to the local plastic surgeons' office to get a nip here, a tuck there. A shot of this and a vial of that. We hope to roll back the years with a bottle of magic potion or (ahem) hair dye. We make any attempt we can to avoid looking our true age. Yes, I mean WE. We take dozens of pictures trying to get the perfect selfie that makes us look young, fit, and sexy (ok, ok, I admit, I usually have to take at least five before I decide my double chin isn’t THAT bad). Our self-worth gets wrapped up in the number of likes, views, and comments telling us how beautiful we are life regardless of the fact that the most important people (our daughters, sons, husbands, and parents) tell us this all the time.

The truth is that no matter how much money we spend on attempting to appear to roll back time, we can’t change our age. What if we choose to embrace the wisdom that has come with our years? Pass on the knowledge gained. Embrace our authentic selves, share the scars, and battle wounds we’ve experienced that could help someone else. You might already be a celebrity in someone’s eyes because you helped them through a traumatic event. At your funeral what would you prefer was said; “She had a viral Instagram post of her in a bikini” or “She impacted my life with her wise words and beautiful soul”.

There is no mask in life that can replace the beautiful, authentic, unique YOU! Masks were never made to be worn permanently (insert scenes from Phantom of the Opera, Vanilla Sky, and Silence of the Lambs). If you don’t feel comfortable in your own skin, start digging and find out why! Develop those parts of you that you feel are lacking. No one is perfect, and no one has to be! Better yourself from the inside, never stop growing, and become the very best YOU that you can be! After all, there is only one you, and as Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.”

Helping you face the mountains of life with passion, strength, optimism, and fun!

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