The world can be a bruising place for emotionally sensitive people. A regular day can feel like being covered in biting, Texas-sized fire ants. A natural response is to do whatever works to avoid the pain of believing others have judged, rejected or left you out. Feeling powerless to stop injustice adds to the hurt. One option is to wear a mask and hide who you really are–an Avoidance Mask. You know, avoid all the pain and protect your authentic self as well.

An Avoidance Mask is different from a Functional Mask. A Functional Mask is one everyone needs. That’s the one you wear at work when you need to look like you’re in charge even though your daughter just eloped with a guy in a rock band.

A Functional Mask is put on for those necessary times, like when famous people don’t want to show how sad they are so the tabloids won’t figure out they’re devastated that they were fired as the star of a movie or television show. With a Functional Mask you feel your feelings and are only temporarily sheilding them from others. Having a functional mask is helpful but often difficult for emotinally sensitive people. So sometimes they choose more permanent masks in an effort to protect themselves emotionally.

People Pleaser Mask. The People Pleaser Mask means doing whatever it takes to make other people happy so they’ll accept you and be less likely to emotionally attack you. When you have thoughts or feelings or preferences that are different than those of your companions, you shove them down or push them away.

When someone says your friend is a two-faced neanderthal who doesn’t know how to dress and belongs to the wrong church, you nod or don’t say anything out of fear, terrifying fear, even though you don’t agree. Then you feel angry at yourself because you were afraid. You can do this so often that you lose yourself and don’t know what your own thoughts and ideas are anymore.

Mask of Anger: Anger can keep people away from you and protect you from feeling vulnerable. Anger feels more powerful than hurt, fear or sadness and can be used to avoid those painful feelings. Angry people cover up their sensitivity in a way that few people guess that they are sheep dressed in porcupine quills. Emotionally sensitive people who use the mask of anger are often lonely and feel worthless on the inside.

Happy Mask: Another way of protecting yourself is to behave as if you’re happy all the time. No one ever knows when your feelings are hurt and to the outside world nothing gets you down. Happiness covers your real feelings. You joke and smile even when the lady next to you volunteers you to host the next sit down dinner for the neighborhood right at the time you are expecting six guests from out of town.

Almost any emotion/behavior can be used as a mask. Maybe you mask insecurity by disliking others or mask sadness by being the life of the party or mask fear by being perfectionistic. Putting on a mask is a way of disappearing–being invisible.

Masks provide some emotional protection in the short run. But the costs of wearing masks are high. When you wear a mask, you don’t really feel the warmth of belonging because others don’t really know you. One of the most basic needs people have is to feel connected to other people and that can’t happen when you are hidden.

Not only that, but you may wear masks so long you don’t really know yourself or what you are feeling. Not knowing yourself creates a lot of anxiety because you can’t make decisions and who you are is defined by others or how the day went. Avoiding feelings means you lose part of who you are and increases the liklihood that you’ll be depressed or anxious. Plus it’s exhausting to wear masks.

Dropping the Mask and Reclaiming Your Identity

1. Make the Decision: The first step is to decide you want to drop the Avoidance Mask. This means you are committed to taking action even though it may be painful in the beginning. If you aren’t sure, make a list of pros and cons–pros and cons of dropping the mask and pros and cons of keeping the mask.

Dropping the mask will not be easy and recognizing the difficulty of this task will help you succeed. Remember taking one step at a time may work best. For example, speaking up about which restaurant you’d prefer for dinner might be one initial step.

2. Focus on Awareness: If you’ve lost touch with your own preferences and feelings, spend some time asking yourself what you really think and feel. Keep asking and keep experimenting–it will come back to you. Consider keeping a journal, writing down what you liked and didn’t like each day. Accept your feelings and trust that they will pass.

3. Be Visible: Notice if you have the posture of someone who is trying to hide. If you do, stand up straight and let yourself be visible. Begin to express your opinion and thoughts gently, with kindness.

4.Develop New Coping Skills: Before you drop the mask, it’s important to have alternative, more effective ways to cope with emotional pain. More about that in future posts.

5. Face Whatever You’ve Been Avoiding:Whatever your thoughts and feelings, they are your thoughts and feelings. Everyone has their own internal experience and yours is likely different from that of your friends’.

Accepting your internal experience instead of avoiding it will allow you to check to see if your feelings have any base in external reality and to choose healthier, more effective ways of coping. Facing the external fears will help you overcome those as well. Being rejected or criticized by others is not pleasant, but you will find out you can survive it. Take small steps, have support, and use alternative coping skills.