Decluttering the Mask

For me, getting rid of clutter is invigorating and helps brings balance. I have always been a very organized person, but I was amazed as I was going through my belongings before starting this journey how many things I came across that I was holding on to. One example, how many sample size freebie facial products does one really need to keep on hand? Why do you keep shelves of DVDs when you don’t have a DVD player or even a CD drive in your laptop? Although the process was stressful because of the severity of the decision, it was rewarding and truly necessary. But how do you declutter and clear out those aspects of ourselves that no longer serve us or are restricting our ability to grow? What sort of grand Spring Cleaning exists for our personality traits and habits we’ve picked up along the way?  I deeply connect to the notion that our personalities are masks that we create over time to help us feel protected as we go about living in this harsh world. Persona is greek for mask after all. As I gain experience in life and focus inward on who I truly am, it feels like my mask has become too burdensome to carry around, weighed down with layers of protection that are no longer needed.  

We are born mask free, innocent and completely dependent on our caregivers to do just that…care for us. I am thankful for the care and deep love that I received in my early years and throughout my life as my sphere of caregivers expanded. But as good as that love and care is, we are humans and humans struggle. We are imperfect, we are constantly growing, and we are doing the best we can at that given moment. We develop ways of dealing with the world based on our own individualized hardwiring and personal experiences, and then we develop habits to cope with experiences, positive and otherwise challenging. I have used this time away as a space for deep self-reflection into the layers of my mask and trying to better understand how they became woven into the fabric of my external personality and internal messaging I tell myself. 

As much as we fight going back to our early childhood times when we are considering the best path toward growth in our adult life, who we were as young children is the closest thing we have to a sense of our true self. I became a big sister when I was just a little over 2 years old and from what I have been told, I decided early that it was my job to take care of my baby brother. Let’s not confuse that with an instant love, I did innocently try to kill him by stuffing Rice Krispies into his mouth in an attempt to “feed the baby”. Maybe I needed more time to be a baby myself but whatever it was, it was probably a starting off point for an underlying need to protect and control my environment. Throughout my life, I felt as if my personality conflicted with what I was feeling on the inside. On the outside, I was confident, gutsy, outspoken and willing to jump into new and challenging things. But what was churning inside of me was fear that I wasn’t smart enough, did not possess a strong competence for a specific thing, couldn’t stick with things very long whether they were jobs or friends.

Prior to leaving on my trip, I had spent more than three years deeply committed to self-reflection and personal awareness, more so than at any other time in my life. In early 2015, I had done the Enneagram personality analysis test as part of a team exercise at the company I worked for at the time.  We took the test and then received a robust booklet explaining our dominant personality type in a number from 1 to 9. I was a Type 8, referred to as the Challenger, the Boss, or the Protector under different interpretations of the Enneagram system, which has been used across a number of cultures for hundreds of years. Upon reading the explanation, I found myself cringing because the information I saw on the pages was a spot on account of my personality. Words such as Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational matched with phrases like “eights feel they must control their environment, especially people, sometimes becoming confrontational and intimidating” were staring me in the face. I had a major breakdown and a resulting breakthrough that I had the tools and somewhat of a map with the Enneagram to untangle this conflict that has been present within myself for so many years. At that point, I dove into my exploration of the Enneagram like an Eight, with intensity and a robust passion but also a keen awareness of some of the likely causes of that internal uneasiness I was feeling related to the choices I was making in my engagement with others.

I became very self-directed and intent on discovering how I could become a more highly evolved, integrated version of myself. Self-observation became the vehicle for me to self-connect, self-correct, and live more intentionally. Most of this was done on my own through the help of gifted authors, and Enneagram books. I engaged a professional Enneagram coach in late 2017 as I was feeling something take hold of me that I couldn’t explain and I needed professional guidance at that point. Soon after that, I committed to my mid-life gap year. 

My sabbatical has been a time of renewal for me, to renew who I was as that innocent child, before I elaborately created a mask supported in a strong need for control, an intensity that my truth, was THE truth, that I must be defined by what I produce, and rejecting any vulnerability that would make me appear weak, unsure, or afraid. I created this mask from the lens through which I viewed the world and how I thought I needed to show up to be recognized, protected, and loved. No one created this mask for me or forced me to wear it. But before I could truly return to that true self, I had to figure out who the heck that was and that would require a commitment to renewal, a commitment to the process of decluttering my mask.

Something that has been instrumental in this process is the fact that over the last four months now, I spend the vast majority of my time by myself. Yes, I am out and about engaging in the world, stuffed together with people on a train, or waiting in line for something, but it is rare to be involved in a conversation with someone and I am certainly not engaged in meaningful or deep connecting conversation. My solitude has created the ability to unfold at my own pace, without worrying about other commitments I have going on. Additionally, I have had a lot of silence. My phone doesn’t ring, I don’t have a television to escape to, I can’t get on my bike and ride for hours. That’s not to say that I haven’t allowed other distractions to creep in, like wandering aimlessly down little streets, spending time on social media, reading books, and more books. But I have tried to do these things with an awareness and a purpose. I am thankful for the fact that while on my journey, I have established a daily meditation practice. Every day, I allow myself that “doing nothing” is exactly the most important thing for me. The last thing that has been invaluable for me is stillness. Just being with myself. Listening to my body and my mind tell me that I need to stay put for the day. But also making sure that when I’m out that I am purposefully engaging in what I’m doing and seeing. At home my life was filled with ending conference calls just to start another, creating documents that nobody probably looked at, reading and sending emails, logging my workouts with an extensity that would make some think I was training for the Olympics, not just trying to stay healthy. Nearly everything in my life was done for a purpose, to produce something, to hide my fears or my feelings. I am so grateful for a book that I discovered during my travels, The Sacred Enneagram, by Chris Heuertz that explained how to use these three principles of solitude, stillness, and silence as tools for your transformational journey.  And now, here I am. In solitude, stillness, and silence and so grateful for the time to embrace this unraveling, this process of deep renewal. 

As I look back on my life, I see how my mask evolved over time, it got new layers as I had new experiences in life that I wasn’t consciously capable of understanding. I didn’t take the time to reflect on those layers as important events were unfolding to possibly look critically at why they happened and was I feeling good about the outcome. My mask has also served me well in many situations in life. I have tremendous resilience and strength to face tough challenges. I will fight for those I love with an intensity and fierceness that cannot be stopped. In time of crisis, those close to me have been grateful for my ability to take charge and rectify problems. These are areas that will remain, but they do so with an awareness that wasn’t present before. 

I find myself at an intersection of self-observation and self-correction, and I am seeing some of the wreckage that this mask left in its wake of kickassness. I am embracing a transformational path forward, instead of letting the mask define how I show up in this second half of life (if I’m lucky enough to get that much more time on this planet). My time away has allowed me to peel back layers of this mask and examine them carefully, with respect for their journey and their purpose. This process takes time to unfold but it also takes practice. It’s one thing to peel back these layers when the majority of my time is spent in solitude, stillness, and silence. I’m at a crossroads of putting this transformational view into practice as I soon embark on volunteering in Mozambique and Tanzania. These adventures ahead will be stepping stones to making different choices. Responding instead of quickly reacting. Listening with a focus and a level of compassion that I have rarely experienced. An opening for growth, humility, connection, and learning. A magical elevation of what is possible when you listen with your heart and get out of the way.