Real life can take a lot more energy than the energy used by an Oscar winning actor or actress.  Why?  Because, while the actor immerses him or herself in one character at a time, in real life many of us are turning ourselves inside out to please any number of significant people in our lives.  We become the proverbial chameleon that changes colour depending on the company we keep.  We hide our feelings, we pretend to be happy when we are not, and we focus all our energy on appearing calm on the outside, while inside there is turmoil, confusion, frustration, anger, irritation, depression and stress.  And so we put our masks on and pretend that all is well……

Why do we do this?  Why do we wear “masks” and pretend to be what we are not?  We all have a very powerful need to be accepted and to be loved – and this need may be so powerful that we could be prepared to override our own values.  In other words, we could “sacrifice our soul”.  And so we say Yes when we mean No, we do things we don’t want to do, we lose touch with who we really are and what we really want out of life.  It is no wonder that it is said, “People pleasers are not to be trusted!”

Carl Rogers, one of the most influential psychotherapists of the 20th century postulated that much of our stress and emotional discomfort comes from trying to live up to the expectations of others because of never receiving validation from our family of origin or what he calls “unconditional positive regard” from significant others in our lives.

The resulting feelings of lack of self worth and esteem set us up for any number of emotional challenges throughout life, unless we stop and take stock.

So many of the clients I work with tell me how they were always criticised as children and could never please one or both parents no matter what they did.   They internalised messages they heard as children such as:

  • You are stupid
  • You can’t you do anything right
  • You are naughty
  • You are not pretty like your sister
  • Why can’t you be like your brother?
  • See what you have done and how angry YOU have made me
  • If only you were a good girl/boy and stopped giving us such trouble
  • Don’t laugh, don’t cry, don’t get cross…. Don’t feel….
  • If you pass your grade I will love you
  • You can’t follow that career…. We always wanted you to be a doctor…..

 From these messages we learn that we are only worthy of love if we “conform” to the standards of others.   And so begins our dance through life, wearing masks and adopting roles we are not comfortable with.  As children, who are at the mercy of their families, it makes sense to do this dance which is a way of adapting to the criticism and trying to survive emotionally and sometimes even physically.  However, when this continues into our adult life it becomes “dysfunctional” and very stressful.

It is these messages or “conditions of worth” that block us from constructively growing towards self-actualisation and true fulfilment.  When people live their lives according to the values of others, inauthentic living becomes stressful and unsatisfying.

Tragically, many people have made important decisions, based on the values of their family of origin and not their own true convictions or choices?  How many have been forced to marry a particular person to please their family?  How many have felt forced to pursue careers or studies to please their parents?

We say Yes, when we want to scream NO, we laugh when we would rather cry, we go out when we would rather stay at home, we associate with people who are toxic to us personally and tolerate bad behaviour, lack of respect, abuse, put-downs and insults, just to meet with others approval and not to “rock the proverbial boat”.

Reversing this trend and learning to take off our “masks” is not easy, and that is why so many of us continue in typical dysfunction style to wear our masks, which are at least comfortable by virtue of familiarity.


This subject begs two avenues of thought:

  1. Are you or I burdening our children, marriage mates or other important people with “conditions of worth?  Do we criticize someone regularly, which is like a slow poison?
  2. As an individual are you sick of some of your masks you feel “forced” to wear?  Do you experience the pressure to conform and change like a chameleon?  Do you have the courage to challenge your masks?  Are you really tired of the pretense, but don’t know where to start?


Posted by Stella Heuer

May 12, 2014