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Peeling Back the Mask: Reconnect With Your Authentic Self

Wearing a Mask

“You cannot find yourself by going into the past. You can find yourself by coming into the present.” ~Eckhart Tolle           

It was 3PM on a Wednesday and I had nothing to do. An empty schedule with limitless potential. 

I was miles from home in the freezing fog of San Francisco. The bustle of traffic reminded me of my hectic life back home, but I wasn’t bothered. I had nowhere to be and nobody to answer to, just like the day before and the next day. I was free.

I brought my favorite travel companion along with me to aid in my journey of self-discovery: me. Not the busy Account-Manager-me. My true self.

Last year was painful for me. Like many others, I found myself ebbing and flowing with the tide that is the nine-to-five. Living for the weekend so I could escape the grind and live outside the snow globe even if just for a moment.

Life is more than clocking in and out with dead eyes and a slack jaw while counting the milliseconds as they fade toward your Friday night. I’m on this earth to be—not to be someone else for a paycheck.

In recognizing that I needed a vacation, I downed a bottle of wine and booked a two-week trip to my city by the bay. Fourteen days of sweet liberation.

Maybe you can relate to my reality.

Back home, Rebecca in accounting is a constant complainer. She brings you down like an iron pair of boots. You’ve got to grin and bear it because she processes your expense reports and you see her every day. You’ve gotten so adept at feigning interest that you’re losing sight of what’s underneath the mask.

Rebecca gets the sympathy mask. Your boss gets the I’m-passionate-about-my-job mask. Jackie in distribution gets the I-like-politics-because-you-like-politics mask. We wear whichever we have to in order to make things easier. Nathaniel Hawthorne said it best: 

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” ~The Scarlet Letter

Two psychological terms stand out as they relate to being someone you’re not: cognitive dissonance and the act of compartmentalization.

They go together like a cerebral peanut butter and jelly sandwich. To understand our challenges, we must first define them. Enter Merriam-Webster:

Cognitive Dissonance: Psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously

Compartmentalization: Isolation or splitting off of part of the personality or mind with lack of communication and consistency between the parts

When was the last time you spent an entire day doing exactly what you wanted to do? Said exactly what you wanted to say? You have a belief system, a rule set. Stuffing these things in a box and being someone else makes you exactly that. Someone else. This is compartmentalization.

It’s a defense mechanism to combat the cognitive dissonance you feel when you have conflicting personalities—when there’s a difference between who you are and who you become in certain situations.

When faced with a challenging situation, a compartmentalized person has to decide how to act. Quelling the reaction most natural to their authentic self, they respond inauthentically because they’ve developed a completely separate personality.

We must be mindful of who we really are—and we get to decide who that is.

“We are our thoughts” isn’t just Eastern voodoo wisdom. The word “brainwashing” has a negative connotation, so let’s call it brain painting. Painting your mind with things you love is a surefire way to become a happy you. This is nothing more than surrounding yourself with people, books, subjects, and thoughts that make you smile. Be selective and consistent with what you allow in.

It’s important to take time to foster your own well-being in a world that demands so much. Almost two thousand years ago, stoic philosophers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius told us to retire into ourselves. Frequent self-examination has been a practice for thousands of years.

Being comfortable with and conscious of what you find is the definition of knowing who you are. Constantly look within and connect with your mask-less you. We can nurture our inner authenticity by being mindful every day.

  • Meditate. You don’t have to have an Om tattoo and a stick of incense to find a quiet place to look inside. Take a twenty-minute vacation inside your own soul. Be cognizant of what you find.
  • Observe. Take a walk and leave your phone at home. Look at everything around you with child’s eyes. Notice the beauty in the trees or the vastness of space. Be a living part of your surroundings.
  • Create. Doodle something while your coffee brews in the morning. Take a few minutes to write something meaningful. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as it comes from your own creativity. Exercise your mind, amigo. You’ll be surprised at how out of shape its gotten.

Traveling solo isn’t an escape. It’s a small opportunity to delete distraction. Lucius Seneca said, “All of your problems are with you.” Running away from them is impossible. But we can, for a time, run away inside our own soul.

I spent my favorite day in San Francisco walking through the residential Noe Valley and Dolores Heights. A simple stroll down sidewalk after sidewalk, without a boss barking orders or my phone buzzing with e-mails. Just me and my smile to enjoy the cool breeze.

It wasn’t so much the city I enjoyed, as it was the chipping away at my mask. Each footstep, a small victory at finding myself underneath it all. I remembered not who I was, but who I am.

Though I’m back to the doldrum routine of my everyday life, I’m still the same human I was in San Francisco. Underneath the demands of a challenging career lies the same person that wandered those sidewalks so many weeks ago. A smiling nomad. He who digs coffee shops. The one who loves wine.

We have the tools and presence of mind to make our journey for authenticity a daily practice. Recognizing when we’ve strayed from our true selves is the first step to staying the course. No one can be you better than you can. Look inside, befriend yourself, and be free.

Photo by Frank Kovalchek

About Trevor Smith

Trevor Smith lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his dog and guitars.

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  • Erica Mackay

    This article is just what I needed, thank you for taking the time to write it.

    I become very overwhelmed with my compartmentalizing that at the end of almost every day i find myself trying to figure out if there was a single moment that I acted in a way that was in time with my real self. Then it inevitably spirals into a question of…which is my real self.

    This is definitely why I travel alone whenever I get the chance. I find myself again, although I have to admit it always feels a little strange and unfamiliar.

  • Tim

    This article was awesome. I like how you referenced everything to all these great minds: stoics, Nathianiel Hawthorn, Eckhart Tolle, Marcus Aurelius. It was very cool.

  • Nancy

    Thank you so much, Trevor. You reminded me to seek what I love…not what others want me to love.

  • Peace Within

    Love this article! I am glad you realized this even with the kind of job you have. Some people never realize it and it is sad. Keep it up and keep inspiring!

  • JR

    I enjoyed reading this very much, thank you.

  • Nottsali

    great article article for me at this time, exhausted on a Friday evening wondering how to get off the treadmill

  • Diana

    I agree! Great article for a Friday — you’ve hit the nail on the head for the vast bulk of us. Thanks for stating it so beautifully.

  • I love this idea. Timothy Leary was talking about this same thing in the “tune in” part of “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” When we live in cognitive dissonance or compartmentalization life is stressful and confusing. Once we find out who we really are we can reflect with our behaviour and appearance. Only then I think will we feel free and fulfilled. I wrote a similar post on my blog Enhanced Awareness entitled “How to Tune in and Become Who You Really Are.”

  • Nicholas

    Peeling through the layers of masks I’ve had to put on while training in my new finance job has been a perilous ordeal for me, and slipping into these personas made me question who my true self was. Thank you for this wonderful article. It reminded me that just because this work acquires me to tweak my personality, my core personhood persists beneath the surface, and it is not lost.

  • This is beautiful. I’m heading on a solo trip to Spain at the end of April to hopefully take a dip in the pool of my authenticity.

  • Trevor – thanks for your honesty and insight. It’s important we are true to ourselves and find the time and space for this. Hey I even wrote a book called “Time for the Real You”!

  • I wonder why people are so afraid to shed their masks? Are we all afraid of rejection and abandonment if we show the world who we really are?

  • Trevor, I really enjoyed this piece. What comes to mind is how deeply rooted our masks are and we can shift into roles so naturally and easily. You point to the process of chipping away the mask~I think this is right on. By integrating authentic moments into our days, moments of spontaneous creativity, and looking inward, we come closer to our authentic selves. As Carl Jung would say, we become closer to wholeness.

  • Ellen Bard

    I really enjoyed this article Trevor. I think one place it can be especially hard to be authentic is on social media – I am sure many of us wear masks without even meaning to there, because we tend to post the more positive aspects of our lives. Being truly authentic takes work every day.

  • Wow….beautiful post and profound insights. I especially resonated with the quote “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.” ~The Scarlet Letter

    In my past career in law enforcement, this was a way of life but also a protective mechanism to deal with the effects of that kind of work. The problem is, the mask begins to become permanent and is not taken off when the uniform comes off at the end of the day.

    Ironically, I’ve only seen the truth of this after walking away from that profession and can now look back. I have so much more FREEDOM now because of simply being able to be true to myself. Thank you for this post

  • Trevor Smith

    Enjoy! Dive right into the deep end of that pool. The water’s fine.

  • Trevor Smith

    Thanks for the kind words. Career’s we’re passionate about tend to transform who we are without us noticing until it’s too late.

  • Trevor Smith

    And how worth it it is! Thanks for the reply.

  • Trevor Smith

    Love me some Carl Jung. Thanks, Jackie!

  • Trevor Smith

    I love this question. Perhaps it comes down to our own insecurities. Maybe it’s up to us to become as complete as we can while being comfortable with the incompleteness. Something for me to ponder this morning. Thanks Emily.

  • Trevor Smith

    Looking forward to checking it out, Peter. Just added it to my Kindle.

  • Trevor Smith

    This sums it up beautifully. I think it’s impossible to conform to social norms while remaining 100% authentic, but we can, at the least, recognize when we’re someone we’re not albeit temporarily.

  • Trevor Smith

    I LOVE your idea of having “extreme experiences” to aid in self discovery. I agree in that you find out what you’re truly made of when you push your own limits. And what a great confidence booster too. Thanks for the comment, Jules.

  • Trevor Smith

    I very much appreciate your reply.

  • Trevor Smith

    Beautifully put, Nancy. Keep on seeking.

  • Trevor Smith

    Erica: It’s a rough road when you’re the only one in the driver’s seat. Speaking specifically, I’ve found that meditation has helped me immensely in my journey to discover who I really am. 20 minutes in the morning and evening with a flickering candle and the occasional philosophy book has fundamentally changed the way I look at both myself and the rest of the world.

    Good luck with your adventure. Stay the course! Thanks for the comment.

  • Great one Trevor. I like the sentence “Each footstep, a small victory at finding myself underneath it all. I remembered not who I was, but who I am”

  • Brandi Leath

    Your post inspired me so much I had to write my own blog post!! I hope it inspires you as well. http://www.brandimykle.com/#!My-self-Journey/cy4u/235FA531-FD58-448B-9BA6-5E4009697FE3

  • BellaForStar

    I was a “friend” magnet while going through the grief process. I had to let go of that in order to continue healing. Although it can be challenging, it is important to enjoy your life for you even if the people around you may struggle with “The New You”. Once they see that you’re peaceful, some may be inspired to seek their own peace and so on…it’s awesome.

  • BellaForStar

    It has been my experience that it isn’t solely rejection, but ostracisim, cruelty, & self-preservation that prevents people from revealing their TRUE selves. These risks are very real but the funny part is that once you accept yourself fully, you begin to attract like-minded individuals…so does it really matter? You can run, but you can’t hide…from you. I think it’s also important to note that while wearing the mask (if it is deemed personally necessary) it is okay so long as you do it with the awareness that your situation is impermanent and that this behavior may not be healthy for you or acceptable in the future. Be kind to yourself and never deny your truth.

  • Lovely post Trevor – thank you for sharing.

  • Tania Yardley

    What a lovely piece, Trevor. I especially like your last line ” Look inside, befriend yourself, and be free.” Beautifully put.
    I am currently facing a whole lot of change. I know the sensible old solution. Not hard to do but I just can’t do it! Something in me will not cooperate. Once you get real about how you feel it’s hard to put on another mask. Damn it, I think I’m going to have to try something outrageously new here. The cognitive dissonance between “want to” and “should do” resembles the sound of the jackhammer currently demolishing the apartment next door! 🙂
    Thanks again for a lovely thoughtful piece.

  • Jing Lam

    Wow! Beautiful post!

  • Geralt Rivia

    Great article Trevor! I’m currently battling and trying to integrate this personas/images that I create in order to interface in diverse situations and environments in the society. I found out in a very hard way that this behavior, fast life style, detachment from your ID, your values can lead to a number of psychological problems…
    Let’s just say that we need to take care of our spirit and cultivate inner peace, which as the saying goes “comes when what you think, what you do, and what you want are one”… I like to see this in Sigmund Freud terms as the ego, superego and the ID.

    Regards,

  • Thanks – hope it helps and entertains

  • lv2terp

    Inspiring post!!! Thank you for sharing your insight, and wonderful tips and poignant points! 🙂

  • Frances

    Wow! This post really touched me in a direct and profound way. I am a nurse from Australia. For long time now I don’t know why I lost my passion I used to have. I’m tired not only physically but mentally. Your post has reminded me to get in touch with my own soul again.
    ‘Meditate. Observe. Create. Travelling Solo.’ You have put it simply but profoundly, straight to my dull and drowsy heart! Thank you. Thank you.

  • Artie

    I really needed this right now. While my partner has been saying something similar, i’m a very particular person and i need things to be worded just right. A very nice article.

  • Tracy S

    This is incredibly relevant to where I am right now and I’m so thankful that you wrote this post, for you said it way better than I ever could. I’ve been feeling so constrained by the expectations of others (or my perception of the expectations of others) that I’m losing my authentic self with each passing day. Thanks for the beautiful reminder 🙂

    “it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.” e.e. cummings

  • Lahdeedah

    Hi Trevor…are you an INFJ, in meyers briggs mbti speak? This sounds like it was written in a voice similar to mine…I’m also INFJ. And I think we struggle with these things daily. Good article. It is a needed reminder to refocus, recenter, reconnect with our inner self, even if we are still defining who/what that is.