I read this response to Robin Williams’ death this morning and it struck a nerve.
The author, also in the comedy business, discloses the dark underbelly that is often present beneath the laughs. He describes how childhood trauma or a sense of unworthiness leads to the development of an alter ago – a front man who entertains the crowd while distracting from the scared and broken child beneath.
He spoke of the yin and yang of depression and comedy. The pull of the audience and the isolation inherent in the belief that the performer is only loved for the performance.
Not for the child within who only wants to be loved.
The piece struck a nerve this morning. Caused my coffee to cool as I read.
I don’t fit that personality profile, although I have seen many in my personal and professional lives over the years (some of whom also tragically took their lives).
I don’t fit that profile.
But I fit another that I recognized as I read.
The performer is driven from a need to be loved.
I’m driven by a need to not be abandoned.
The performer learns how to entertain and draw a crowd.
I’ve learned how to be needed.
The performer struggles with depression.
I struggle with anxiety.
But we both hide behind masks.
In fact, to some extent, we all do.
The following are some of the masks and underlying causes I’ve seen. I see them in adults and I see them in my students – 13 and 14 years old. We all have the same basic needs and the same basic fears. We all try to hide them from the world and we begin to develop our own masks in childhood as we encounter stresses and learn from other’s responses to us.
These are caricatures of people. Oversimplifications. We are much more than the fears that drive us and the costumes we select to shield us.
But even though these are but a brief sketch, there is power in recognizing your own mask of choice and why you may have decided to wear it.
Mask – Performer or Funny Man
Behind the Mask – A sense of being unlovable
This may have the fat kid in school. Or the one who suffered abuse or neglect at the hands of his or her parents. This child felt alone and wanted nothing more than to loved and accepted. The performer found a love of sorts through making others smile. Even though inside he may have crying.
If I make you laugh, you’ll love me.
Mask – Worker Bee or Caregiver
Behind the Mask – A fear of being abandoned
This mask is usually picked up after a childhood event – death, divorce, desertion, or neglect- leaves behind a fear of being abandoned at an age when adult support is needed. In order to temper the anxiety of being left again, the worker bee becomes an efficient taskmaster and the caregiver becomes a necessary nursemaid.
If you need me, you won’t leave me.
Mask – Strongman or Overachiever
Behind the Mask – An insecurity of being unworthy
These are the people that grew up always being compared to others and found wanting. They internalize the message and feel that they will never measure up. They learn to overcompensate in a visible way to try to prove their worth and lessen their insecurities. Although often envied by others, they still never feel they will never make the grade.
If I work harder, I’ll meet your approval.
Mask – Professor or Distancer
Behind the Mask – A fear of being vulnerable
This is the person who refuses to show emotion. Who either responds with analytical perspective or indifference to any situation, even those that are emotionally charged. They are often read as cold, uncaring. But often they are soft and sensitive on the inside. So sensitive that they have learned to hide it well.
If I don’t show myself, you can’t wound me.
Most of us wear our masks when we feel threatened – a new situation, a large crowd, a demanding client. But most of us also feel comfortable enough to slip them off around our loved ones, revealing the fears and drives beneath.
It’s lonely living behind a mask for too long. You’re not alone yet you feel no one values you for the real you.
Only for the character you play.
It’s okay to shield your inner child sometimes.
But it’s also okay to let him out to play.
And teach him to trust that he can be loved and accepted as he is.
Fears and all.