A few years ago, Roberto, a student in the yoga and meditation class I taught at San Quentin State Prison, described how it felt to go up for parole and face the families of his victims. He had, before age 20, along with another person killed a man and injured another in an attempted car burglary that turned violent. The murder happened in mere seconds, with almost no forethought. He had since spent almost 30 years behind bars doing transformative inner work, including 10 years of yoga and emotional intelligence training. He had gleaned from his life experiences the hard-won qualities of earnestness and wisdom.
Suffice it to say, Roberto was an ideal candidate for parole. As he shared his story about the parole hearing, I could hear the compassion with which he described the scene—the pain of the victim’s families, who had repeatedly blocked his release, the stone-faced panel of judges, and his own discomfort with and shame about the situation and his own blind spots—things we cannot see in ourselves that may be blatantly (and at times painfully) obvious to others. Blind spots, as I define them, are unconscious impulses, fueled by emotions and beliefs, that create habit-building patterns in relationship to ourselves and others.
“All I can do is be myself up there,” he told me, “feel how overwhelming it is, and show up the best I know how. I know I’ve changed, and I try to display that, despite how intimidating it is to be there.”
Since Roberto was paroled, I’ve been fortunate to meet up with him a few times. Even on “the outside,” you rarely find people with his incredible presence, curiosity, and attentiveness, and the care with which he moves through the world. He’s fortunate, and he knows it, and he describes himself as living every day with tremendous gratitude. Now that is freedom.
ChickenFox - Sandra Dieckmann
Life Without Masks
It takes courage to be like Roberto—vulnerable, facing life on its own terms with an open, compassionate heart. When we meet our shadow and kindly tell ourselves the truth, we more easily uncover hidden aspects of ourselves—and the links between them and our behaviors, emotions, and judgments.
It is exactly when we start to see all that is lurking in the out-of-the-way places in our psyche that we most need self-compassion. If we can be kind to ourselves and hang out with what we discover for long enough, we will also encounter the gifts and messages that have been longing for revelation and airtime.
Your particular blind spots don’t have to have the massive implications that Roberto’s did. Yours could be as simple as coming to grips with the fact that your desire to be liked—something most of us want—has been driving everything you do. As a result, you’re never really just being yourself but are instead always chasing after an idealized self-image to present to the world. (This is actually a common blind spot, by the way.) Just think of the billions of photos uploaded to Instagram and Facebook of happy, smiling people with margaritas in their hands at the beach or a restaurant, or with arms wrapped around their partner or kids. Each of us has been there, and we know all too well that the snapshot came sometime before or after (or during) a challenging moment: a feeling of disconnect or of not looking our best (or anywhere close to it). What about the photos we didn’t upload because we look like a bloated alien or as if we haven’t slept in a week?
It is exhausting to chase after an image to present to the world, and ultimately, it doesn’t meet your underlying need for acceptance, no matter how many “likes” you receive on social media. In facing a blind spot such as realizing that wanting to be liked drives everything you do, you get the first glimmer that you don’t really know how to be your genuine self, without any masks. What a realization! But how do you unmask without feeling like you are standing there naked for everyone to see? And what might you find? What if your genuine unmasked self isn’t enough and you’ll lose friends—those people who “like” you?
The only way to truly unmask is to do so with compassion. Following is an exercise to help you get some practice in this.
It is exhausting to chase after an image to present to the world, and ultimately, it doesn’t meet your underlying need for acceptance, no matter how many “likes” you receive on social media.
PRACTICE Compassionate Unmasking
- Stand in front of a mirror. This can be a physical mirror or a metaphoric one, where you simply reflect upon yourself.
- Strip away the layers of images you hold about yourself and how you should be, along with the roles you play in the world: sister, brother, wife, manager, or any other category you may normally place yourself into.
- When you do so, what is left? This is your genuine, unmasked self.
- See and hold yourself in the light of your own compassionate gaze. Nobody else needs to know that you’re doing it. Unmasking with compassion helps you discover what is at the core, or essence, of who you are. It doesn’t exclude the many roles and social masks you wear. Rather, it includes them but is not defined by them.
- Meet yourself anew in this way: See yourself deeply for who you are at your essence. When you practice doing so, you can use this way of meeting yourself unmasked as an anchor for those times when you wish you were somehow other than you are. Seeing yourself as you are, without roles or judgments, is deeply loving and compassionate. It’s what we ask the world to reflect to us: our worthiness and value. In this practice we give that to ourselves first, at a foundational level: We are gracious toward what we see and experience.
To make this a little more concrete, here are a few insights you could potentially discover through compassionately unmasking the ways people behave in order to be liked.
- In order to be liked, I please others by doing what I think they think I should do. In this way I am out of touch with what I really want and who I really am.
- In order to be liked, I refuse to listen to feedback that conflicts with my idealized self-image. My way of coping is to blame others for their “false” images of me, which could never be true. In this way I am out of touch with the “full catastrophe” of who I am, and people end up disliking me for shaming them. That is the opposite of what I want.
- In order to be liked, I avoid taking risks because I am afraid people will reject me. By staying small I stay liked, but I don’t like myself and I don’t get to have the adventures I want in life.
ZebraLion - Sandra Dieckmann
It is actually a wonderful opportunity to find connection with your essential nature— what makes you you—and to open to the exploration of removing the masks that aren’t you in social situations.
Seeing through this blind spot and its impact on our lives may bring up emotions such as guilt or shame. When we see that most things we do are driven by an unfulfilled need for acceptance, we think, I’m a fraud! These patterned ways of moving through the world are hard to let go of, and we may fear we’ll be judged by others if we show up in new and different ways from how we’ve always been seen. This is where self-compassion comes in: It helps us look at those feelings of guilt or shame and see how natural they are, and that most of us share them. Those images we’ve been creating and trying to live up to have helped us stay safe to an extent, but it’s time to let them go by letting them in, with kindness. That is how we can discover their message—their gift—and learn how to act on it in our lives.
It may not seem like a gift, at first, to discover that after all these years of trying to be who you think you should be, you don’t really know how to be authentically you. But it is actually a wonderful opportunity to find connection with your essential nature—what makes you you—and to open to the exploration of removing the masks that aren’t you in social situations. It’s through trial and error that you discover this, because there is no bull’s-eye “perfectly authentic” way to be. Ultimately there is no error, or trial—it’s really all an experiment, one best conducted with tender compassion. A mentor of mine once told me, when I was comparing myself to him, “How about you do Kelly and I’ll do me. Do Kelly really well—go all the way with it.” Nice life advice! I’m still working on it.
A Shortcut to Self-Compassion
Self-compassion and clear insight into blind spots are strongly interwoven. Why? Because when we come to understand that the methods we’ve been using to go after acceptance and love cause us pain and confusion, clear seeing using the lens of compassion becomes the only possibility that makes sense. It springs out of the heart naturally when we stop judging ourselves and connect with the reality of what we see and discover.
For a shortcut route to a moment of self-compassion, I like to say to myself, Bless my heart, and then follow that with a statement about the truth of my experience:
- Bless my heart, I’m doing the best I know how
- Bless my heart, I am out of my element and I don’t feel like I fit in right now
- Bless my heart, I don’t have clarity in this situation.
It’s happening anyway, so why not stop resisting it? Bless your heart and then name it instead!
We often think we will lose our drive forward and become doormats to life if we stop resisting what we don’t like. Not true—we’ll lose our reactivity and become available to meet the moment with wisdom. Reactivity that stems from resistance to what is happening comes from blindness and isn’t our most authentic response. Responsiveness, by contrast, is an alive, spontaneous action appropriate to the moment. Acts of self-compassion, like pausing to be kind toward an uncomfortable feeling and listening at a deeper level to what is happening, can make a huge difference in whether we react or respond.