How to be Your Natural Self When You Are Not Sure What That Is (Hint: Gently Remove One Mask at a Time)

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In a perfect world I want to be relaxed, comfortable and free to express myself openly. And I don’t want to worry about being judged for doing it. I used to believe this was next to impossible, but with practice and patience I have learned that I can be my authentic self almost all of the time.

Being our natural self should be as simple as showing up, but if you have invested a lot of energy in developing multiple versions of yourself, you may have forgotten or accidentally cast aside your true self. In an uncertain world we have survived by developing a “this is me when I’m at work” self, a “me when I am in the company of total strangers” self, a “me when I am with my blended family” self, and multiple other masks that help us get along in the world.

We are not the first culture to mask our true nature. Greek Dionysian plays were intended to free human beings from established social conventions, uniting human beings and nature in superior harmony. The Saturnalia festival of Ancient Rome overturned social order by inviting both slaves and free citizens to celebrate with music and wild dancing. And the celebration known as the Venetian Carnival began as a way to give all people, especially the lower classes, a fun time. Masks guaranteed anonymity and gave everyone an opportunity to feel equal. Citizens could safely mock authority in public or pretend to be aristocracy as long as they wore a mask while doing so. Unfortunately, hiding one’s identity also encouraged people to explore their darker sides, including indecency, robberies and other crimes.

Today’s masks are invisible, but no less elaborate. We wear them to hide our flaws and put forward our best self. Social masks don’t make us fake or inauthentic. They guide us through unfamiliar environments and strengthen our ability to embrace the many roles life asks us to take on. Even so, something within us wants to be seen and accepted exactly as we are — flawed, incomplete and ever-becoming. We want to be authentic even if we don’t know what that means yet.

We may not remember or even know what our genuine self looks like, but it has been with us all along. Here are a few suggestions on where to look and how to begin:

• Assume that you are wearing at least nine semi-transparent masks. You may remember having already removed other masks earlier in your life-journey. Examine the remaining masks, noticing where they are attached and how they make you feel. Give yourself permission to dissolve the next artifice or mask. It will happen in its own time and way.

• Notice that within you is an updated, lighter and more transparent version of you. It looks like a relaxed and unburdened version of you. Ageless and timeless, it is breathing comfortably and deeply, inviting you to do the same. It may feel odd when you first attempt it, but by aligning your breathing with this being and placing your focus on the transparency of this being, it will begin to feel familiar. In time you will recognize this (being) as yourself.

• Let the physical sensations of your body guide your next steps. When you feel comfortable sensations of genuine being, try to reproduce them. When you feel discomfort, tightness, an inability to breathe deeply or focus on the truth, you may want to revisit the exercises above. Eventually, you will feel more sincere in friendships and relationships. You will become naturally what you (already) are. You may not know what it is yet, but you will soon discover it.

• Be gentle with yourself. It took me several years to remove the first few masks; others fell away more quickly. Some of them are common and easy to figure out. Others are more puzzling and have unique unlocking mechanisms. André Berthiaume said, “We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin.” I’m not sure that we’ll get to all of them in one life, but I hope so.

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