When I was a child I always felt like I was on my own and no one 'had my back'. My dad was very controlling and wanted everything doing his way. I realise now that my mother as the co-dependant was controlling too - making us children behave in such a way so as not to trigger his temper (though she didn’t realise she was doing it at the time). I was bullied all through school but if anything was ever said my mother always seemed to take the other person's side. I remember looking at her once, in the kitchen, wearing her apron doing the washing up, and I thought to myself, "At least she looks like a real mum". Both my parents had high-pressure jobs and worked long hours and I spent a lot of time alone.
A few months ago there was an incident in a car park. My daughters wanted to go shopping and I was going to wait in the car. My youngest daughter opened her door a few inches and said that there was a strange woman in the next car glaring at her. She didn’t want to get out of the car and they both just sat there waiting for her to go. The woman then, not realising I was sitting there, or that my other daughter was in the back (we have blackout windows in the back), got out of her car and started blaming my youngest daughter for banging her car with the door. She was surprised to see me and I got out of the car and told her how ridiculous it was because my daughter hadn’t even got out of the car and I had been there all the time. I pointed out to her that there were no marks on her car either and was very assertive when talking to her. When I got back in the car my daughters both said that they hadn’t thought I’d stand up for them and I’d really surprised them by standing up to this woman (this was the new me though – in the past I wouldn’t have stood up to her).
Recently, my mother had a lot of problems with some men doing some building work at her house and I had to go and speak to them. I was very firm with them and told them their behaviour was unprofessional and unacceptable. My eldest daughter came with me and recorded the conversation. After my mum had listened to what had been said, she said that she had been worried about me talking to them because she thought I wouldn’t stand up for her and that I’d let them manipulate me and try and get her to agree with what they wanted to do. I was really surprised and after giving it some thought I went to see her a couple of days later and told her how I’d felt as a child. She admitted that she’d always worried about not wanting to upset people and would take the side of the other person because she was afraid they’d be angry with her or wouldn't like her if she didn’t agree. I realised that I had been the same in the past. The old me would have let the builders manipulate me, and she was right, I would have tried to get her to comply so as not to annoy them or make them think badly of me.
Following this, I spoke to my daughters and asked them if they had ever felt that I had taken someone else’s side instead of defending them. Of course, they said yes, and gave me some examples of instances where I hadn’t defended them because I hadn’t wanted to upset the other person. I told them I was sorry and we discussed it and talked about what had happened with my mum and the builders too.
It was very strange recognising my mum’s behaviour in my actions. In the past I was just totally unaware I was doing it, the same as my mum had been unaware of how her behaviour had affected me.
It made me think about how some of our actions can be completely unconscious and yet be so easily seen and witnessed (and felt) by others. It’s a pattern that is very hard to break; the main challenge is to make ourselves aware that we are doing it.
This pattern of behaviour is called transference - basically, I expected other people to react like my dad did and so I would act in a way so as not to trigger their temper. It also led me into disastrous relationships with narcissists.
It's like we wear a mask when we put ourselves out in the world. It’s our defence and buffer zone that we create against the cruel world and people. It's the persona, a mask that hides our intimate inner self, protecting us from hurt. Sometimes we wear the mask for so long it fuses itself to us and it is very difficult to remove. For me, a head injury in a car crash caused the mask to crack and loosen. I still presented the fake me (the people-pleaser) to the world for quite some time, but at more and more regular intervals I heard the muffled voice of the ‘real me’ (the Self) trying to make itself heard from underneath the mask.
After this incident and the conversations that followed so much seemed to fall into place. I had been surprised by my mum's response. I thought she would deny her part in it and blame it all on my dad, but she didn't. I was surprised at my daughters' response too because I was just totally unaware of what I'd been doing and the damage it was causing. It was certainly good to talk it through and bring everyone's awareness to it.
I will still have a mask because I know the persona (mask) serves us as our personality, the social adaptation that we as individuals must make to society as a whole (i.e. when I was a nurse I wore the uniform and acted in a way expected of me as a professional). But when we wear a mask, it is all right so long as we don’t forget the real self within. We must be able to remove the mask and be true to our Self. In the past the persona or mask no longer served me, I served the mask. Now the mask serves me.