I told a patient this week how important it is to take off her happy mask so she can face her regrets and move on. This is an especially important topic in our image-obsessed culture that shames us for our vulnerabilities.
Here is part of the transcript about happy masks from the 1st lesson in the Life Lessons and Archetypes Module in my course, the New Healing Connection:
The time I spent in my medical training was terribly difficult for me. Although they tried to treat us as humanely as possible, we worked long hours and spent a lot of time on our feet. The problem was that I don’t have much physical stamina. I need a lot of sleep, my feet get sore when I stand up for a long time, and I need a lot of quiet time to process life. So even though many of my fellow medical students and residents didn’t have much trouble, it was almost more than I could handle.
Many days I wondered how I would survive it. I was so tired that I was always freezing cold, and I had to wear long underwear and extra layers of clothing to keep warm. Because I was so tired and cold, people would always ask if I had been checked for anemia or hypothyroidism. And it seemed like I got sick with every respiratory infection that was going around whichever hospital or clinic I was rotating through.
At one point I was so sick, tired, and hungry that I passed out in the operating room while I was observing a C-section. I had just come off a pediatric rotation where I had contracted an upper respiratory virus. I should probably have taken a few days off to recover, but that was unheard of. You had to be hospitalized yourself to take a day off. I was so ashamed for passing out! For many years after it happened, I would cringe every time I’d think about it.
In addition to the physical stress, I had some bad experiences working with difficult people.
During my general surgery rotation when I was a medical student, late one night—or early one morning—my resident offered to let me practice placing IVs on her. She told me to go to the patient unit and get some supplies. While I was getting the supplies, one of the “Cruella” nurses with a grudge against medical students asked my name. The next week, I was called to the assistant dean’s office because the nurse made a complaint saying that I was stealing supplies to deal drugs. I had to go through a stressful process to defend myself against her allegations.
As I look back, part of me laughs about how crazy it sounds. But part of me remembers how isolated, alone, and inadequate I felt. In addition to the physical stress, there was the intellectual stress of learning massive volumes of information. And there was also the emotional stress of being pushed to my limit while at the same time I was confronted with the pain and suffering of my patients.
I thought I was the only person in medical training who was having so much trouble. It seemed like everyone else was so much stronger than me. They didn’t need to sleep as much. They didn’t get sick like I did. They could go all day and not have to take breaks to eat or pee. And they didn’t seem to care when the nurses were out to get them. They just laughed it off. They seemed to enjoy the stress and relish pushing themselves to the point of exhaustion.
I continued to feel inadequate even after I got out of medical training. It took a number of years of inner work, including using the information in this course, for me to work through all the issues that came up during that time. And as I worked on shifting my perspective about the situation, I realized that I’m not the only one who has had painful life struggles.
Because I’m a physician, I get to see the truth about what’s going on behind the scenes in my patients’ lives.
When an attractive, successful, well-put-together patient tells me her problems, I frequently think to myself: If I saw this person in the grocery store I would never guess that she had any problems. She’s so good at covering her pain.
Because of my experiences with my patients, I started to realize that we all have our struggles. Even those of us with the most polished façades have our lessons to learn. Once I started to realize that, I started to feel less alone.
We each get different life lessons to work through. For some of us those lessons involve physical or mental illness. For some of us those lessons involve difficult relationships or job situations. Some of us experience traumas or abuse starting in childhood and occurring at other times in our lives.
We might not have to face these lessons every day—we might have periods in our lives that are easy and carefree. But then we might have a run of “bad luck” when nothing works out right. The details vary from person to person, but we all share the common experience of having to work through our difficult life lessons at some time during our lives.
The problem with these life lessons is that we’re commonly taught that we are never supposed to have pain or times of struggle.
We are always supposed to think positive thoughts and have smiles on our faces. We aren’t supposed to complain about our misery or admit that we are afraid.
We’re taught that we are always supposed to be happy, successful, strong, rich, beautiful, and thin. We’re taught to create a façade to hide our struggles and uncomfortable emotions. We learn to create a happy mask that we can put on when we need to cover up any pain and imperfections that may be lurking inside us.
There’s a problem with putting on the happy mask and pretending that everything is okay.
When you always pretend that things are okay, the happy mask can become glued so firmly into place that you have trouble taking it off. So when a painful life lesson comes along, because you’re trying to fake that everything’s okay, you may not be able to communicate to the people around you about how much you’re suffering. If they don’t know you’re suffering, they won’t be able to support you, and you can end up feeling isolated and alone.
When you’re wearing the happy mask, you can also be tempted to lie to yourself. You can go into a state of denial and pretend that you don’t have the problems you’re having. This may cause you to make unhealthy choices that prolong your misery.
For example, you may be having financial problems, and you may need to stop spending so much money. But if your happy mask won’t allow you to admit that you have a problem, you may continue to spend money you don’t have. The longer you wait to deal with your problem, the bigger it will become. What started as a manageable problem can end up being a financial catastrophe with bankruptcy and foreclosure.
I had a patient with shoulder pain caused by a work injury. None of the treatments were helping, and instead of resting and allowing it to heal, she continued to overuse the shoulder. When we talked about the problem of her continuing to push herself, she explained that she didn’t want to be a burden to her employer so she didn’t tell him how badly she had been hurt. The condition progressed to the point where she needed surgery. In the end she suffered more than she needed to, and her employer found out anyway.
To be healthy you need to take off the happy mask—at least with yourself—so you can work through your life lessons.
If they’re lessons you’re experiencing at the present moment, you may be able to use them to change the direction of your life. If they’re lessons from the past that you still haven’t come to peace with, instead of having regrets and feeling chronically haunted by them, you’ll be able to let them go.