I have always enjoyed Halloween, both as a child on the receiving end and now as an adult in handing out treats! As a somatic psychotherapist, Halloween has taken on a whole new meaning for me. This blog is a bit late as Halloween has already passed, but is still pertinent.
In somatic psychology, we talk about how everyone in the world is wearing social masks. That is, do to events that happened in our early childhood, we have had to adapt who we wanted to be, first to fit our into family rules, and then to conform in school cliques, amongst different groups of friends, in the workforce, and then full circle to our adult family dynamics. We have had to become someone other than our authentic self. Some of us recognize that we seem to take on different personas when in various social situations while others switch their social selves without any awareness.
How interesting that while most of us never recognizing the social masks that we are constantly cycling through, we are fascinated with a holiday that glorifies wearing masks and pretending to be someone we are not. Even in countries that do not celebrate Halloween, costume balls are big events, and there’s a whole profession of actors who daily put on the “masks,” literally or figuratively, of characters when performing. So how do we learn which social mask to put on?
Somatic psychologists have put forward the theory that, when an infant or a child encounters a “No” of any kind, and this “No” always occurs within some social relationship, if that “No” is not resolved then and there, then it can result in a physical and emotional block. The child will pull back from the painful experience and adapts to continue to get a limited version of what she wants without incurring that painful experience again. The cause of the block can range from simply not getting a new toy, through many levels of active abuse, to abandonment: again, all these occur in relational settings.
Depending on when, and the extent to which, the developmental blocks occur (and are reinforced over time), the resulting contraction (or contractions) leads to the formation of particular adaptive selves, character structures, or social masks. A great book on the subject is Stephen M. Johnson’s Character Styles. I remember a dynamic, comptent, and confident estate attorney in his mid-30s telling me had to go home due to his father’s death. He was, of course, expected to handle all the legal aspects surrounding his father’s death, but because he was the baby of the family, he was still treated as the “baby” in every area except when he was handling his father’s estate!
Have you ever missed several high school reunions and then showed up to find you were treated by everyone just like you were that student back in high school, even though you are now 40 and a different person? How about not following the career path your parents always considered “best” for you? While some families encourage individualism in their children, it is usually not the families that had a career picked out for a child and those families are not really happy when he exerts his independence! It is said that a child knows by the age of three all the unspoken rules within a family system.
The good news is, our authentic self truly wants to discard the adapted self, to rid itself of the various social masks it has learned to employ. The bad news is, as Einstein states, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” Further complicating the solving of this problem of inauthenticity, is that our social masks were formed in a relationship and it takes another relationship to undue that inauthentic self. While this can be worked out within our families of origin, that is usually not the case (Einstein’s quote)! Luckily, there are somatic psychotherapists who are well aware of how the social masks or character structures are formed and know that the way out of the inauthentic self is working back through that false self, that social mask, to reconnect with the authentic self!