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Revealing the Real You

  • Les & Leslie Parrott for the eHarmony Research Library
  • 2004 5 Mar
Revealing the Real You

"You’re the first person I have ever been completely honest with." Every psychologist hears these words from time to time, but it was Sidney Jourard who made sense of them in his in-depth book, The Transparent Self. He was puzzled over the frequency with which patients were more honest and authentic with a clinician than they were with family or friends. After much study, he concluded that each of us has a natural, built-in desire to be known, but we often stifle our vulnerability out of fear. We’re afraid of being seen as too emotional or not emotional enough, as too assertive or not assertive enough, too whatever or not whatever enough. We’re afraid of rejection.

The result? We wear masks. We put up our guard. We become what Abraham Maslow called "jelly fish in armor" by pretending to be, think, or feel something we aren’t. Consider these words from a letter whose author is unknown, but it could have easily been written by each of us:

Don’t be fooled by me. Don’t be fooled by the face I wear. I wear a mask. I wear a thousand masks-masks that I am afraid to take off; and none of them are me.

Pretending is an art that is second nature to me, but don’t be fooled. For my sake, don’t be fooled. I give the impression that I am secure, that all is sunny and unruffled within me as well as without; that confidence is my name and coolness my game; that the water is calm and I am in command; and that I need no one. But don’t believe me, please. My surface may seem smooth, but my surface is my mask, my ever varying and ever concealing mask.

The writer goes on to confess that underneath the mask is no smugness, no complacence, only confusion, fear, aloneness, and sheer panic at the thought of being exposed. Then this piercing paragraph:

Who am I, you may wonder. I am someone you know very well. I am every man you meet. I am every woman you meet. I am right in front of you.

Why do all of us hide behind masks? We vacillate between the impulse to reveal ourselves and the impulse to protect ourselves. In a seemingly inexplicable paradox, we long both to be known and to remain hidden. Why?

One reason is that we admire anyone who’s calm, cool, and collected. For men, especially, the emotionally inexpressive hero like James Dean, Clint Eastwood, Robert DeNiro, or Ethan Hawk presents a self-reliant and tough image we want to emulate. The primary reason we wear our masks, however, is to guard against rejection. If this person knew the real me, they’d never accept me, we say to ourselves. So we slip behind a self-made facade and pretend. Sociologists call it impression management; the rest of us call it pain.

If we wear our masks long enough, we may guard against rejection and we may even be admired, but we’ll never be whole. And that means we’ll never enjoy true intimacy. Here’s the situation: When what you do and what you say do not match the person you are inside-when your deepest identity is not revealed to others-you develop an incongruent or fragmented self. Your outside doesn’t match what’s going on inside. You’re consumed with the impression you’re making on others, constantly asking, What should I be feeling? instead of What am I feeling? You’re always wondering what other people think of you. You walk into a relationship and ask yourself How am I doing? Instead of How is this person doing? And that subtle shift from thinking of yourself to thinking of others will move you into authenticity, a defining quality of wholeness. Congruent people have the security to focus on how others are doing-not because they want to look good, but because they genuinely care.

Does the whole person never wear masks? Of course not. When we encounter potential rejection or harsh evaluation, we need an occasional mask to save face. But here's a secret every congruent person knows: Most of the time, with most people, vulnerability begets vulnerability. Once you take off your mask and reveal the real you-your fears, your desires, your excitement-others are likely to do the same. It’s disarming to learn you’re not alone. Vulnerability is what builds a bridge from one person to another.