The Formation of the Mask
Most of us have memories of special moments in our life where we feel spectacularly buoyant, open and excited. In these moments we sometimes feel more open and alive than we are accustomed to in every day life. In the body-psychotherapy that I practice we understand that there is a wellspring of life energy at the core of each of us, no matter our constitution or personality, but we may spend much of our lives blocked from this Essence. People often come to therapy when they are tired of these blocks disrupting their lives in one way or another. Our work is to explore how we cut ourselves off from the fullness of our energy, to open the blocks and allow the life to flow more freely. This short article will describe a model for understanding what happens to keep us from our full life energy, from experiencing life from the Core.
Think about a moment where you experienced an intrusion into your space, it could be from someone startling you or yelling at you. Try to come up with a memory from your early childhood. What happened in your physical system in that moment? Most likely you went into some sort of muscular contraction, stopping the flow of energy in your body. Instinctively we have a biochemical protective instinct that allows us to act on behalf ourselves. If you have the ability to move against the intrusion by protesting, moving your body or making noise, you should eventually be able to return to the relaxed and flowing state that you were in before the intrusion, maintaining homeostasis and openness in your physiological system. This happens when we are in an environment where our instinctual responses are expressed and supported rather than suppressed. But if, as in the case of much of the social learning we get in childhood, you must suppress your immediate reaction, the protective life instinct stays in a charged state in response to the intrusion and this charge is held in your body. This can be like having a huge “no” buried under the surface of our consciousness, over time and through conditioning we become unaware that it even exists within.
For example, imagine a very small girl who is enjoying playing with her mother’s jewelry and suddenly her mother comes in and scolds her harshly. Her automatic reaction may be one of hurt or fear that turns to anger because her pleasure is stymied. “No, I want it, I hate you” she might say.
“Oh no, says her mother, “good girls don’t hate their mothers.” Since being good and pleasing is a core quality of the child, she immediately contracts and withholds her negative (protective) impulse as other feelings wash over her. She has cut herself off from the physiological charge that was her initial reaction. Over time the girl, wanting to please, becomes so skilled at stifling her impulses- to reach for certain things or to react when she is chastised- that she becomes completely unaware of these hidden feelings. In many situations we sacrifice the direct satisfaction of our primary needs (for nourishment or being held or protecting ourselves etc.). This distorts our excitation and results in energy blocks which cause a resistance to the life flow. Our negative emotions are held in through subtle muscular tension. Over time this frozen withheld energy crystallizes, becoming muscle memory and automatic reactions which block us, preventing the system from complete release and complete relaxation, and often preventing us from getting what we want in life. It takes vast amounts of unconscious energy to continue to block the withheld energy and this dulls our life, causing a variety of difficulties and our life patterns. The girl in our example has also learned complicated lessons about pleasure and her desires and natural reactions which contribute to her newfound defense mechanisms.
Simultaneously she begins to develop an idealized image of herself. This creates a mask. The mask is a reflection of the qualities of our core, but it is a reflection rather than the true quality itself coming through, much like the sun carries the heat and strength of its fire while the moon merely reflects this light. Our mask is a survival skill and can take many forms; caretaking others, being a perfectionist, being overly-intellectual, hostile, bitter, defensive, judgmental, too complimentary. The shapes and forms the mask takes becomes our personality. We all need some aspect of our mask in order to negotiate every day life, but the problem is when we over-identify with it.
The process of Core Energetics therapy, a body-psychotherapy which comes from Bio-Energetics, helps clients to discover how they block their life energy. Further articles will discuss how we use this awareness, along with an opening of the muscular system, to free up the old defensive postures and result in change in the body, mind, emotions and spirit, so that the client can express from their essence and live with all of their vital capacity.
Aylee Welch, LICSW