How do I remove a mask?

Dear Paul,

On your retreat, I realized that I wear masks all of the time. It is so bad that I am not even sure who I am any more. What advice can you give me to help me remove my masks?


Dear Friend,

Thanks for writing. I want to let you know that I have asked some of the wisest people I know, including quite a few teenagers who serve on the REAP Team and who have attended our retreats, for practical advice on how to remove masks. Here are some excellent tips -

ACKNOWLEDGE THAT YOU WEAR MASKS
People in various kinds of recovery groups would tell you that the first step to healing is to admit that you have a problem. I am proud of you that you have done that. I think that everyone wears masks sometimes, by the way - and we need to establish this fact not so that we go a guilt trip about it, but so that we can begin to remove them. So here are some questions - When, and with whom, do you wear masks? Is it with friends? A certain group or groups of friends? At school? At home? With adults?

We need to recognize those situations in our lives where we are wearing masks and doing something that doesn't reflect who we really are. Once we have the self-awareness of these particular situations, we can deal with them. I think a lot of people continue to wear masks without even realizing it because they haven't really thought about the areas of their life where they wear masks.

WHY WE WEAR MASKS
There can be various reasons why people wear masks. For most people it is the fear that other people - mainly friends - will reject the real person behind the mask. Others wear masks to hide hurt, low self-esteem, or anger. Spend some time exploring why you wear a mask. What are you afraid of? Does wearing a mask keep you from being hurt? Does it truly raise your self-esteem or keep you from being angry? If you are wearing a mask to keep from being hurt or to hide anger, find healthy ways to let go of that hurt or anger. Talk to someone you trust, write down your feelings in a journal, talk honestly to God in prayer, write a poem, go to Confession, or combine some of these things. Find out what works for you. And keep doing it!

THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU LIKE TO DO
Can you remember a time when you were younger and when you didn't wear masks? What were you like then? Many people struggle with the mask of being a follower and doing what other people want them to do, rather than being themselves. What do you really like to do? Are there certain hobbies/sports/activities that you really like? Rediscover these. If you are not sure, you might want to begin experimenting with healthy and fun activities that sound interesting to you. Join a club, play a sport, volunteer for a charitable organization - all of these are great ways to meet new people, develop new interests, and rediscover who you really are. Even if certain people may not consider these activities "cool", all that really matters is that you like them. A teenager I know once wrote this about joining clubs, "That is one of the easiest ways I have found to make friends who are mask-free, because you don't have to mask anything since everyone has the same interest. Also, one of the ways that worked for me was attending a youth group. It doesn't even have to be his/her church youth group; just whatever youth group the person feels comfortable and accepted in. If the person has a friend they find mask-free that goes to a youth group, visit the mask-free friend's youth group. That's how I found my youth group."

REMOVE MASKS SLOWLY
If you hang out with people who wear masks, walking away suddenly would be a shock to your system as well as theirs. However, if you recognize that you have been wearing masks and realize that you can't completely be yourself around these so-called friends, hopefully you'll desire less and less to be with such people. Slowly start finding friends who let you be yourself, even if they aren't the coolest in school. If they accept you completely, they are the coolest - the coolest friends you can have. Don't completely run from your old friends, but start to be more honest with them. If they exclude you when you try to be yourself, walk away. Realize it may hurt to lose their "friendship" and that it may be awkward-but they aren't good friends if they exclude the real you. Try being the nice one in the crowd; continually try to be mask-free with them. If they blow you off or make fun of you for this (sticking up for people or for being nice), then that is truly their problem. When you start making better friends, spend more time with them. Find people who will stand up for you and people you want to stand up for. Realize that many other people, even your own friends, struggle with masks. Sometimes all it takes is for one person to be honest about it, and that allows the whole group to start to make changes.

HANG OUT WITH YOUR FAMILY MORE
Hopefully, you can at least be yourself at home. If so, try to think of fun activities that you and your parents/siblings can do together. Maybe you could even ask your folks if you could have a brainstorming meeting to think of fun family activities. They know you best and can help you be your best.

SEEK SACRAMENTAL GRACE
The next time you have a chance, I encourage you to go to Confession and share with the priest your struggles with masks. There is nothing more freeing than knowing that God has forgiven us and given us a new start! In addition, whenever you go to Mass and receive Jesus in the Eucharist, ask Him in the silence of your heart to make you into the person He wants you to be. This is, for real, a regular prayer of mine. God wants you to be mask-free, and He will help you if you ask Him.

CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS WISELY
A wise friend of mine once said, "Show me your friends, and I'll show you your future." Start trying to be open to more people, maybe even those not accepted in the ‘cool' crowd. Try to stop putting masks on other people; a part of trying to be mask-free is to stop judging other people. Give lots of people a chance to be a good friend of yours. I have talked to many people who have labeled others inaccurately and who have found out later that a person they thought to be very ‘uncool' ended up being a great friend! Pray to God that he will lead you to people who will treasure you and love you as you are. Start looking for people who might be in a similar situation as you. Youth groups and youth Masses are great places to look because young people there are usually trying to be mask-free, too. If you need help finding a good youth group or youth Mass in your area, let me know.

SEEK WISDOM FROM OTHERS
I want to encourage you to keep seeking wisdom on this topic. I hope that there are people in your life who don't wear masks, or at least some who don't wear them very often. Hang out with these people! In the Bible it says, "If you see a man of prudence, seek him out; let your feet wear away his doorstep!" (Sirach 6:36) This means that wisdom is contagious, and hanging out with wise people will make you wise. Countless teens on REAP retreats have shared with me that a grandparent, parent, or older relative is one of the most mask-free people that they know. Life is short, so take advantage of any opportunity you might have to spend time with the people you most admire, even if it is just an occasional lunch meeting. If you can find a spiritually mature person in your community, like a priest or youth minister or other wise adult, you might want to prayerfully consider asking that person to be a spiritual director for you. There is even a great article on this website that can help you to know what Jesus himself teaches us about masks and why a friendship with Him helps more than anything.

KEEP PRAYING
Finally, I really encourage you to really pray to God for help. Every morning or before walking into a crowd of people, ask God to give you the courage to simply be yourself. At the end of the day, before falling asleep, in prayer, ask God how you did that day. If you did wear masks in certain situations, ask for His forgiveness for not being true to the person He created you to be. But if you were honest and true to yourself, especially in a tough situation, thank Him for giving you courage. God truly wants us to be free of masks and able to be ourselves at all times. He has helped many amazing people to find incredible friends who really love them - they aren't always the most popular and they range in age - but they all have great hearts. That's what is most important. God can help you recognize when you are wearing a mask and help you to not wear that mask. It's a struggle at times, but it is so worth it. Most people I know would gladly choose one hour with true friends over spending one year with fake ones. And never forget that God loves you. He loves you just as you are, at all times; and He sees through all those masks and knows your heart deeply. Let Him love you so that you can feel confident enough without any masks or phony friends.

I hope this helps you somehow. If you have any more questions for us, keep in contact. You'll be in my prayers.

Peace,

Paul