Beware the masks of caregiving

By Dr. Jamie Huysman
LCSW, CFT

To celebrate Halloween, we can dress up, put on masks and pretend to be anything we want. Afterward, we return our costumes or pack them away for next year — and resume our daily lives. 

The thing is, at any given time, anyone can unknowingly put on and wear a mask. These masks appear for a variety of reasons, usually in response to something out of our control. They can be a buffer to a stressful event or take on a much more permanent face: denial. Sometimes our masks give us identities that we have been coerced to embrace or that we were forced to wear at some point in our lives. 

Historically, the lead characters in Greek tragedies were represented by masks — and the stories unfolded through the persona of the mask the actor wore. Our masks serve to disguise our true feelings; they become a trap, and we become the mask we’ve put on. Sometimes even the mask wears a mask!

Medical doctors are familiar with the concept of one condition masking another. Psychologists are The same can be true in our emotional lives. There are times we may need to “ask as if.” As caregivers, we have a job to do no matter what else is happening in our lives; someone depends on us, so we put on our game face and carry on. We may put on a mask of perfection, of resentment, martyrdom, or control. When we do, we cease to live authentically. If we are not careful to address the reasons for our masking, soon our minds, bodies, and spirits cannot keep up the illusion of the mask — and our medical and mental health deteriorates.

Whenever we become willing to shed our masks, we can begin to live freely. But when a mask becomes the assumed reality for us, it creates problems. If we sacrifice our truth for the sake of the mask’s persona, then the illusion of the mask begins to drive our perception, choices, and relationships. It follows that confusing a mask with our true selves can cause those around us to become confused too.

Do you know the nature of the masks you wear? Being mindful and acknowledging those you may wear for what they are, will allow you to see yourself more clearly. You can use this awareness to grow in consciousness and offer your loved ones and the world around you an irresistible treat – you!

I hope you enjoy the festivities during October. It’s a wonderful thing to pretend sometimes because that’s how we learn to play! Halloween allows us to wear masks we can take off with ease. But after Oct. 31, I hope you begin taking off all your masks in a way that genuinely honors your mind, body, and soul.

Celebrate your unmasking! That is a sweeter reward than candy in a bag. The world will become closer to you as you become closer to yourself. There is no trick to that — only a spiritual treat, to be sure.

Dr. Jamie co-authored the acclaimed Take Your Oxygen First: Protecting Your Health & Happiness While Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss and was featured in The 100 Mile Walk: A Father and Son on a Quest to Find the Essence of Leadership, Voices of Caregiving and Voices of Alcoholism. Dr. Huysman writes for Caregiver SOS, Florida MD and Today’s Caregiver magazines and blogs on PsychologyToday.com.