03/02/2015 06:58 am ET Updated May 02, 2015

What Happened When I Turned 50 And Took Off My Mask

I have always worn masks. I didn't know I wore masks, but I did. I wore masks to protect myself, and to project images that I believed were more acceptable than the real me. I wore these masks so automatically, that I wasn't always aware of their existence. Although I've willingly worn multiple masks throughout my life and have worked diligently to keep them all in place, at some point I began to question their necessity. This questioning peaked when I reached middle age and began to experience a growing sense of discontentment. When I turned 50 I began to yearn for more honesty, more boldness, and more courage. I yearned to be more visible, more relevant, and more cohesive. I yearned to be more authentic and more transparent. I yearned to wear fewer masks. In fact, I yearned to wear no masks at all.

The concept of living a life of greater authenticity and transparency isn't new. Just Google "authenticity" and you'll get more than four million hits. Everybody's talking about living more authentic and transparent lives these days. In fact, just the other day I saw a status on Facebook stating something about how we should strip away our pretenses and be more honest about our past mistakes, because our strengths are born out of the ashes. I liked it, along with about 20,000 other people. So yes, living a more authentic and transparent life is all the rage.

But if we're all so convinced that it's important to live more authentic lives, and to be more transparent about our mistakes, our uncertainties, and our insecurities, then why are most of us investing so much time and effort into desperately holding onto our masks of perfection, conviction and confidence? I believe it's because we're afraid -- afraid of being judged, hurt, exploited, or humiliated in some way. So we hide behind the seeming safety of our masks. We hide from past mistakes that we fear will shame us; we hide from family dynamics that we fear may define us; and we hide from painful experiences that we fear may render us damaged goods.

I moved to a new state when I was 23-years-old and completely recreated myself. It felt freeing to create this new world where no one knew of my past family dynamics, including my parents' contentious divorce, and my years of rebellious behavior. By using my move as an opportunity to hide the more painful and shameful parts of myself, I engaged in a physical cut-off because I was geographically (and thus physically) cut off from all that I believed burdened me and held me back.

When I had a baby on the heels of my divorce, after years of much publicized infertility, with a man who fell squarely in the "rebound relationship" category, I identified myself as a "divorced mom," in a rather covert attempt to deflect questions about my son's out-of-wedlock birth, and a deeply painful and private time in my life. By presenting myself in a such creative light to avoid potential judgment and embarrassment I engaged in an emotional cut-off. This pattern seemed to work for me for years, providing insulation against imagined scrutiny, but the problem with projecting a false sense of self is that we hide our truth not only from others, but from ourselves as well, and at some point what initially feels like freedom, ultimately enslaves us, as we begin to believe our own posturing tales. 

By hiding my truth under a myriad of well-positioned masks, I also hid the very best parts of myself -- those parts that arose from the ashes. I learned to be more resilient because many of my experiences led to years of hardship. I learned to be more empathetic with others who stumbled, because so many of my choices, made in the wake of deep pain and despair, often resulted in stumbling as well. I learned to be less judgmental of those who made socially unacceptable choices, because in my own life, social conceptions of morality sometimes seemed like a luxury that at times I could not afford as I faced once double-bind after another. I hid these strengths, and my authenticity under a layer of masks kept in place by powerful and deeply-rooted socially prescribed and self-imposed 'shoulds.' At some point though I began to ask myself what the cumulative impact was of spending 40-plus years wearing masks. And my answer? Every time I hid myself from the world, I died a little bit inside.

I started my midlife journey toward increased authenticity and transparency when I began to crave increased depth in my relationships more than I craved self-protection. And at some point after my 50th birthday I began to realize the power of honesty. I believe that truth resonates within all of us as a kind of homing beacon, which is why we are naturally drawn toward those people who have the courage to lay down their masks and be present in the world.

I started my journey very slowly, by making the commitment to look in the mirror and get to know who I really was with uncompromising honesty, while at the same time extending myself the same level of compassion, empathy and acceptance that I have always tried to extend to others. I took this first step before making any effort to reveal my true self to others. I became an observer, rather than a participant in many of my interpersonal interactions, and what I found surprised me. I was surprised at how often I nodded my head in agreement, when I didn't really agree, or didn't express an opinion or a feeling, because I didn't think it was worth the conflict, or how often I felt defensive when someone got too close to my truth.

Ultimately I discovered new truths about myself (and the world) that placed me squarely on a path of greater authenticity and transparency, and ultimately greater personal freedom. This journey made the transition into my midlife years far more enjoyable, more meaningful, and far less angst-filled. I learned that I am not a victim of anything, even myself. I learned that self-pity and regret cannot exist in an environment of gratitude. I learned that our truths are just that -- our truths, and no one has a right to judge our choices but us. I learned that being fragile or broken is our right, just as much as it is our right to be strong and confident -- neither are things we need to apologize for. I learned that the best way to be transparent is to rip off the Band-Aid, and just be transparent -- about our passions and our fears; our victories and our mistakes; our strengths and our vulnerabilities. Rather than regretting my lost youth, I am excited about growing older because each day it becomes easier for me to be content, to feel gratitude, and to experience authentic joy.

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