We've said that if we want wholeness in our lives, we need meaningful, authentic connection with other human beings. One requirement for meaningful, authentic connection is mutual self-disclosure. We can't live fully in our relationships if we aren't able to reveal who we really are. When we hide our true feelings and needs, we can't reasonably expect other people to know us, to accept us, or to participate in satisfying relationship with us. The best we can hope for is that other people will know and accept the masks we wear. It's up to us to grow in our ability to show our authentic selves to others.
Self-disclosure is tough, though. We hide our true selves because it seems safer than letting people see who we really are. Somewhere along the way, we learned that we aren't acceptable as we are. We became ashamed of something about ourselves, or we became distrustful of others. Somehow, we decided that it was safer for us to hide who we really are and pretend to be someone else -- maybe someone who didn't have the same wounds and needs and wants that we have.
The problem is that we all have wounds and needs. No one gets through life without emotional wounds. Some people are more skillful at tending those wounds, but everyone has wounds. No one gets through life without needing something. Some people are more skillful at getting those needs met, but everyone has needs. When we wear masks that hide our wounds and our needs from others, we have very little chance of having those wounds healed or getting those needs met. We walk around thinking that we're fooling people into accepting or loving us, thinking that we are safely hidden behind a false self we've created, carrying our unhealed wounds and our unmet needs within us.
Of course, we still want to have those needs met, and we still feel pain from those wounds. If we aren't willing to be vulnerable and let other people see those wounds and needs, we try other ways to get what we want from people. We play emotional games in our relationships and in our communities. We try to manipulate people or bully people into doing what we want, while keeping ourselves from feeling vulnerable. Or maybe we try to make the masks we wear as appealing or entertaining as possible, so that people will give us the love and acceptance we want without us having to reveal our true selves. This gives us the illusion of having power -- keeping our real wants and needs secret while figuring out how to make other people give us what we want or need. How much simpler would it be to just tell people what we want or need?
When you think about it, though, people aren't actually accepting or loving us when we play these games or wear these masks. People are responding to our tactics or the false self we show them, but they aren't responding to our real selves. They can't. We keep our real selves hidden. So, we keep the illusion in place that our real selves are unacceptable or unlovable or shameful because we never give anyone the chance to see who we really are. We're too busy playing games. And before we beat ourselves up too much about that, it's worth acknowledging that we have really good reasons to hide who we really are and show up in masks.
No one wakes up one morning and just decides to hide who they really are from everyone around them. We learn what's acceptable and what isn't from other people's reactions -- usually our parents or other significant people in our lives when we're very young. We start evaluating ourselves based on other people's fears and judgments, and at a certain point we shift from being honest about who we are to being very concerned about who other people want us to be. Instead of learning about what we need in order to live fully, we create an illusion of ourselves to try to accommodate everyone else. Maybe we create multiple illusions of ourselves for different relationships.
Sometimes, we encounter communities that encourage us to be vulnerable and self-disclosing, and then those communities betray us. Some organizations want people to be self-disclosing so that shame can be used as a weapon to keep people loyal. Religious organizations are especially practiced at turning people's vulnerability against them, using fear and shame to reinforce beliefs about human weakness and depravity so that people will remain convinced that they need the religious institution. Perhaps other relationships come to mind in which vulnerability and self-disclosure proved to be detrimental. Often, this is because the self-disclosure was one-sided. The priest rarely confesses to the parishioner, for instance.
Our society is constructed around this practice of creating a false self -- an avatar of sorts. We rarely engage in relationships directly because we're convinced that it isn't safe. Instead, we engage in relationships through the filter of a public avatar we've created to keep ourselves safe while enticing or compelling others to give us what we want or need. One-sided self-disclosure is often risky because other people are still committed to playing emotional power games to get what they want from us, and our self-disclosure would seem to put us at a disadvantage in such games. So, there are two responses to this reality that will help us heal our wounds, get our needs met, and live more fully.
First, we can recognize that our self-disclosure removes us from the emotional game. Other people may still want us to engage by their rules of manipulation or persuasion, but our willingness to be vulnerable and honest about our wounds and our needs actually puts us in an entirely different arena. The best reason not to hide who we really are is because we aren't afraid or ashamed of who we really are, and getting rid of our fear and shame opens the pathway for us to commit our time and energy toward things that really matter rather than playing emotional power games.
Of course, dismantling our fears and shame are life-long practices, and we can't wait until we're over all of our fears about who we really are to set our masks aside. Instead, as we develop a willingness to show up authentically, to let people see our true selves, we have the opportunity to build more evidence that our fears and shame are unfounded. We also have to recognize that other people's reactions are usually based on their own fears and beliefs. It's helpful if we can find others who are willing to set aside their masks, too, so that our journey toward authenticity isn't a solo venture.
This brings us to the second response, which is meaningful, authentic community in which people practice mutual self-disclosure. If the agreement of the community is that people are expected to show up as their true selves and not project some idealized avatar, it becomes easier for everyone to set the masks aside. Ideally, mutual self-disclosure is part of a community's covenant with one another, or is in some way part of its stated identity. If this agreement is clearly stated and not just assumed, a community can hold one another accountable -- hopefully because they sincerely care about contributing to wholeness in one another's lives. So, "You seem like you're hiding something. Is there more you want to say?" becomes more of an invitation than an accusation or interrogation. And, "What do you really think?" is a question that can be taken at face value rather than a coded message that your acceptability is based on your willingness to agree with an authority figure or with the herd. Likewise, it becomes easier to say, "It seems like you're trying to persuade/bully/manipulate me a little bit here. What do you actually want or need from me?" Imagine a community that practiced communicating that honestly, directly, and respectfully with one another!
None of this means that all your problems will be solved if you are more self-disclosing. Showing up as your true self doesn't guarantee that your emotional wounds will be healed and all your needs will be met. It just increases your chances. People can't really know what you need from them unless you tell them. And hiding your emotional wounds and your needs from other people pretty much guarantees that they won't be effectively addressed. Pretending you don't have wounds or needs doesn't make them go away. Being willing to show up as your authentic self is a more reliable path toward being fully alive. Since this would constitute new behavior for a lot of us, practicing letting others see your true self in a community where other people are committed to the same level of authenticity and vulnerability is better than developing this new behavior all on your own.
Mutual self-disclosure in community leads to greater ability to be confidently authentic in other areas of your life, and it helps to prevent members of a community from engaging in manipulation, bullying, and enticing others while neglecting their actual wounds and needs. Meaningful, authentic community requires mutual self-disclosure. There are a few other necessary ingredients, as we'll continue to explore in the weeks ahead.