I’ve spent most of my life with a mask on.
It’s painful to admit, but it’s true.
I’ve worn the mask of numbness in an attempt to protect myself from rejection and disappointment; I’ve worn the mask of superficial satire in an attempt to find belonging with my peers; and I’ve worn the mask of the ‘Nice Guy’ in an attempt to be ‘safe’ for women (read: loved and accepted by women) by suppressing the wild masculine parts of my human nature.
All of these masks have distanced me from my true self; they’ve pulled me away from my body and heart, amplified my insecurities, and kept me feeling isolated and alone.
I never trusted myself – I couldn’t – because I had no idea who I really was. As a result, no one else could really trust me either, because they could feel the enormous distance between how I was and who I was. They could feel my fear and insecurity and the shame that underpinned it all.
Since I couldn’t trust myself, I found it very challenging to love myself. And, because I didn’t love myself, I struggled to know how to love others. All of this led to an excruciating pain – a tension in my body – that had no safe place to go; no healthy form of expression.
As a man, I’ve been taught that emotional expression – except for anger – is not ok. And, as a Nice Guy, my anger felt like a dangerous fire to keep pouring water on, rather than a powerful flame of embodied passion that could be harnessed in healthy ways. So I suppressed all of my feelings for years.
Looking Beneath the Facade
Deep down, I always knew there was something missing; something deeper within me. It felt like a part of me had fallen into a coma long ago, and I had no idea how to wake up.
Change was dangerous. It felt too vulnerable to risk losing the identities (masks) that I’d created for myself. After all, I had invested so much in them.
The scariest thing was the idea of losing control, of not knowing what I would find beneath the mask. Would I peel it off to find a more authentic, connected, and purposeful man? Or would I discover a vast void where my face once was, fall apart, and spiral down into shame and depression?
Working up the courage to look beneath the surface of myself – to look through the facade of Dan Mahle that I had carefully crafted to keep myself safe from pain – literally felt like a life-or-death proposition. I was terrified.
But one thing’s for damn sure: It’s been worth it. Moving through the cloud of fearful numbness to discover deeper parts of myself is one of the most transformative things I’ve ever done.
Yet, even as I awaken the spark of passionate life-force that I had suppressed for so long, I know that my journey has only just begun: It will take a lifetime to continue peeling back the layers – to find my way back home to myself.
Let the journey begin..
Creating My Own Reality
Just about everything I’ve ever done in my life has come from a desire to be loved, respected and accepted. It’s taken me a long time to realize that my sometimes desperate grasping for outer-affirmation has often blocked my capacity to cultivate a deeper sense of inner self-worth.
Only recently have I realized that people’s judgements of me are rooted in their own insecurities and/or unfulfilled dreams. And visa-versa: What I judge or love in others is a reflection of what I judge or love in myself.
What this illuminated for me was a deeper sense of compassion for myself and others, knowing that we’re all in this human experience together.
I have the power to set the tone of my own life when I choose to invite myself and others into loving spaces, even though my goodwill may not always feel as though it has been received or reciprocated.
A key to authenticity is to recognize that how I respond to the world is a choice I am making in each moment.
From Perfection to Connection
For a long time, I believed that my worth as a man depended on my performance. I tried to control every aspect of my life in order to make sure people knew that I ‘had it all together’.
I took on the belief that I wouldn’t be worthy of love or belonging until I had attained perfection. So I blocked love and belonging out of my life and focused all of my energy on achievement. The more disconnected I felt from others, the less compassion I had for myself.
As men, we’re taught to never ask for help. My imperfections had always seemed like liabilities, rather than opportunities for connection. It was only when life gave me challenges that were simply impossible to face alone, that I finally learned how to ask for help.
That one simple act of vulnerability, of saying “you know what, my life is not perfect – and I could really use some support” changed everything. Ironically, I found that releasing the image of perfection that I was striving toward finally connected me to the love and belonging that I’d been searching for all along.
When we try to be perfect, we dehumanize ourselves and others. When we accept our imperfections, we find compassion for ourselves and others. It’s that simple.
Exploring the Power of Vulnerability
Brené Brown talks a lot about the power of vulnerability – in fact her TED Talk on the topic is one of the most watched TED’s ever recorded. So why is vulnerability so powerful?
For me it comes down to one simple truth: If you never take risks, then you will never know what you’re capable of. If I spend my whole life playing it safe, following the rules, and maintaining my image, then I’ll never know what it’s like to live boldly, stand up for what I believe in, and discover my true purpose.
It’s vulnerable to love and it’s vulnerable to care about the world. I used to be afraid of having my heart broken; as if the pain would be too much for me to handle. Now I know that pain can be an incredible teacher – a guide that brings me back into my body and accompanies me through some of my deepest spiritual growth.
Joanna Macy says, “The heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe.” Resilience does not come from avoiding pain, it comes from feeling pain and finding the support you need to keep your heart open in the midst of it all.
When we face our fears head-on, we transform the power they hold over us. When we allow our hearts to break open, we increase our capacity to embrace the inevitable changes and challenges of life.
Coming Home to Myself
The more I feel at home with who I truly am, the less the ‘person I should be’ comes knocking at my door. Turns out it’s a lot easier to breathe – and a lot easier to be – without this mask on.
I think it’s time we all take our masks off and allow ourselves to finally see and be seen. Only then will we learn to trust ourselves; only then will we recognize our common humanity; only then will we find the courage to engage wholeheartedly with the greatest challenges of our time.
I’ll leave you with this poem I wrote a few months ago:
I live for moments of awakening
The apocalyptic sweeping away of pretense
In the face of the simple truth:
We are all in this together
We have never been alone, nor will we ever
Like flowers pushing through concrete
Pulled forever toward the Cosmos
Yet rooted deeply in the Earth
Heart expanding to hold it all
Awakening into mystery.
With fierce loving compassion,
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You are a kindred spirit doing what I beleive to be the most important work that needs to be done in the world. If you, I and others doing the work of freeing men and our culture from our constrained expression of masculinity we can shift everything, everything, that a dominating way of being masculine in the world has wrought.
I appaulaud your efforts and look forward to future collaboration.
Thanks, Joseph. I am glad to walk this path with you, brother!
Very nicely said! I read your words today because my husband who walks this same path, post this article in one of our groups on facebook. Thank you!
Wonderfully well written, moving and thought provoking.
It’s really insightful and inspiring to read more about your journey Dan. I’m starting to recognize the masks I unconsciously put on and how much they disconnect me from my authentic expression and genuine connection. It’s really humbling to learn more about your journey towards wholeheartedness.