A few years ago, I was dropping my teenage daughter off somewhere that she didn’t know a soul and had to walk in alone and socialize. This place was full of girls who were slightly older and already solidified as a group. She was the outsider, walking into what I perceived as a lion’s den.
In the car at the dropoff spot, my social anxiety projections started freely flowing. “Are you OK? You sure you want to do this? Are you nervous?”
(Translation: I am not OK. I’m not sure you should do this. I am nervous). It is so much easier to project my feelings than to own them — this for a different article.
She got out of the car and bravely (I thought) walked up the sidewalk to face the lions. But before she did, she said, “I’ll be fine. I’ll just match my personality to theirs and then I’ll fit in.”
Of course she hasn’t given this moment another thought, and of course I’ve been pondering what she said ever since. “Matching your personality” to fit in is, in fact, exhausting. It is a trademark of growing up. And adolescence. And of being human.
I’ve seen kids match their personality to fit into a certain peer group or clique, for better or for worse. I’ve seen kids come together to help a friend because one person decided to do the right thing and the rest joined in. I’ve also seen one child in a pack make fun of another child and the rest join in the cruelty so as not to be the next victim.
I’ve seen kids match their personality to their parents, pretending to care about a class, hobby or a sport because they want to please mom or dad. “This is how we do things in our family” can feel exhausting if one doesn’t really fit in with family priorities or ideology as he grows up.
Today I flew back to Houston after moving my daughter into her new sophomore-year college apartment. I said good-bye to her at the airport after two days of driving together, unpacking together, setting up her new room together. A second trip to Target seeking a storage bin for jeans that didn’t fit in the drawers. A side trip to Kohls to look at comforters before she decided hers from last year was just fine.
She took me to the airport, this brave young woman, and we said our see-ya-laters. I cried as I hugged her and then, once I watched her walk away, tried to match my personality to the other stone-faced travelers I passed.
I don’t think the ticketing agent looked up as she checked my ID. If she had, perhaps she would’ve noticed the mask I wore trying to match my personality at the airport. “I’m totally fine; nothing to see here.”
I went through security with quiet tears but my mask in-check. No one could tell I was missing my daughter so very much already. Worried for her safety, as always. Hopeful her classes will go well and praying she will thrive. Fingers crossed that her new roommates will all get along.
In addition to masking my sadness, I wore a mask pretending my right knee didn’t hurt after carrying loads of heavy blue bags to the second floor of the apartment without an elevator. I wore a mask ignoring pain in my left shoulder which has been barking on and off since I turned 40.
I passed people and more people in the airport who had no idea all of this was happening in my body and soul. I was matching my personality to those around me, just as my daughter did years ago.
I stopped at the Einstein Bros. Bagel shop in the airport, my mask of being-a-normal-human barely hanging on. I suspect my eyes were red from my tears that had been leaking through. I know my cheeks had that awful blotchy after-cry redness.
I ordered my blueberry bagel with cream cheese and the cashier looked up and into my eyes, the first to do so.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m OK. I’m sorry, I just left my daughter.” (Why do we apologize when our masks falter?)
“Do you need a hug?” This woman couldn’t have known I’m actually not a prolific hugger.
“No, thank you so much. I’m OK.”
Then she asked, “Are you sure? You look like you could use a hug,” and my ugly cry broke through the mask.
“OK, I’ll take a hug,” I said. This one woman in an airport bagel shop took a moment to see past my mask. She left her register, walked around to the front of the store and held me in a tight hug for a good 30 to 60 seconds. “It’s going to be OK,” she said. “I know it’s hard.”
I cried into her shoulder and told her “I just miss her so much.” I thanked her. She has no idea who my daughter is, but she didn’t need to know my daughter to see me and be present to my pain. She completed this truly human transaction by saying, “This sandwich is on us,” and I walked away and texted my family what happened.
As if to prove my point — and unconscious of the toll of the mask he has to wear in adolescence — my teenage son responded quickly. “Geez. Was anyone else in line?” Even 500 miles away, he was worried someone would’ve witnessed this horrifyingly embarrassing interaction.
The masks we wear are exhausting. Pretending we are happy and OK and calm leads to snapping at each other and not truly seeing each other. It leads to insecurity that wears the mask of arrogance, and disappointment that wears the mask of bitterness. Fear can easily put on a mask of resentment. We all know the mask of indifference, pretending we are not hurt by what someone just said.
This woman at the bagel counter reminded me that we can see past the masks of people we know and don’t know. And that doing so doesn’t take much time but can make a big difference to another person.
So this week, as kids are going back to school, let us remember they are wearing masks, too. Masks of hoping to fit in and wear the right thing. Masks of not being themselves so they don’t stand out. Masks of bravery when their best friend isn’t in their class. Masks of trying to disappear so they’re not called on when they don’t know the answer. They are matching their personalities to fit in.
When we acknowledge our masks, it makes us more human. Being more human is hard when you’re the one crying in the bagel line at the airport, but it’s also healing. Feel it, or stuff it down and feel it later.
Let’s try to see past the masks we wear this week. I promise it’ll give you more patience and compassion for others to realize others are dealing with pain and insecurity, both physical and emotional.
And, for each of you, I wish for someone to see past your mask as well. We all deserve to be seen and given permission to be who we really are. Matching our personalities to fit in gets old pretty quickly.