Sunday, November 8, 2009


Happy Belated Hallowe’en! A perfect celebration for my topic today: masks. Or, said another way, what role did you assume to scare, impress or amuse another on that frightful day? I must admit that while I didn’t dress in costume, I did play a few roles and wore some metaphoric masks. Let’s see there was the “polite” mask that I wore over my grumpy-leave-me-alone-today feelings; my “good daughter” mask that I wore when I visited my father, the one that covered my I-don’t-feel-like-visiting-you-or-anybody-today; and the “I am not anxious” mask I wore for the man who sat across from me on the train, laughing maniacally at torn bits of paper. In retrospect, I participated in quite the costume ball that day.

Masks can be useful, as noted from the latter example, but they are also a way of hiding inner feelings that may or may not be based on real survival needs. For example, what use was the “good daughter” mask I wore for my father? If you had asked me that day, I would have replied that I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by not visiting.

So let’s break this down. I put my tired, grumpy self behind the door and came out all smiles just so I wouldn’t hurt a man who has known me (and my moods) for … how many years? I denied the expression of my own feelings just so I could protect my father, a man of compassion, from valid adult sensibilities? What was I really doing? What was I really worried about?

When codependent parts of our self (check out my article The Community Within for an in-depth discussion on parts) come out to play, they tend to come with readymade masks. Codependent parts are usually formed in childhood and tend to seek self value, safety, acceptance and/or love in another rather than from within. The mask is the role these parts play to make sure they get that value, safety, love and acceptance.

When I wore my “good daughter” mask was I really worried about my father being hurt or was I more worried that if I hurt him, I would be rejected in some way? Would he, for example, still love me? An irrational thought to be sure, but not improbable to think, especially for our codependent parts.

Our codependent parts are young and may still be living the beliefs of childhood – the magical beliefs that say, if I am not a good girl, something bad will happen or, the opposite, if I get good grades, clean my room, make the team, my parents will love me. Even children with unconditional love and acceptance can feel this way.

As an adult, I am fortunate to know that if I say to my father I am too tired to visit, he will accept it at face value. But I also know there is a small part within me that harbours some doubt. What if he isn’t okay with it? This is my codependent part speaking – the part that wears the mask of “good daughter” and worries that if I state my truth, I will suffer long term effects like abandonment, rejection or other and I will not survive. The truth, however, is that even if he does reject me, I am no longer a child and I will survive.

I have to trust that my father (as an adult) can handle disappointment and will say something if he is upset. As two adults, I have to trust that he and I can talk these things out and maintain a healthy relationship regardless of our disappointments. If I don’t trust that equation, I will start denying my feelings or take on the responsibility of his feelings and the relationship will become a drain on both our energies. On the day I wore my good daughter mask, I allowed my codependent parts to make choices for me, there was a loss of energy as I pushed myself to visit and, moreover, I denied my father the chance to relate to me as an adult. Is that what I really wanted?


  1. brilliant! who cannot relate to that. having jewish parents, guilt and chicken soup are a daily portion. loads to think about in terms of who should take responsibility for the guilty feelings, i or they. if i understand correctly, the codependent side of me is responsible for my handling the situation in a way that makes me feel guilty.

  2. Totally, Julia. (Well not so sure about the Jewish part, my Swedish ancestors do a pretty good job themselves!) But in regards to which part of us is feeling guilty, yes, the codependent part is. The question to ask then is what's in it for the codependent part to feel this guilt and responsibility? What need is being fulfilled? For example, some codependent parts (of ourselves) like to feel needed, others like to take control. Every codependent part I meet is different, unique and utterly creative in getting their needs (safety, love, value, etc) met. Thanks for the comment, Jo-Ann

  3. What if guilt is not part of your repertorie, as is the case with me?

  4. Hi Dorell, then this scenario wouldnt apply to you. Codependent parts are generally formed in childhood as a way of getting attention, safety, validation...things that may have been lacking back then. In regards to guilt,a lot of us were taught from a young age that in order to get our needs met we have to take care of an-other's emotions. (I can relate to my own family but so many sit-coms use that same scenario "What about your poor mother/father?" "Do you ever think of how I feel" "No,you go out, I will just sit here while you have fun"). And the truth is, its next to impossible to do a good job in taking care of another's emotions, its a set up for failure. Plus, its a drain on our own energy. So, the question I would ask, Dorell, are there times when you try to get your needs met (safety, affection,validation, sense of belonging ...) in a way that if you look real close, doesnt really fullfil those needs? Thanks for the question, Jo-Ann