I wake up. It’s 7.19 am on a Saturday. I slept for 8 hours and 18 minutes, according to my Garmin watch, and apparently the quality of my sleep was excellent (which is a rare occurrence). I feel a little out of it, confused by the array of dreams I had throughout the night – all of which I still remember as I’m typing this, a couple of hours later.
I’m exhausted even though I haven’t done anything out of the ordinary all week. I didn’t go out, I didn’t go to bed any later than 10 pm and I slept for 7 to 8 hours each night. So why am I this tired?!
Apart from the physical ailments I’m regularly subjected to, which are surely taking a significant toll on my energy levels, I’m noticing that everyday life – just being and going through the required motions – gets more exhausting by the day. And since I have a hard time accepting such a detrimental fact, I took a deep dive into what might be at the root of it. After all, it does seem strange that I’ve been working fewer hours and still need more time to recover.
I started by talking to my therapist about how I feel that certain social interactions or settings don’t seem to get easier for me, because they often seem like chores or another thing on my to-do list. I initially started going to therapy for suspected social anxiety, and what generally helps with that is getting used to the situation that’s causing the anxiety, equipped with the appropriate tools and coping strategies. My therapist pointed out that characteristically, social anxiety occurs whenever a person desperately wants to be part of social situations but is too afraid to do so. This is not the case for me though. I generally can get myself into social situations, but I often don’t find pleasure in them. Let’s take a look at the scenario of going to a restaurant with a friend. Do I enjoy good food? Sure! Do I enjoy the company of the people I care about? Absolutely! Do I need to be at a restaurant for that? Nope!*
I’ve been pulling out all the stops in terms of coping strategies for a long time now and I still get overwhelmed, even in the presence of the people I’m usually mostly comfortable with, which brings me to the conclusion that it’s not so much the social situation that I’m having issues with but rather the surroundings and/or the overwhelming nature of the setting.
On top of all that, I noticed that my discomfort isn’t limited to the usual anxiety-related symptoms (racing heart, sweaty palms, …), and it appears even in situations that are theoretically non-threatening (like being at a coffee shop with a friend): I suddenly find it hard to sit still because the chair feels unbelievably uncomfortable (no matter the type of chair – it could even be the most comfortable sofa), my clothes feel too tight, I’m too hot or too cold and I really want to go home, change into sweatpants and wash my face.
Changing into loose-fitting clothes and washing my face (or taking a shower) is also exactly what I need to do after I get home from work in order to get comfortable. Arriving at home and sitting around in my work clothes only means that comfort is being delayed. I’m fairly unflexible about this, which means that going somewhere straight from work (even just hanging out at a friend’s place) will ever so slightly leave me in a state of physical discomfort.
So, where does this general discomfort come from? To be honest, it’s always been there. I remember feeling like a bit of an alien, like the odd one out, even when I was little. I never really felt like I belonged (and I often didn’t) and I’ve always had a tendency to observe from the sideline rather than participate – which I still do today. I was always a quiet kid, liked to read and used to love sitting on the big hay bales at the barn to watch other people groom and ride their horses.
I’ve always had a very clear idea of how I wanted to dress – but tried to conform to what was expected of me anyway – and found that dressing in business attire (which I did when I first started working) was way more uncomfortable than what I was able to tolerate.
Unfortunately, my way of being has never been truly tolerated, be it at school, at home or in the working world: I’ve always been either too much – too sensitive, too quirky, too odd, too emotional, too different – or not enough – not outgoing enough, too shy, too quiet, lacking initiative, too introverted. And how do you expect a kid to learn self-acceptance and self-compassion if she’s never just right the way she is?
What ensued – again, from a very young age – is that, whenever I left my little safe space (which was my room back then), I put on a mask. Given that I enjoyed observing and reading, I used these skills to adopt a way of behaving that seemed to be largely accepted. I basically acted my way through life. What that meant at the time – and still does to this day – is that I go against all of my urges most of the time. Don’t feel like playing with the other kids? Do it anyway or you’ll be labelled as anti-social. Don’t feel like speaking in the meeting? Do it anyway or you’ll be perceived as incompetent (or worse, unnecessarily called out by one of the other attendees).
Of course, the mask isn’t the same all the time. I adapt it slightly, depending on where I am and who I’m with. I’m most “unmasked” (= comfortable) around some (definitely not all) relatives, who have inevitably seen me in all my emotional states. Since the mask isn’t sustainable, I have to retreat to my safe space (which currently is being at home, alone) at regular intervals. Depending on how much masking is required of me, I need to go home sooner (or later) in order to recharge. The way I usually do that is by not talking to anyone and by putting my noise-cancelling headphones on to drown out the world, because I’m sensitive to noise. Sometimes, it takes me a whole weekend to recover only to be able to function again the upcoming week, which for some people is quite difficult to understand and often interpreted as me not wanting to spend time with them – understandably.
This is how I’ve lived my life: by pretending my way through. I’m 34 years old now and I’m tired. My batteries are drained. I’m sad because at times I don’t know who I am. Is this me or is this the mask? Will I ever be able to completely unmask? Will people leave me if I do?
I don’t know how to meet new people without wearing the mask. I don’t know how to take it off around some people that I already know, which prevents me from truly being seen and from showing up authentically, and the true me is never entirely revealed.
Why am I telling you about the mask? I don’t want you to feel sorry for me, even though I have to admit that feeling the need to put on a mask in order to get by is a sad thing. It sometimes makes me feel incredibly angry and frustrated.
But I’ll find my way, one tiny step at a time.
I want you to be aware that things aren’t always what they seem. Not everyone perceives things the same way you do. Some people struggle with tasks or in settings you may not find challenging at all. People are very different and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, our differences are the reason why we collectively manage to do great things.
Let there be room for difference and acceptance.**
*Restaurants are often very noisy and thus distracting, the people at the table next to mine might be too loud, restaurants require a lot of “unnecessary” interactions with people I don’t know, the restroom might be dirty and so on – there are many potential sources of discomfort. I’m not saying I never want to eat at a restaurant again but there’s a chance I’ll choose take-out over eating at a restaurant most times.
**Masking isn’t unique to me, but it can occur whenever a person doesn’t feel safe to be themselves. This especially applies to marginalised communities who often have to resort to masking in order to stay safe.