Halloween Hope: Trading in the Perfect Mask for Something Even Better

What if Halloween isn’t the only day we wear a mask? What if, when life gets messy and we feel like a mess, we hide behind a mask of perfection?

The old proverb says, “Perfection is the enemy of the good.”

Maybe our masks of perfection are the enemy of the good, messy, lovely faces they hide…

halloween mask

Photo Credit: Brother O’Mara via Compfight cc

Bad news first:

It’s school picture day and you forgot to get haircuts for the kids and their only collared shirt is sitting in a smelly heap on the laundry room floor and yesterday they were running and they sprawled head-first on the driveway and now it looks like somebody ran over their face with a cheese grater.

Of course they did.

They always get wounded above the neck the week before picture day.

But now the “good news”:

You are looking at the school picture order form and discover you can erase almost all evidence of childhood by paying $12 for the “Premium Retouching” package. It “Whitens teeth, evens skin tone, and removes blemishes and scars!”

I’m not making this up:

Retouching

In my kids’ school, for a few bucks, you can remove almost all signs of life. For a few bucks, you can put an electronic mask on the broken and wounded and complicated and messy and tender and vulnerable and lovely humanity of a child.

The Masks We Wear

But what will happen when the picture comes home and the kid sees his or her pristine face and wonders where his road rash went or why she can’t see in the picture the scar she sees in the mirror every day? Deep down he or she is going to know what happened. They’re going to hear the silent message loud and clear:

You’re not good enough the way you are. Hide your nicks and scratches. Hide your signs of life. Pretty yourself up. Only perfection is acceptable. Go ahead, wear your Halloween mask this week, but when you take it off, put on a mask of an entirely different kind.

Put on the mask of perfection. Put on the mask of safety and hide your original, beautiful, wounded face away beneath layers of protection and pretending.

Every year, when the order form arrives, I get angry at the institutionalized shame. Every year, I get on my high horse. But this year, several nights after picture day, I got knocked off of my high horse by the whispered goodnight conversation of a ten-year old boy.

When We Take Them Off

I arrive home late on the evening of my son’s first group guitar lesson. The house is dark and quiet but he’s awake in bed as I tiptoe into his room. I’m worried because he’s the youngest, least-experienced guitarist in his class. I’m worried he’ll act immaturely and be rejected. I’m worried he won’t be able to keep up with the more skilled players.

Suddenly, I’m the one who wants to purchase a “retouching package.” I’m the one who wants to make my son pristine. I’m the one who wants to erase all evidence of imperfection from his life.

It’s the way I feel when my daughter dresses herself in striped pink leggings, a multi-colored checkered shirt, old sandals over wooly socks and a big brown headband, and I worry about kids judging her and parents judging me. It’s the way I feel when one of my children melts down in the supermarket and our real face is revealed to everyone around us. It’s the way I feel when my kids fight in a restaurant and my family’s real face is revealed in flying bits of pancake.

At messy times like that, I’m the one who wants a mask to hide our imperfections.

So, I walk into his bedroom and he rolls over to look at me and I can see his white-toothed smile beaming in the shadows and he gushes, “The other kids are way better than me, so I made a ton of mistakes. It’s going to be a huge challenge, but I’m going to learn so much.”

My son tells me he picked up some road rash and no “retouching” is required.

I reflect to him, “Sounds like you’re okay with making mistakes in the group lesson?”

He looks at me like I’m crazy, and he says, “Of course I am. Last year Mrs. Stephenson taught us that mistakes are a part of us and that’s totally okay because we’ll get better at them.”

Our mistakes are a part of us.

And that’s okay.

We’ll get better at them.

Daddy, I’m not perfect. I’m going to make mistakes and the world is going to see my nicks and my scratches, but no worries, my face is good enough.

No masks necessary, Daddy.

Born Again Without a Mask

Mumford and Sons sing,

“I know my weakness, know my voice,

and I believe in grace and choice.

And I know perhaps my heart is fast,

but I’ll be born without a mask.”

I wonder what would happen if a generation of parents said, “This is enough. Because my child is good enough, just the way they are. They were born without a mask, and they will live without a mask. The Halloween of our shame is over.”

Scratch that. Because we can’t do that for our children until we can do it for ourselves.

I wonder what would happen if we all said, “Enough. Because I am good enough. Today, for a moment or two, I’m going to take off my mask, and I’m going to look in the mirror and I’m going to behold my original, messy, lovely face staring back at me.”

I think it would be a moment of honesty and weakness. A moment of freedom. A moment in which we find our true voice. A moment in which we fall into the arms of grace and know we’re okay, just the way we are.

I think it would feel like meeting an old friend, long forgotten beneath the layers of time and hiding. I think it would be like coming home to a place where the light is always on.

And I think our days might begin to feel a lot less like Halloween, and a lot more like Christmas morning, as we discover the gifts we are beneath the masks we wear.

Question: Have you ever traded in perfectionism for the freedom of being yourself? How did it feel? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Preview: Next Wednesday’s post is entitled, “The 5 Reasons Every Kid Should Talk Back to Their Parents”

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. If you are not yet a subscriber, you can click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Disclaimer: This post is not professional advice. It should be read as you would read a “self-help” book. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor, who can become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. Counselors can be located through your insurance network or through your state psychological association.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • barbaratodish

    Yes, now I try to live without judgment, I try to just PLAY, as much as possible, as though I am the little girl in me whose “playtime was shortened by many various stresses. But it seems that others are hardly ready for me, my ME, my playful, whole, unmasked,ME. They seem to want to call me crazy. Others, my family, most of my so called “friends”, etc., flee from me. But that is OK because I “flee”, too, but I “FLEE” back to ME! It could and can be lonely but I drop (or, as often as I can, try to drop) the “L” from LONELY and I make me ONELY!
    I need to keep remembering that I DESERVE to be the playful ME, instead of being the masked Me who continues to struggle all the time, in order to COMPETE in the relative rat race of “I struggle more than you do”, etc, that I used to think was necessary to DESERVE EXISTENCE in the first place! (I’m 65 years young and it took me this long to find my existential consciousness that freed me to be able to PLAY instead of struggle) I almost always am at risk to return to a STRUGGLING (comparative) mask, so I need and enjoy articles like yours because such articles help me to remember that I deserve my PLAY, my sleep, instead of feeling guilty, and demanding that I SHOULD (JUDGMENT!) have a more structured disciplined life.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Barbara, thank you for the reminder that when we return to ourselves, we remember how to play. I think this is an important quality of our original, messy selves.

  • Jennifer Newell

    In our family it is never about being the best. It is about being your best, giving it your all and once you have done that you can look your self in the mirror and be proud of all you have accomplished mistakes and all. Taking the mask off is more about being so comfortable and certain of your true self that you dont care who see it. Life is messy and I in the end believe embracing the mess leads to more joy.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Yes, indeed, Jen. Certain of our true face. Comfortable in the mess. Allowing others into it. Sounds like a pretty good recipe for a wholehearted life.

  • Karen Eisele

    Can we ask a reverse question here as well: Are we willing to allow other people to not wear a mask?Do we hinder the authenticity of those we expect should act in a certain way because of their profession or calling in life? I was a Pastors Wife for 20 years until my husbands death in 2000. It was difficult for people to see me for me since they all had a formed notion of how a Pators’ wife should act and for the most part I conformed to that image for my husbands sake. Reclaiming an identity after I was no longer in the role was difficult but liberating and i still have moments of fear that I am not living up to “standards”. PS. My favorite school picture of my daughter was when she was 6 years old. She had fallen off some Monkey bars a week earlier and was sporting a cast, in addition she had no front teeth(The tooth fairy had been very busy). The day of the picture I begged her to smile closed lip and not try not to let the cast show etc. Upon receiving the pictures there she was with a wide toothless gin, holding the cast where all could see with her hair a mess(pictures taken after playground time). That picture captured the essense of daughter and I will always treasure it.

    • Carrie

      Karen, I, too, was a pastor’s wife for 25 years. I used to beg my friends to introduce me as their friend first, then they could add that I was their pastor’s wife. I felt unseen and unknown in those years because of the mask of pastor’s wife that I tried so desperately to loose. Like you said, the transition after leaving that role was an adjustment, but I am so thankful to be just me now. I don’t fear living up to the standards. I rebel against the standards.
      P.S. I love the story of your daughter.

      • drkellyflanagan

        Carrie, I so much appreciate what you and Karen have elaborated on, this idea that love begins with ourselves and we can only love others to the extent that we love ourselves. And I have to admit, I love the idea that when we love ourselves, it gives us space to be a little rebellious!

  • Carrie

    My grown children do not always make choices that I would make for them. There was a time I would have been embarrassed and maybe would have wanted to hide some of their choices. Not any more. I love my children right where they are, in the midst of all the choices they have made whether I agree with them or not. I’m not embarrassed. They are beautiful and I am proud of them! (Watch, now one of them will do something even more outlandish and I will be back on my knees asking, “Even now, God?” And he will reply, “Yes, even now.”)
    And you are right. It started within me. It feels so weird to admit that I love myself. I love myself like I love my children and grandchildren. When the little toddler within me feels all alone, the mother in me picks her up and holds her close, and I am comforted. The choices I make now are not based on what I should do, but how I can best care for me and those I love. Suddenly those I love encompasses a much broader circle. Now that I love myself, I am able to love others more fully. As I accept myself, I am more able to accept others. As I am meeting my own needs, and finding friends and family to help me with that, I have so much more to give. I give out of my fullness, rather than a sense of lack.

    • karen eisele

      Carrie-you hit the nail on the head. The main plot of our lives should be the story of loving and caring for ourselves and how that love and care cascades into the lives of those that surround us. One has to wonder though where does the development of Masks begin? When did we lose the balance of playing “dress-up” and being ourselves? I am thankful that Kelly started this blog. It is very provocative and we all at times need to be “untangled”-Karen

      • drkellyflanagan

        Karen, I’m glad you found the blog! And I’m particularly grateful for these exchanges between you and Carrie. I’ve always hoped this blog could be a place of mutually supportive community. A place readers can go for a little grace and understanding. It’s lovely to watch as the two of you say, “I see you. And it is good.”

  • Rusti

    I found your great blog not too long ago and here you write about the issue that seems to be my task at the moment – (re-)learning imperfection. My point is: at least for me (and maybe also for others) it is also a question of age or rather of phases in life. I am 43 now and life is at full speed with a job, children, a high-maintenance husband, building a house etc. I feel like it took me a very long time during my childhood, youth and early adulthood to learn perfection. Not that I ever was perfect. But it was and seemed my task to try hard, get better at things, do them not just so and so but as good as I could, be reliable, responsible, an adult. Win against my laziness, the I’ll do it whenever attitude which I had as a kid and which I see again in my kids.
    So I got better at all this. And it stressed me sometimes. But it also made me happy. I love it when things work out and when I get things done, I also love this kind of ‘perfection’ in others – it is so great working with people like that. And still, for a while now it seems to me that I should stop going further into this direction. It was and is an important part of my life (not perfection, since I’m far from that by any thinkable standards but trying as hard as one can). But I now as often as I can try to stop and take a deep breath and let go and let things just be, fighting the wish to control, improve, do it just a little better. Because somehow it dawned on me that unless I force myself into the other, the imperfect direction it will take over and control me instead of the other way around. And it shifts the priorities into the wrong direction. Giving things a little more perfection can be great if it gives you joy. It can be a terrible thing if it seems more important all of a sudden than the really important things like reading a story to your daughter. None of this is black and white of course and it also is not easy to fight for your right to imperfection against those around you who have gotten used to your perfection. At the same time – don’t we sometimes only think that others will actually see and appreciate those details when they actually don’t even see them? A good example is the invitation thing – I realized that in quite some cases I didn’t want to invite someone over for dinner because I knew I would be stressed reaching the standards I thought I needed to reach. How stupid is that – it is about seeing my friends, not about the perfect dinner and if the fear of not being perfect holds me off inviting them that’s the moment I should start thinking about what’s more important. So it is mostly a thinking over of priorities and for me they seem to change at the moment (having to do with age I guess). So, thank you Dr. Flanagan, for making this a topic. It goes around in my head a lot at the moment. And I’m (not always very successfully) fighting with it.
    Oh and one more thought on this – one also has to be aware that one can really get on people’s nerves with this perfection thing. The older I get the more I want things JUST EXACTLY like I want them. That gets stronger with age anyway, we just turn more and more inflexible. Better not reinforce that effect with perfectionism. It is ok if the kids load the dishwasher the WRONG way, great if they do it at all. If you correct them all the time they will stop doing it (and you could have done it yourself in the first place). Astonishing, how hard it still is to fight this wish for perfection (or maybe rather of control?)
    Keep going with your blog, it is very inspiring. Greetings from Germany and thank you for your thoughts

    • drkellyflanagan

      So glad the blog found its way to you in Germany, Rusti! Your thoughts remind me of something I heard at a conference a couple of weeks ago. To paraphrase it in this context: “There is nothing wrong with HAVING perfection. The problem is when all we WANT is perfection.” Thanks for your thoughts, Rusti!

  • mercy

    My name is Mrs. mercy jeffry,From USA ,and I’m happily married with a lovely husband and three children.I had a very big problem with my husband few months ago,to the extent that he even packed his things away from our house. He left I and my kids for almost 5 months,and i tried all my possible best and effort to bring him back.I discussed it with a very good friend of mine,and he gave me an advice concerning a spell caster, that he is the only one that can handle my situations and problem,that he’s always ready and able to do anything related to spell casting and helping of the needy, Pls every one i would like you all to contact him with his email address,which is as follows.”drsmartspellhome@gmail.com”. I never believed in spell casting,but My friend convinced me and i had no choice than to follow my friend advice,because i never dreamed of loosing my lovely Husband. And i contacted him with his email address,and i discussed with him all my problems and worries and so surprisingly,he told me that I’ll get my husband back a day after. I didn’t believed Him, until when i got home,the next day,my husband called me to inform me that he is coming back home…..So Amazing!! That’s how i got my back through spell casting and our relationship was stronger than ever. One of the price i was asked to pay was to tell it to the people around me that problems like this,can always be solved by Dr. smart. So! my advice to you out there is to visit this same E-mail address,and tell him your problems too,if you are in any condition related to love issue or getting your ex back or and problem at all, pls Contact him and have a happy life. you can contact him via email (drsmartspellhome@gmail.com ) all you can call him +2348104933655.

  • Susan

    I’ve just discovered you and you’re already making me better. Our parents have a lot of influence on our self esteem. I remember when I was growing up, I was part of my school’s swimming team. Never mind that I wasn’t the fastest. But my dad would come watch me compete. I remember this one time when I was 8 – I was last in a back stroke race and when I got out of the pool he was there waiting for me, so very excited and asking what present I wanted. I actually forgot that I had ‘lost’, I just felt so special that I had competed – and this incident has stuck in my mind. I grew up confident because my parents made me feel good enough

    • drkellyflanagan

      Susan, I’m so glad you discovered us! And thank you for your kind words. I’m not sure I make anyone better. I like to think that sometimes my words can remind someone of who they already are and have forgotten. So, it’s fun to hear you remembering!

  • Jackie

    As a girl, I know many people who cannot leave home without makeup on. It’s a trap, you see. Because makeup really does have this magical effect of erasing your blemishes and natural flaws. The first time you try it, you are amazed by how beautiful you look. It is usually just a minor change, but it definitely makes a difference. As you wear it more and more, the contrast becomes starker and your naked face becomes more and more abhorrent. Moreover, those around you become accustomed to your painted face, so if you strike up the courage, or are simply too lazy one day, and go without, it’s almost completely assured that someone will come up to you and ask why you look so tired/sick today. It’s unintentional and usually not meant maliciously, but for a girl who is already self-conscious about her appearance, this makes her even less willing to let her natural flaws shine through.

    I feel the same urge to cover up my blemishes, to conceal my pimples and otherwise embellish my appearance, but as a practice and a habit, I try to force myself not to. It’s hard at first and you feel like everyone who looks at you is just staring at your imperfections, but they’re not. And after a while, you realize that it’s the whole picture that counts far more than the details. I can’t help knowing the flaws are there, but I also know that if I don’t focus my attention on them, others won’t either. Challenge yourself. Pretend you are perfect just the way you are, and after a while, others will believe you.