What We’re Hiding Just Behind Our Faces

vulnerability

Photo Credit: avemario (Bigstock)

Marcos Alberti is a Brazilian photographer and, last year, he made some really good art.

He selected a number of people, and he took a series of photos of each person. Following an initial photo, he then took a photo of each person after one glass of wine, two glasses, and three glasses.

In each set of photos, a remarkable transformation occurs.

In the first photo, faces are guarded and usually emotionless, sometimes defiant. Even the rare smiles in the first photos are muted, tempered, and safe. In the second photos, however, after one glass of wine, the faces are loosening up and lips are carving out larger smiles. And there is at least a hint—at least a glimmer—of light in the eyes.

After the second glass of wine, in the third photos, everything is changing. There is a casualness about every expression—smiles and postures and even hairdos look somehow freer. By this third picture, it is beginning to look like there might actually be living, breathing human beings behind the stoic facades.

Why do I call this good art?

Because good art tells the truth.

Artists can come in all forms: from painters and sculptors to teachers and technologists. Some people become artists by making art out of their families or friendships or any form of compassion or care. Regardless of what we create, if it tells the truth about what exists just beneath the thin veneer of our everyday lives, and if it makes us long to bring that barely-veiled reality to its fullness—whether that reality be full of sorrow or joy, pain or ecstasy, fear or hope, anger or tenderness—then what we are creating is art.

That’s what good art does: it makes us long to be more fully human.

Each of Alberti’s series of photographs features a final photo, following a third glass of wine. When I looked at those final photos, I saw a truth that startled me, in a really good way:

The last photographs reminded me of my children.

In the final photo, the people have become almost completely unprotected. Vulnerable. Themselves. Not managing impressions. Not creating safe space. Rather, they’re leaning in, closer to the camera. And they are invariably joyful. They aren’t having to work at being happy. They are simply letting the happiness that is inside of them exit them. Through their shining eyes and wide open smiles.

Like children.

You see, children don’t have to try to be vibrant, energetic, joyful, and playful. Because it is right on the surface of them. It is, mostly, the natural state of their existence. Until they are taught to bury it. Until they learn the hard way about how wounding the world can be. Until they watch us first-photo adults, taking our lives and ourselves so seriously.

Childlike joy and play are the truth we find beneath the thin-veneer of our adult lives.

I suppose a cynic might look at Alberti’s photos and argue that there is merely a chemical reaction happening in the brains of intoxicated people—dopamine released and pleasure felt as a result. But pleasure and light aren’t the same thing. And these people are alight. In fact, I think they’re shining because they feel lighter. The alcohol has helped them to put down the weight of all their protecting. And what a relief.

Without all that extra baggage, there’s way more energy left to enjoy and to play.

Some people argue that in our parenting-obsessed culture, we have elevated our children too high. They say we idealize our kids. Sometimes, that’s probably true. But I believe this is almost always true:

If we have put our kids on a pedestal, it’s because deep down, we wish to be like them again. We wish to be like those people in the final photo, shedding all of our heavy protecting. We wish to be vulnerable and vibrant once more.

If that’s true of you, I don’t think you need a glass of wine to make it happen.

Instead, I think you can find a piece of art like Alberti’s and find your truest, worthiest, most childlike self somewhere within it. Because until you know you are a beautiful work of art yourself—a brilliant creation that cannot be devalued by the dangers and daggers of a broken world and broken people—then you will need to bury yourself and your joy deep, beneath the serious façade of adulthood. Until you realize you are inalterably loveable, you will have to live a first-photo kind of life.

And we need people who want to live in a final-photo kind of world.

The truth of our worthiness is lying just beneath the veil of our sometimes painful, sometimes messy, sometimes hum-drum lives. We need to lift that veil and let our worthiness run free, like a child splashing barefoot in puddles after a long, hard rain.

We need to loosen up,

let our hair down,

and allow the light inside of us to finally shine out of us.

—————

P.S. My new book Loveable is available for pre-order. I hope you find your truest, worthiest self somewhere within its pages. And for a limited time, when you order Loveable, you will get a free bonus—The Year of Listening, Loving, and Living—a second full-length book I’ve written as a practical companion to LoveableYou can click here to go to loveablethebook.com, and find out more.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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.

  • Susan

    I am an alcoholic. I believe that, before I became dependent on alcohol, It allowed me to forget my stern facade and feel child-like for awhile. I am now a dry alcoholic and often stern in my presentation and reactions towards people. Years of therapy have taught me to live as I choose, to honor my own desires, and to love myself. I find it easy to be joyful with children, plants, animals, and myself but I still put up emotional defenses between other adults and myself. I don’t think I truly trust any adult enough to be free in my reactions to them. I started my own pet and plant care business. However, I recognize I am lacking the joy that I should have in my life. Your post hits home for me.

    • Susan, I really appreciate your honesty with yourself and your willingness to be honest here with us. Many people assume that once you learn how to love yourself once again, then sharing yourself vulnerably with others will come naturally. Not true, right? There is a very difficult, very scary bridge in between, in which we have to learn how to reveal ourselves, not knowing what the response will be. It sounds like this post might have hit home because you are longing to cross that bridge. Courage to you as you embark upon that part of your journey.

      • Susan

        Many thanks! Recognizing the problem is Step One. Love reading your posts.

  • Cat

    Another great article! I was brought up with Mediterranean food & drink values and wine was a natural part of our socialising and family life. It has never been abused and the old saying of a glass of wine with a meal is like a tonic for living life to the full rings true for us.I feel less serious and more relaxed with my family after a good quality glass of natural organic wine 🍷( may I add not the highly commercial ones full of chemicals!)
    I would also add that I am a naturally optimistic person anyway, so I think in these photographs I would have been relaxed from the beginning as I would have been excited about the whole project thing anyway!

    • Cat, you bring up such an important point related to culture, and not even cultures across countries, but within them. I wonder, if Alberti did this geographically, would we see different responses in people from different parts of the U.S. and the world.

  • Joyce Slaughter

    I love your posts. I always find myself writing a novella in response to them, wanting to share stories and examples. Instead, I will simply say

    Thank you.

    • Thank you, Joyce. 🙂 And at least write that novella for yourself; it will probably be therapeutic!

      • Joyce Slaughter

        Oh, I do. Every time… I write out comments and then see I’ve filled half a page. Sometimes I copy/paste them into my evernote for my someday/maybe book 🙂

  • Patricia

    Kelly, so true, so true, so true!!! Growing up with a Norwegian/ English upbringing taught me very well how to put up a facial facade. Since I married into a Croatian family, that is much more free in expressing their feelings, I have learned so much. You post moved me this morning in many ways. Always a pleasure to read your work!!

    • Patricia, below, Cat pointed out something similar with regard to Mediterranean culture. And it’s true, my wife’s family is Portuguese, and the expression of affect is so much freer and less protected amongst them. Please give my best to your emotive Croatian kin! 🙂

    • A. Julie

      Oh gosh, totally feel you on that. Similar situation here, and I’m still learning to navigate it (and myself) in such a different paradigm.

      • Patricia

        Julie, different paradigm is right but I’ve learned to embrace the change and have found love and acceptance along the way that wasn’t always there at home. It has taken lots of time tho , we’ve been married 40 years and I’m a slow learner!’

        • A. Julie

          Thank you… there’s hope!

  • Mike Gates

    Happy Wednesday, Kelly. You’re right; this is good art.
    I really keyed on the paragraph about the cynic, dopamine, pleasure and light. As I age I find this a really interesting view of the world. Why are pleasure and light different? I’m not at a point where I’d disagree, but there seems to be a large part of American society that is against…well, fun. That is why I pose that question.
    Case in point: they make strains of marijuana for medical use with little or no THC, so you won’t experience a high. Why? I understand there might be people who react poorly to THC, but there seems to be political/marketing drivers as well. “Oh, I guess we can allow you to use this to help with your medical condition, but we don’t want you to derive any pleasure or enjoyment from it” Maybe I’m overly cynical at societal motives, but that is how I read it.
    We use worlds like freedom, love, joy, happiness often in our daily conversations, but in practical application we seem to stop really fast. Dipping our toes, rather than getting into the stream.

    • Mike, you’re right on about our confused relationship to pleasure. I wonder if that’s because we adopt one of the two extremes. Either we think pleasure is bad/evil, or we get most of our pleasure through an addictive habit. In other words, we begin to focus on one or two sources for all of our pleasure and become dependent upon them. Maybe what arises from a contemplative way of life is the awareness that life is intended to be pleasurable and that there are pleasures everywhere and in everything. Maybe that’s why the practice of gratitude has become so popular, it awakens us to this? Total stream of consciousness here, FWIW!

  • This is a wonderful reflection, JC. It would be an awesome experiment to explore what non-chemical methods could be used to elicit vulnerability and play, so that the joy would be “unadulterated.” Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun. Great video!

  • Shannon Sprague

    Truer words have not been spoken AND that seems soooo scary to put ourselves out there. Is it any wonder that people will have a drink when they get to a party and then REALLY start socializing. It helps them to let this guard down and be themselves. Why is it so hard to show our truth? Sometimes the person it’s hardest to show is ourselves. At times, when I write, I get so giddy, joyful, playful, like the child you speak of, then the minute I post a blog entry, I am insecure about it. Not always, but sometimes. I feel like a hermit crab, putting myself out there then quickly retreating back into my shell. This blog is great, thought-provoking….. Thank you for your words, thank you for your sharing and thank you for your vulnerability….

    • Shannon, the way you describe blogging resonates with me thoroughly. I’m not sure that cycle ever goes away completely, but I think it can become less intense over time. To one day not feeling like a hermit crab, raise your glass. 🙂

  • A. Julie

    “Vulnerable. Themselves. Not managing impressions. Not creating safe space.”
    That’s a blunt and spot-on description of the seemingly-requisite (and sickening, because how does integrity fit the picture? Irrelevant?) performance of professional life.
    And anywhere that managing people’s emotions and responses takes precedence over demanding that they manage their own.
    (Yes, skipping much subtlety and nuance with a comment like that…)