The masks we wear – 3

“Don’t show your teeth,” was the typical instruction to me as a kid during a photo shoot. I would close my mouth thinking it’s wrong to have protruding teeth.

Combine that with comments from bullying friends & cousins about my teeth, large eyes and small size (I was among the shortest in class), at a very early age, I felt uncomfortable with who I was physically. The inability to fight bullies compounded it leaving me feeling like a weakling.

I thought “something was wrong in me”. I was scared that no one would want to be my friend. I felt compelled to be “someone extra” just to be “acceptable”. I pretended to be this rich guy who would give out his pencils and notebooks to other kids. The guy who knew so much about many topics. The guy who was smart. The one who was self-assured and confident about himself.

By age 10, that defence mechanism was firmly in place – and it was all about covering up the real me and putting up a “fake me” the world would accept.

I was scared of failure because it would expose that I was not as good as I pretended to be. How could I allow the world to see that I wasn’t as smart as I pretended to be? So I pushed myself into areas where I won. At some point, I became too obsessed about winning. Being among the winners was a drug that I enjoyed.

Then in 1997, something happened in my life that exposed me to my insecurities completely. That year being my 12th board exam only compounded my problems. I simply didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with it. I didn’t tell anyone. I dropped out.

To come back to school again in 1998, I had to change myself. Unable to cope up, I feigned to be this kid who didn’t really care much about winning because it didn’t matter to him, when in reality, it burned me inside to not win. 1998-2004, I was this “serious, but not serious” kid. Getting into competitive situations opened me up completely to my vulnerabilities – so I maintained low profile and avoided such situations. I never let anyone know about it, and suffered inside.

In 2005, I started facing the reality. I slowly recovered to being the high performer I once was, but I was never able to go back to the pre-1997 mode. I measured myself upto that high performer in me and always felt short, no matter what I did. I turned into a workaholic. I set several goals between 2005 to 2015 – and many of them I achieved. Yet, I felt suffocated and unhappy inside.

In 2016, I set out to exploring why. Things were hardly as clear as you read above. When something is uncomfortable, your brain simply shuts it off and you forget the details. To dig it out is a lot of work and a lot of pain. I wouldn’t recommend doing it until you have built-up some mental immunity to what you will surface.

Initially, I only went in search of reasons why I couldn’t be like this pre-1997 person and why that single year impacted my life so much. Details were easily out there, but my brain would simply refuse to look at it. It took several attempts to connect the dots. Yet, resolution was evasive. Until I found Dr David Burns’ books in 2018.

Suddenly, I could connect dots. Not just back to 1997, but to much earlier.

I was “uncomfortable being the real me” and wanted to be a version the world would accept. That inner fear of rejection was covered up with “reputation” of achieving. That reputation gave me relief from the drudgery of being an inadequate weakling. Whenever that reputation was in danger, like it did in 1997, I choked. I was scared people would find out about me and sneer at me. Or worse, reject me. I was scared of rejection.

Once I knew what was really behind my miseries, I was able to work through it and make peace with myself. It did take time, serious honesty and effort. I’m glad to have done this workout.

Here’s a picture of mine from 1986. And a page from my journal from the week when I first connected all the dots backwards.

PS: Friends ask me why I felt that way because don’t look that bad in those photos. Well, circumstances, the subtle comments, bullying and certain environments can do that to anyone.

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