I have a new favorite show. It’s called Modern Love, it’s on Amazon, and it’s based on the Modern Love column from the New York Times. It’s moving and it’s lovely.
In one episode, Anne Hathaway plays a woman with bipolar disorder navigating relationships and work as best she can while swinging between her extreme mood states. As she loses a potential dating prospect and her job, she discusses how she’s hidden her mental illness throughout her life as a means of benefitting from the brilliance of her highs, while concealing her lows. This results in a life punctuated by successes, but ultimately defined by the failure to sustain any of them, including human relationships. Realizing this, and desperate to be known, she finally divulges her bipolar diagnosis to a coworker, who assures her that she would still like to pursue a friendship with her. Anne’s character says, “It’s like an elephant that’s been standing on top of me just took one foot off of my chest.”
That sounds about right to me.
Why do we hide?
Hiding parts of ourselves is routine practice. We hide because we feel that we should, or we must. Obviously, I’m not breaking new ground by suggesting that mental health diagnoses carry a stigma. They do. So do, to some degree, any and all admissions of weakness, vulnerability, and imperfection. Our culture is rather intense and unforgiving, and we don’t do a great job of making room for the human element in all of us.
There is so much pressure in this world to be perfect. There is pressure to be right, pressure to be good, pressure to be stable, and pressure to be successful. We yield to this pressure because we hope that our guise of perfection will inspire admiration from others, and more importantly, love. When love is at stake, of course we try to be what we think others expect of us. This desire to be loved is innate; I have never met a person who was not deeply invested in having loving relationships with other people.
What’s wrong with hiding?
On its face, nothing. So many of us are pretending to some degree, at least some of the time, and it’s important not to shame ourselves for this pretending, which is, of course, natural, given the stakes discussed above.
The problem is, of course, that when we win love by being perfect people, we aren’t loved for who we really are. In order to remain “perfect,” we need to conceal crucial parts of our identity, and these parts long for love and acceptance as much as the rest of us does. When only parts of us are loved, we cannot be truly known. In presenting only our perfect face to those around us, there is not a second that we can relax, because we are performing. The elephant is standing on our chest. We cannot breathe.
I don’t imagine that’s what real love feels like.
OK, so how do we stop?
We stop hiding by “outing” the bits of ourselves that we’ve been concealing, when we feel safe and ready to do so. We take a cue from Miss Hathaway, and tell another human who we are. Here’s an example of what this might look like:
A client of mine suffered with eating issues for much of her life. Eating out at restaurants was an insufferable endeavor because she had to juggle socializing like a “normal” person while talking herself through the difficulties of eating in public in her head. She dreaded going out to eat; the activity lost of all its joy. She finally decided to “out” herself to her fellow meal-takers by saying something like this before a meal:
“I have some issues with food that I’ve worked through, but I still have trouble eating in front of people sometimes. I wanted you to know this was going on in my head so I don’t have to worry about looking weird while we eat together – it helps me feel more comfortable just to say it out loud.”
This radical action liberated this woman. Per her report, she has never had anyone react with anything but respect, and no one has ever seemed shocked or put off by her statement. And, speaking her perceived “flaw” – out loud – allows her to eat meals out without being preoccupied with fearful thoughts. The thoughts have decreased significantly, in fact, since she “outed” the issue.
When we shout out our vulnerabilities (or our flaws, or our mental or physical illnesses, etc.), we draw out some of the shame and fear inherent within them. We give these hidden parts of us room to exist in the daylight, and, when the light shines on them, find that they are not as scary as we thought; not to us, and not to other people.
I know it’s not so easy to say, “Hey, I have this thing…”. I struggle with it, too. Being open and real with all the parts of ourselves is scary, and requires the uncomfortable task of grappling with the fear of not being accepted by the people that we hope might love us.
But, when we risk standing in our wholeness and revealing all of ourselves, we stand to gain so much more: the opportunity to be fully seen, to be known, and to be truly loved.