Cue carnival music.
The Puppet Show
First off, this isn’t an original idea. Throughout history, cultures have used masks to represent themselves. They have taken archetypes of cultural roles, carved masks out of wood, and pretended to be someone or something else. In the States, we do it on stage and for holidays like Halloween. In psychology, this has been coined by Winnicott as the False Self. The false self is a representation of ourselves that we present to the world, in an effort to protect our authentic self that we fear will not be accepted by others.
Julie started thinking about the false self early in her psychological training and how it played out in her own life. It’s common among perfectionists (Julie is a recovering perfectionist, who still falls off the wagon now and again) to have a false self that they portray to others. The unfortunate cliche of the cheerleader who kills herself is a tasteless but real example. Friends and family say how she was a model student and “such a happy person” but inside she suffered with a darkness that didn’t become apparent until she showed it to us through death. Tragic. We don’t live in a world that’s very tolerant of dysfunction and the deeper authenticity of our dark side. Take examples like superstars who are trashed in the tabloids as “train wrecks,” “drug addicts” and “out of control.” They may have been beloved cupcake stars of Disney films and are now disdained and insulted when they cannot live up to our ideals of model behavior. We’re so intolerant. In our intolerance most of us learn: run, hide, only show your false self. This is when we jump onto the stage for The Puppet Show (as the carnival music still plays).
Julie started labeling it The Puppet Show for her own life. She became acutely aware of the times she was being inauthentic and only presenting a false self in the world. To catch herself she’d say: How am I in the puppet show? How am I not myself? The puppet show can present all sorts of problems. They’re usually relational problems (as most problems are) and you become a puppet with another person. When you show your false self, you are both the puppet and the puppeteer.
How to Tell if You’re on Stage for The Puppet Show
Are speaking with a distance in your voice, or speaking in your upper register?
Are you pretending to be what another person wants you to be?
Are you lying about yourself?
Are you hiding something about who you are?
Are you lacking any interest in relating to someone, but relating to them anyway?
Are you irritated that the other person doesn’t know who you truly are?
Are you angry that the person cannot just read your mind to know what you want?
If you answered Yes to any of these questions, it may have been a Puppet Show moment. Most of us don’t live in the Puppet Show all the time, and if we do, we are in a lot of pain and we know it. It’s not uncommon for example, for people struggling with issues around their homosexuality to be feeling shame or fear of cultural stigma. Again, our world can be quite intolerant, so this struggle is only natural. The coming out process becomes a challenge of the true self versus the puppet show… will the person share their newfound identity, or will they remain in hiding to avoid the possible backlash?
Despite our dislike for living in the puppet show, we do not advocate full transparency, either. There is a great slogan coming out of the recovery community that helps with this: Restraint of pen and tongue. Meaning, if you have a tendency to just unload your whole boundary-less world onto other people, you may want to show some restraint. The difficulty is that we need to create a balance and also honor our public face, which is important for boundaries. Partly why superstar addicts with a lack of boundaries get trashed in the tabloids is because they have no boundaries and they overexpose themselves. Most of us are afraid of people with a lack of boundaries. Murderers lack boundaries in an extreme way– they don’t know the separation between our body and theirs. In keeping with the Halloween theme: A deep lack of boundaries is creepy. Finding a balance, and learning to determine when to acknowledge The Puppet Show as useful (versus harmful) is very important.
Honor Your Authentic Self With Boundaries
Know your authentic self and honor it. By honoring it we mean, know it for yourself and find internal acceptance for it. Much of the time, we don’t know ourselves and we deny our feelings out of fear. You may want to run yelling through the streets of the Vatican naked and greased up in butter, but in all likelihood you’ll get arrested and be miserable about it. Perhaps that feels like an authentic moment, but does the deeper you want to be arrested? Is it truly authentic to your whole being? If so and you do want to be arrested, then honor the rebel in yourself without acting on it. Tell someone about it. Write about it. Make a drawing of it. Stage a claymation dramatization of it. Being authentic can exist without being destructive.
If you still insist that running down the street in butter is your true calling, then we ask you to ask yourself: What authority are you angry at? People with a deeper lack of boundaries are usually very angry at an authority figure who controlled them.
It’s Not All Cupcakes and Rainbows
On a final note, just before we were going to post this, we had an interesting social experience. We were with a brilliant friend of ours who is gifted at honoring his very dark side (to the degree that he spooks some people). He is also a very grounded, happy person, who is a fantastic parent and he lives with a real satisfaction in life. We took him to a local place that has a lopsided self-help, New Age bias towards everything being Love & Light. The employees wear sugar-coated glazed over looks on their faces and it’s as if you killed a puppy if you present a mood that is at all grumpy or frustrated. No, we don’t want to tell you how we are Magical or Luscious. Our friend became uncomfortable. It opened up a very fruitful discussion about how in society we aren’t allowed to be truly whole people with both a dark side and a light side. Even poor Skywalker wasn’t allowed to embrace the dark with the light. We want to understand this.
If you think life has to be all positive cupcakes and rainbows… check in with yourself. What part of yourself might you be disowning? What puppet are you playing? Cupcake? If you think life is all dark, pessimistic and painful, then you too may be in another version of the puppet show. How can you embrace a lightness in your life? What unspoken authentic self are you masking everyday, including Halloween?