Masks We Hide Behind

I’m always a little reluctant to recycle art activities because some of the women have done them before and I don’t want them to be bored. But this week I learned the value of repeating a therapeutic art piece as a marker of healing and transformation for some. For others it was a first time exploration of the masks they hide behind and the real self they hope to present to others as they move through their recovery process at the Lighthouse, a fifteen-month, faith-based, residential treatment program for women recovering from substance abuse.

This was Denise’s second time creating the mask she hides behind. She had abruptly left the program a number of months ago. Thinking she could make it on her own, working out of her own energy, her plans fell through. She found herself, once again, on the street with her young daughter. Denise’s created her false self as a visual mask divided between the happy persona she shows to the world with a bright pink ribbon and a blue background of happiness and the purple segment with a weeping eye. The eyes were painted black she shared so that others couldn’t see what she was really feeling. Interestingly, her mouth is undivided suggesting perhaps she also doesn’t give voice to those inner feelings of sadness and tears.  Denise has returned to the program knowing she can’t go it alone, especially spiritually.

For Peaches, this was her first opportunity to create the mask she hides behind. According to her, her yellow face represents her jaundiced view of those who say they love her. By brown nosing and wearing a big smile she has learned to tolerate the intolerable and accept the unacceptable. We talked about how tolerance and acceptance can be positive qualities for a person, there is also the importance of drawing good boundaries with others so that we don’t experience the inexcusable.

Probably the most dramatic second go at this art activity was created by KK. I remember complimenting her on her honesty when she first painted the entire surface of her folder black adding only small sparks of color that represented her children. I know little of her story other than she came from the Rescue Mission shelter down the street with her kids in tow and that she was very quiet and withdrawn. At one point she exited the program and returned to the shelter. Back for a number of months now, we’re experiencing sweet changes in her. When I checked on this most recent mask she hides behind, it was substantially different than the first. The black area representing stress and pain is smaller and more precisely defined.

When I commented on the difference between this false self mask and the prior one, she enthused, “I just love art class. It’s my favorite class. I get angry when I have to miss it!” I teased her that must surely be righteous anger, but went on to inquire what was different in her life that would encourage her to paint a more introspective image of her false self. I loved her response. “I’ve learned to forgive others.” Even the  image of her current false self contains the graced hope of a rainbow. The true self she wants to show the world is very different than anything she’s drawn in the past. Basking in the warmth of the sun, eyes wide open, a great toothy smile, she stands on a hilltop with dancing arms. I’m not sure, but the flowers may represent her kids. They are drawn with more painted detail than ever before.

As she shared her self images with the other ladies at the Lighthouse she could acknowledge the pain that has already been healed. She could recognize through her art that her life is being transformed by grace. Friday KK was measuring her recovery with Sharpies, watercolor, and collage. It’s no wonder art is her favorite class.

If you were to paint the mask you sometimes hide behind, what would it look like? What might it have looked like ten, twenty or thirty years ago? What are the signs of transformations that might grace the current image of your true self? If you were to make a simple sketch of your longed for true self in a journal, what would it look like?

I hope you’ll share this with others so we can all begin to take off our masks with one another.

Looking forward to your comments.



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