William Riggs

Few things will so sap your joy as consistently behaving in a manner that is inconsistent with whom you really are, because the distance between what you believe and what you do will ultimately be measured in depression. There exists in the heart of each person a longing to find and be the “real me” and to know the “real you.” Yet, societal pressures frequently demand that the real me be concealed, modified or shoved deep inside, hidden from view in order to conform to outside standards and appear more socially acceptable. Those same pressures make it difficult for me to know other people intimately because they are beset by the same pressures. We constantly feel demands to regulate our thoughts, our feelings and our words to the degree that much of life feels stilted and artificial. This effect is worsened when the charade is maintained even among our closest loved ones. The degree of difference between the mask and our true face, along with the percentage of time it is worn determine its weight on the soul, and the strain of maintaining the façade can extract a terrible toll on the psyche.

Imagine the stress level of an escaped prisoner living in a distant city under an assumed identity. Each day, a disguise must be donned and carefully evaluated for thoroughness. Every few days hair must be dyed to cover tell-tale roots and conceal their true color. The Bronx accent must be meticulously hidden and morphed to sound like that of a true Southerner, or vice versa. Cover stories must be carefully memorized and rehearsed. Every possible question that a neighbor might conceivably ask must be anticipated so that convincing responses can be prepared in advance. Wardrobes must be altered to blend into the new environment. Scars and tattoos must be carefully covered up. Each time a siren blares in the distance or a police cruiser passes on the street the fugitive breaks out in a cold sweat and considers whether he should sprint down a nearby alley or walk calmly to avert suspicion. Every location he visits must be constantly evaluated for potential escape routes. A fake driver’s license and Social Security card must be obtained. “What if the Feds call my boss to ask about the bogus number?” he worries. “Can the person who forged the documents be trusted with my secret?” the escapee wonders as he drifts off to a fitful sleep each night. With every noise he awakens with a jolt, sits up in bed, and strains to listen in the dark for footsteps as his heart pounds within him. A quizzical glance from a stranger or coworker makes him wonder: “Do they suspect something? Is it time to bolt for another city and begin the charade all over again with yet another identity?” Such is the plight of any pretender.

The consternation level of those who habitually wear masks differs only in degree from that of the fleeing criminal. Keeping track of which lies were told to whom, finding opportunities to sneak away to pursue pet addictions and covering one’s tracks consumes so much of the conscious mind’s activities that the rest of life suffers. Rather than simply being who we are, which is effortless and liberating, we instead siphon energy from other important endeavors and exhaust ourselves acting out a part on a stage, projecting to the world a self that is quite different from reality. A Broadway actress plays a role for a few hours of rehearsal each day and a couple of hours each night. That is her “work.” When the play is over, however, she can cast aside the role, leave it at the theater and return to normal life on the streets as herself. But for the pretender, the mask must we worn almost constantly. As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage.” Like a man singing, “A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” he quickly tires of the task, but is compelled to trudge on endlessly, and his enthusiasm ebbs slightly with each verse. The pretender’s entire existence becomes work, a marathon improv act on which the curtain almost never closes, and fatigue slowly gives way to utter exhaustion even as the act becomes less and less convincing.

The longer the veneer is held in place, the wider the resultant gap between the public persona and the private self grows, ultimately becoming a yawning chasm which threatens to swallow the pretender. Life has become a stage on which the perpetual actor performs a live juggling act, a frenzied performance from which the only respite is sleep or solitude. He sleeps long after daybreak whenever possible, dreading the moment when he must once again don the mask and go back to his “job” as an actor – an actor playing the role of someone who looks exactly like him and shares his name, but has little else in common with him. Predictably, those who wear masks and play never-ending roles long to be alone. Only then does the curtain fall and the spotlight fade. Contact with other people is rarely enjoyable, because in the presence of others great pains must be taken to preserve the public image. Anyone who might get too close must be pushed away for fear that they might accidentally get a peek behind the mask and alert others to the charade. And so, the perpetual actor becomes a living cuckoo clock, only coming out when the schedule demands, then hiding away again until the next appointment requires him to reemerge. But there in the darkness, away from prying eyes, there is a visceral, if inauthentic, sense of solace and peace.

There, hidden from view, the pretender can peel away the mask and feel the air on his face. There, he can do anything he pleases without regard for scripts or directors or audience expectations. There, he can voice his real opinions, even if only to himself. There, he is free of societal mores and pointless rules and disapproving looks. His sense of liberation is palpable when he is out of view from prying eyes. His public life has become one of carefully concealed pent-up frustration and desperation. But in private, everything is different. In private – and only in private – he is free. Little does he know that these brief windows of freedom are destined to send him careening down the road to slavery, for there – where no one is watching – life begins to unravel. Because his life in public has become so devoid of joy and beset by restrictions and regulations and expectations, those few hours outside the spotlight will be used to squeeze in all of the joy and pleasure he is missing out on in his public life. In so doing, he plants the seeds of his eventual demise.

When he is alone, the Pretender can tune in whatever he pleases on television, view whatever he desires on the internet, drink whatever he likes from the liquor cabinet or eat whatever he chooses from the refrigerator. He can watch the Home Shopping Network for hours at a time, credit card in hand, and never fear the judgmental scowls of those who know only his public self. He can eat an entire bag of Oreos, or a half-gallon of ice cream, or both. If he chooses, he can don a hat and dark sunglasses and travel to a casino or brothel where no one knows him. He can give his drug dealer a call and arrange a clandestine meeting. He can call a fellow-Pretender and meet her for a secret tryst. And every time he exercises his apparent freedom, the gap between the man he is and the man he appears to be widens. What began as a crack in the earth is broadening into a gaping canyon, and with each passing week the task of straddling it becomes more difficult. The day will inevitably arrive when doing so is no longer possible, and then the collapse must come.

As the chasm widens the Pretender’s isolation must, of necessity, increase with it. Every passing month brings him closer to outright addiction, requiring an ever increasing investment of his resources to satisfy his cravings, anaesthetize himself to his pain and recover from his binges. Even if his secret remains hidden, the rest of his life begins to suffer. The time and energy expended by the private self in his veiled activities must be chiseled from somewhere else. He spends less time on his marriage, his family and his job. Or he burns the candle at both ends, playing his role during the day while pursuing his addictions as a nocturnal creature. But even this is only a short-term fix, because the lack of sleep will eventually expend all the energy he needs to maintain the public act. In the long run, the end is predictable.


The beginning of the end almost invariably comes in the form of public exposure. An arrest, the noisy departure of a spouse, an abrupt termination from work or a trip to a rehab clinic will thrust the spotlight where it was never supposed to be: on the private reality. At that point, the Pretender is forced to choose: will he be the man he actually is or the man he has played onstage? Or – and there is this third option – will he begin the long and arduous task of reforming the man he actually is, gradually becoming the man he ought to be, the highest expression of whom he is as a human being? Will he then experience that grand 24-hour-a-day sense of relief that is only known by those who are authentic?

The road to authenticity is simultaneously both painful and delightful; removing the mask is threatening, yet liberating. There is, of course, the risk that those who knew only the public façade will be shocked by the “new” reality and withdraw their friendship. They might even fire or divorce you, but those people and spouses and coworkers will generally be replaced by friends who will happily relate to the real you. Like the Wizard of Oz, who preferred to be seen as “great and powerful,” being exposed as a mere mortal actually resulted in a new and better reality. Freed from the burden of the curtain and the illusion of omnipotence it provided, he is portrayed as charming, winsome and inviting. People don masks in order to gain an advantage, that is, to be more respected, attractive, appealing, or employable. However, the weight of the mask always outweighs the benefits accrued. Eventually, the mask morphs into a burden to be borne, not an asset to be enjoyed. For this reason, one must think long and hard before donning the costume at all.


The easiest path to authenticity may be enjoyed only by the young, for they have the enviable once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to start down the correct path from the very beginning. Anticipating the unavoidable pain the mask brings to all who wear it, the young person may simply choose the better path. He or she can opt to tell the truth, expressing freely his or her hopes, fears, doubts, interests and desires, while largely disregarding their societal implications. Of course, if those predilections and ambitions are illegal, then all bets are off. In that case, one might be better served to choose the path of secrecy knowing that the weight of the mask, though heavy, would be far surpassed by the trauma of a prison sentence. However, assuming that your goals leave you safely within the confines of the law, honesty is still the best policy.

From the annals of the pre-Civil War U.S. Army there is the remarkable story of Dr. James Barry. As a mere lad of eighteen he enlisted in the armed forces with the request that he be assigned – though with no experience at all – to hospital work. He quickly ascended through the ranks to become assistant surgeon, Surgeon Major, then Deputy Inspector General and, finally, Inspector General. After nearly a lifetime of devotion to medicine and to the army, he had become the highest ranking medical officer in the entire U.S. Army. On July 25, 1865 he passed away and only in death did he reveal the secret he had carried through more than a half-century of dedicated service to his country and to humanity. It was a secret never remotely suspected by any of his coworkers or the aide who served him for many years. “He” was a woman! Needless to say, Dr. Barry’s secret would have required an enormous amount of effort to hold other people at arm’s length and resulted in a lonely existence. The maintenance of a veneer necessitates that no one be allowed to scratch beneath the surface.

As a young woman, “James” Barry made a decision to appear to be something she was not and, despite outward career successes, thereby sentenced herself to carry a huge personal burden she could never share with anyone else. No one will ever know the inner turmoil she must have suffered, and the lengths to which she was forced to go to hide her secret. Obviously, marriage was out of the question; no one could be allowed in her bedroom. Contact with family members who knew her a girl must be carefully managed or cut off altogether. Those who know the truth must be forever kept away from those who don’t. Public restrooms and locker rooms would carry their own complications. Her human (and particularly female) need for emotional intimacy would never be met; at best she could enjoy only the illusion of it. Perhaps she initially assumed that her charade would only last for a few months before she moved to a new town and a new job and resumed her true identity. Maybe she fantasized about showing up at the hospital in a dress and blowing her coworkers’ minds with the truth. But choices create inertia, and take on a life and power of their own. Like a bandage over a bloody wound, with time masks become ever more painful to tear away.

The longer one’s mask is in place, the more traumatic the removal of it will be. With each passing year, the mask-wearer becomes more firmly and inextricably bound up with the people and institutions which approve and applaud the values that are only insincerely espoused by the Pretender. As time passes, his seniority in those organizations or societies increases. He finds himself pressured into accepting leadership roles – even if merely unofficial ones – in the groups that genuinely champion the causes and beliefs that he secretly doubts or rejects. He openly gives lip service to those ideals and values while privately wishing he could be with those who hold his same values. As he publicly “toes the party line” he inwardly feels a growing sense of guilt and dissatisfaction that will eventually morph into resentment and depression. Far better it is to abjure that path from one’s youth, choosing the trail of congruity and faithfulness to one’s true self and ideals. More than four centuries before the birth of Christ, Socrates said, “Better that the mass of mankind should disagree with me and contradict me than that I, a single individual, should be out of harmony with myself and contradict myself.” Learning this lesson as a young man or woman is one of life’s greatest blessings.


Only rarely do people deliberately choose (as Dr. Barry did) to behave one way while being or believing in something radically different. A far more common scenario involves being raised to believe in a certain religion or political system or act a particular way and only gradually being persuaded that this inherited belief system is false, or at least inharmonious with your personal values or viewpoint. In such a case, there is no conscious decision to wear a mask. On the contrary, the person’s public persona and private reality are initially identical. However, as doubts arise and are not voiced, slowly the two diverge from one another. At first, the difference between the two is so tiny as to be indiscernible. But gradually the inner person crumbles and changes, leaving the outer appearance apparently unchanged. Yet what was once a true face has been degraded into a mere shell. As in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the person looks and sounds exactly the same as before and carries out much the same daily routine, only with strange inconsistencies. The unsuspecting family members of the newly zombified notice minor differences in behavior, and worry that something is amiss, but can’t quite put their finger on what has changed. Only much later do they realize that the person within has been replaced by someone very different. While the appearance is essentially the same, this is merely camouflage; the thoughts, values and morals of the inner person have altered dramatically. In public, the person’s behavior is much the same as it has always been. He travels in the same circles, still shows up for his Saturday-morning softball games and lunches with the same coworkers. But in secret, who knows what this alien-in-disguise may be doing? Calling the home planet? Cavorting with other closeted extraterrestrials? Plotting the overthrow of the planet? The person is no longer truly at home when he is physically at home. He has been “alienated.” Pun intended.

This process of “alienation” is one almost all can relate to, for no one believes as an adult exactly as they did in their formative years. Idealistic college students who protested fervently for liberal causes grow into forty-year-olds with families and mortgages and a conservative approach to life. Black-and-white issues tend to morph into gray as more information is gathered and sifted. Certainties about religious dogmas over the years tend to give way to doubts as reality fails to match expectations. The straight-laced religious teenager rejects those mores and enters a midlife crisis in which anything goes. Or, the opposite may happen: the wild, rebellious teenager might reform his ways and settle into a pew at church. As these inevitable changes and adjustments begin to take place in the mind, a choice arises. The doubts and questions can be openly acknowledged and voiced or they can be hidden. In the latter case, a mask is formed, meaning that close relationships with those who still hold the same belief system must be modified. Those people must be fooled into believing no substantive change has taken place. It is far better to voice those doubts as they occur and remain transparent and authentic. But what about those who have already worn the mask for an extended length of time?


Any reasonable person knows that there are certain situations in which the pain of wearing the mask, though potentially severe, might still be greatly outweighed by the consequences of removing it. For example, a Muslim who ceases to believe in Allah might be killed for his apostasy should he be so foolish as to admit his change of heart publicly. A woman who strayed in the past might lose her family if she acknowledges the affair, even one that took place years ago. She carries guilt over the rendezvous, but the pain of breaking up her home – and the damage it would cause her children – would be far greater. Or an actor in Hollywood might come to the conclusion that the liberal politics that dominate his profession are untenable, but to announce his newfound conservatism might end his career. In such cases, a middle-of-the-road approach is to be desired over detonating a truth bomb in the name of total honesty. Contrary to the adage, honesty may not always be the best policy. Sometimes it is second-best. Simply because something is true does not mean that it must be stated aloud. There are, regrettably, occasions when putting on a mask briefly is clearly the lesser of two evils.

When forced into circumstances such as this, strive not to tell an outright lie. It is one thing to avoid revealing private information about yourself. It is another thing entirely to knowingly say something that isn’t true. Determining what degree of self-disclosure is warranted in any given situation is your right as a human being. The public has no right to know what you believe and value unless you are running for office or applying for an influential government job. Do not allow yourself to feel guilty over concealing personal information when the intent is not to deceive, but simply to avoid conflict or causing unnecessary suffering. You have the freedom to reveal or conceal whatever you please, using your best judgment to determine whether revealing the evolution that has taken place in your belief system would cause more stress than concealing it will. Wearing a mask is less than ideal, but is sometimes unavoidable for those who started down a path they no longer wish to travel. Total authenticity is a goal, but it is for most people an unattainable fantasy, a utopian vision that may be approached but never reached. Yet, the closer you come to it, the more at peace you will be with yourself and your situation.

When possible, it is wise to avoid situations in which you would feel it necessary to live a lie or to say things you do not believe. To use an extreme example, if you were once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but have now concluded that discrimination is wrong, it would be wise to avoid KKK rallies in which you would be expected to wear a white robe and recite racist slogans. Perhaps you were once a devout Mormon, but no longer believe. You might find it unavoidable to attend services on Sunday morning to keep the peace in the family. While uncomfortable for you, it might be less painful than renouncing your faith publicly and letting the chips fall where they may. Such a decision would result in being excommunicated, shunned by family and friends, and exiled from the community. Therefore, it is a reasonable decision to sit quietly in the pew and say little. However, accepting a leadership role in the service, leading prayers to a god you no longer believe exists would cross the line into outright deception.

The choice to reveal the true you to the world is one that must be made carefully, because it cannot be undone. It is impossible, once a person has “come out of the closet,” to go back into it, unless you are willing to sever all your relationships and make a new start in another place. If the expected consequences of self-revelation are truly grave, as in the two examples in the above paragraph, the mask may be an acceptable burden to bear. After all, martyrs may be admired for their courage, but they’re still dead! But this is rarely the case. Usually, the consequence of disclosing the real you to the world is merely one of a few weeks of discomfort and awkwardness. In such circumstances, one cannot get rid of those masks too quickly, for every day that you continue in your false persona will increase the pain of revelation for you, and the feelings of shock and betrayal among your friends and family.


Happiness and relief come when your secret is shared and others are forced into making a choice. Eventually, they will either accept you and love you for who you really are or they will withdraw from you. But those family members and friends who choose to do the latter were never (or, at least, have not lately been) really close to you, anyway, were they? They were close to the person whose character you played. They loved a caricature of you, not you. They loved a fictional character. They adored the James Bond they saw, but never met Sean Connery or even knew he existed. Once the role has been stripped away, it need never be played again. This very fact constitutes a huge weight that has been removed from the shoulders of the erstwhile pretender. The time, energy and mental effort engaged in for years to hide the real you may now be directed toward other endeavors.

Attempts to repress your true nature frequently result in depression, which in turn can cause psychosomatic illness, low self-esteem and even suicide attempts. Depression for the Pretender is a cocktail made up of more-or-less equal parts guilt, isolation and frustration. The shame over living a lie and then telling lies to cover one’s tracks amasses layer upon layer of guilt that settle to the bottom of the soul and harden like sedimentary rock. Added to these layers is the remorse felt for the secret behaviors, themselves, if one believes them to be wrong. For a few, the secret behavior in not evil in any way, such as the undercover Christians who meet in secret to avoid prosecution in China. There is no guilt in choosing your own religion or lack of it. Nevertheless, the fear of exposure still exerts a gravitational pull on the psyche that tends toward depression. For most, clandestine behaviors are those that are either morally wrong, damaging to self or others, or at least frowned upon. Cheating on one’s spouse, gambling oneself into serious debt, drinking heavily, watching pornography, overeating in secret or taking drugs fall into this category. Even for those who are not addicted, the Twelve Step formula for alcoholics is helpful in the process toward becoming authentic.

Step Four of the procedure is to make “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” By honestly looking in the mirror and stating in no uncertain terms what we are, making no excuses and offering no justification or defense for our actions, we might finally get a clear picture or whether serious change is called for. A critical part of this procedure is to make a list of all the people you have wronged and recall specifically how your actions caused them to be hurt. Before you announce to the world your true identity, you must decide whether and how you will change. If you have been a habitual drug user, will you come clean, renounce drug use altogether and enter a rehab clinic, or will you continue your drug use – just in the open – and simply expect others at accept your addiction? If you have been a homosexual, will you divorce your spouse and pursue a different lifestyle, or will you restrain your impulses and try to make the marriage work? If you’ve been drinking in secret, will you become a teetotaler or simply bring your habit into the open for all to see? Once this decision has been made, the final step toward authenticity is possible.

The methods available to you to revealing your true self publicly vary like the stars. There is the all-at-once public proclamation. In March of 1977, Heavyweight boxer George Foreman lost a fight to Jimmy Young in Puerto Rico. Back in the locker room, he had a dramatic conversion experience, after which he proclaimed that he was leaving boxing to become a preacher. The transformation was sudden, public and dramatic, and rocked the boxing world. Similarly, (but in the reverse direction) in 1984 a well-known Christian songwriter and preacher, Dan Barker, sent 50 letters to his closest friends, family and coworkers, along with his publisher announcing that he had become an atheist. The proclamation sent shock waves throughout the Christian world, at least in America. Most of his friends abandoned him, along with his still-devout wife. But years later, these relationships had all been replaced by new ones, allowing him to live openly with his newfound belief, or lack of it. The famous playwright, David Mamet, had been a left-wing liberal for his entire life, but rethought his position. He announced his “conversion” to conservatism in a 2008 Village Voice article entitled, “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal.” Each of these men stepped out on the proverbial branch and publicly sawed it off. But your announcement need not be as earth-shattering as these.

For most, becoming authentic means privately revealing your true self to those closest to you, asking them for compassion and understanding, and appealing for their help in your quest to become an authentic person. Perhaps a long talk with each of your loved ones over a cup of coffee will be the best setting in which to bring your secrets into the open. You need not broadcast your revelations to the world; just answer questions honestly when they come up. Don’t try to hide the truth from others. Spice your conversation with comments that casually reveal your predilections and weaknesses and others will get the message. When no attempt to hide your true nature is made, an enormous load is removed from your psyche, permitting you to become congruent, one whose inner reality and outer reality are the same. To do so is an essential step in becoming a happy, influential and successful person.

William Riggs

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