Being Yourself: Pay No Attention to that Man Behind the Curtain!

The classic fantasy movie, “The Wizard or Oz”, provides an interesting parallel to the progression through which our illusions eventually become reality. The well-known key characters in the movie are the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy, who were respectively brainless, heartless, gutless, faceless and homeless. This sequence reflects our universally human tendency for thoughts (in the brain) to create feelings (in the “heart”), which in turn produce fears (in the gut), creating the desire to wear a mask (over one’s true face). The inevitable result is to find oneself without a home, lacking a safe harbor in which to be truly authentic. Stated another way, what one genuinely believes in the mind – whether it is true or not – has a profound effect on the heart, that is, the emotions. In turn, powerful feelings produce sometimes irrational fears, driving otherwise secure people to cower before imagined threats. These imaginary dangers then become the motivation for role-playing, hiding behind a curtain while pretending to be powerful, important, significant, wealthy, lovable, or some other supposed enhancement of an all-too-mundane (or even painful) reality. The end of this deadly downward spiral is to be homeless, the proverbial “man without a country,” one who is without a safe place to be exactly who he or she is rather than a caricature.


GRAND ILLUSION – (Problem of the mind)
LIFELONG DOMINANT EMOTION – (Problem of the heart)
LIFELONG PHANTOM FEAR – (Problem of the gut)
EXHAUSTION AND ISOLATION – (Emotional Homelessness)
FAVORITE PROTECTIVE MASK – (Creation of a new face)

If I Only Had a Brain

Each of us embarks on life’s journey as the intellectual equivalent of the Scarecrow in The Land of Oz. This is not to say that we are brainless, but that we are, to a degree, blank sheets of paper on which our parents, circumstances, and the environment will eventually write. While this tabula rasa (literally, “blank slate”) school of thought advanced by philosopher John Locke has deservedly fallen into disrepute with the advent and advances of modern neuroscience, the fact remains that environment plays a major role in a person’s development. Abusive parents, domestic turmoil, an encouraging teacher, a cataclysmic historical event, even a casual remark by an unknown person can write nearly indelible messages on the psyche. These messages grow in our early years to form mental illusions, faulty perceptions of self and the world which are then dragged into and through adult life. These childhood illusions can linger and grow for decades, leaving many adults with an inordinate level of sensitivity to the people and circumstances around them. I have been convinced for many years that most people emerge from childhood with at least one “Grand Illusion“, a distorted view of themselves and their place in the world through which all information is filtered. Reality is skewed to one degree or another for all of us, but due to each person’s distinctive upbringing and circumstances, it is uniquely skewed for each individual. For some like my friend and co-worker, Susan, in the preceding chapter, circumstances have programmed them to view themselves as being unwanted. For others it is an overriding belief that they are destined for greatness. Still others have concluded that they are inadequate, or socially unacceptable. Some feel invisible, or worry that no one can be trusted. I have identified in this book six separate and distinct ways in which the human mind commonly twists reality. A good illustration is an amusement park funhouse with half-a-dozen different specialty mirrors, one to make you look thin, another fat, another tall, another short, and so on. While there are (apparently) only six fundamental ways in which the mind distorts self-perception, there are a huge number of degrees to which the distortion can take place, and an incalculable number of combinations of the six.

If I Only Had a Heart

Problems of the mind almost always give birth to difficulties of the heart. In other words, what we think inevitably affects how we feel about ourselves, about others, and about life. Mental scarecrows invariably become emotional tin men. Said another way, a person’s “Grand Illusion” produces a “Dominant Emotion” which reveals itself as a hypersensitivity that is both predictable and mysterious. It is helpful to think of most people as “emotionally sunburned.” What is to most people a gentle tap on the shoulder is experienced as excruciating pain to one who has recently spent too much time in the sun. Likewise, warm water is perceived as scalding, and the usually-pleasant prospect of a therapeutic massage becomes terrifying. It is my belief that nearly everyone is emotionally sunburned, but only in an isolated area or two of their psyche, and these areas vary widely from person to person in accordance with formative experiences each one had in the early years of life. The dominant grand illusion determines the area of “sunburn,” and the more deeply imbedded the illusion, the more severe the pain will be. For example, a verbal jab intended as a simple tease is received well by most, but for one who already imagines himself to be socially unacceptable, the response is more likely to be anger, hurt, or embarrassment. For a few with severely sunburned sensors, the reaction could be rage, anguish, or humiliation. Being left off the invitation list to a friend’s dinner party will cause almost anyone to ask questions like, “I wonder if she’s mad at me, or doesn’t like me any more?” But saner thoughts prevail, and more realistic explanations emerge: “I’ll bet I forgot to tell her my business trip was postponed. She thinks I‘m out of town.” And these conclusions are deemed sufficient. But for one who suffers under the Grand Illusion of being unlovable, the questions lead only to more questions, then to premature and often irrational conclusions, brooding, and even depression. One who lost a parent early in life to death, divorce, or desertion may develop the grand illusion that no one can be counted on, and that all relationships are tenuous and conditional. Consequently, this person may interpret a spouse’s late nights at the office as an affair, spelling the beginning of the end of a relationship that was, their Dominant Emotion tells them, destined for failure from the start.

If I Only Had the Nerve

The dominant emotion each person harbors, in turn, begets a predictable and almost inconsolable fear that lurks in the recesses of the mind throughout life for most people. This “Phantom Fear,” as I have come to refer to it, could perhaps be identified and measured with a polygraph. A subject could be fitted with strategically located electrodes, and a series of words could be read aloud. Words like unlovable, abandonment, unwelcome, failure, rejection, insignificance, unattractive, and invisible would be prominent on such a list. With most of the words, the needle would register little or no response. But with one or two (and which one or two varies with each person), the needle would swing noticeably. For some, it would “peg”, that is, in meter-readers’ jargon, deflect beyond the farthest possible degree of the meter to measure it. The degree of deflection would, of course, correlate with how deeply imbedded the Grand Illusion, Dominant Emotion, and corresponding Phantom Fear have become. I call it a “Phantom Fear” because it is almost entirely imaginary and unfounded, at least at the time it is formed. For instance, while all of us harbor strong distaste for rejection, we have also known individuals who suffer from an inordinate fear of it, one for which there is no readily apparent explanation. Likewise, there are those who are extremely self-conscious about their appearance, even though they may be quite good-looking to any objective observer. Delightful people live in silent terror that their friends or spouse will suddenly and inexplicably desert them. Their fears are quite common, perhaps even normal, but the degree to which they feel them is anything but normal. It is greatly heightened, and often for no discernible reason. This tendency to overreact is created by the different speeds with which our minds and emotions react to various stimuli, and later return to normal. To use a military example, our armed forces normally operate at “Defense Condition 5,“ known more briefly as “Defcon 5“, which indicates a peacetime state of affairs. Progressively lower numbers indicate a greater degree of alertness, culminating with Defcon 1, maximum readiness for full-scale war. When an apparent threat suddenly intrudes into our lives, such as a mischievous friend jumping from behind a bush and shouting “Boo!,” both our minds and emotions instantaneously jump from Defcon 5 to Defcon 1. We are instantly ready to fight or flee, whichever seems more appropriate to our central nervous system at that moment. A few tenths of a second later, once the “threat” has been recognized as a hoax, the mind immediately returns to Defcon 5. But the emotions linger at 1! The heart continues to pound, adrenalin races through the blood stream, breathing remains shallow and rapid, and muscles remain tense. And ever so slowly, the emotional scale retreats to Defcon 5, peace. At this point, both the mental and emotional meters become synchronized once more, as they should be. Many years ago I was driving down Interstate 95 in Georgia when suddenly a car ahead of me swerved, spun completely around, and came to a sliding halt in the grass median, upright and unscathed. I, along with several other travelers on the same highway, stopped to offer help. I was one of the first to reach the car, and asked the lady in the driver’s seat if she was okay. She was visibly shaken, but bore no signs of injury. Still in a state of near panic, she blurted out, “I fell asleep!” Some thoughtful people who arrived at her car seconds after I did offered her a bottle of water. She politely refused, thanked them for their offer, and said, “I’m okay. I just need to sit here for a while and recover.” Recover? Recover from what? She was not injured, and her car was unharmed, save a little less rubber on its tires. It was obvious what she meant. While she knew in her mind that she was now safe, her emotional state had not yet returned to normal. Her brain had, in a matter of seconds, gone from Defcon 5 to Defcon 1, then back again. But her emotions would take much longer to recover. This difference in the speed with which our minds and emotions recover is a critical factor in understanding why we behave the way we do. Imagine for a moment you had scores of supposed “friends,” whose sole mission in life was to hide behind doors, under beds and in closets with the intent of startling you. Several times each day, at the moments you least expect, they would spring from their hiding places, shout “Boo!” and send your emotional meter off the scale. While your mind would quickly settle back to Defcon 5, recognizing that no danger exists and that these pranksters pose no physical threat at all, your emotions would never have the opportunity to return to normal before being ratcheted up once more. They would become forever “stuck” at 3 or 2, and with each successive fright the already over-stimulated emotions would “peg”. In this way events that cause most people to move from 5 to 3 on their emotional meter, cause these “stuck” individuals to move from 3 to 1, or even beyond. The telltale sign is that their response is often completely inappropriate and disproportional to the actual circumstance. Their mental and emotional meters never have the opportunity to become synchronized, as they ought to be.

If I Could Only Be Myself

Most people cope with their fears by avoiding them. They avoid taking walks alone down deserted streets in the dangerous parts of town. They steer clear of rattlesnakes in the wild. They hold dutifully to handrails on steep stairwells. This, of course, is a normal and laudable means of handling genuine fears. But avoidance is a foolish way to handle Phantom Fears, ones that exist only in the mind and actually pose little or no threat at all. The “emotionally sunburned” person is often unable to distinguish between a stroll with friends in Manhattan’s Central Park on a sunny, crowded day and a walk alone through the deserted park late at night. Both hold equal terror for them. Avoiding the park altogether does, indeed, protect them from their fear of being mugged, but it also robs them of the benefits afforded by the park. Similarly, a Phantom Fear of being abandoned can be easily dealt with by avoiding all intimate relationships. But by using this method of preventing abandonment, the joys of intimacy are also lost forever. As a defense mechanism, the illusion-bearer often tries to “solve” this dilemma by exchanging his or her real personality for one they believe is less likely to be abandoned. The most common unhealthy strategy for avoiding Phantom Fears (rather than effectively eliminating them) is pretense. For example, when the Wizard of Oz feared that his country charm was inadequate for ruling a city, he went to great lengths to create the illusion of power. Hiding behind a curtain, frantically pulling levers and turning cranks, he posed as one seemingly impervious to the charge of being inadequate or weak. The Brainless, Heartless, and Gutless have now predictably become Faceless. The mask chosen by any given individual will represent that person’s attempt to avoid his or her greatest Phantom Fear. This strategy almost never works; usually it makes the problem worse. The price of wearing a mask is high. It is frequently paid in the currency of exhaustion, addiction and loneliness.

If I Only Had a Home

Perhaps an absurd illustration will be enlightening. Suppose that you were to feel an overwhelming desire to be perceived as a rabbit. Your first order of business would be to purchase a rabbit costume. But merely acquiring such a disguise would be the easy part; the costume must now and forever be regularly cleaned, pressed, and maintained. You would also have to change the way in which you travel, being forced to “hop” around the office each day. You would have no choice but to alter your diet, trading in your filet mignon for carrots and lettuce. You would need, as well, to have a huge family! All of these steps would be essential to the task of maintaining the facade, and the strain of doing so would eventually become tiring beyond words. 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. Eventually, those who wear masks and play roles long to be alone. They dread contact with other people because in the presence of others they must take great pains to preserve their “rabbit” image. Life has become a stage on which they perform a live juggling act, a frenzied performance from which the only respite is solitude. Anyone who might get too close must be pushed away, for fear that they’ll notice the fake whiskers, or see a bit of human flesh along the edges of the eye holes, and ask, “Are you really a rabbit?” They have befallen the same fate as the Wizard of Oz, isolated, playing the part of his own driver and doorman, hiding behind a curtain designed to keep others at arm’s length in order to avoid exposure. But there, behind that curtain, there is a visceral, if inauthentic, sense of solace and peace. There, behind the curtain they can peel away the rabbit fur and feel the air on their skin. There, they can walk unencumbered as a human being should. There, they can eat lasagna and enchiladas and apple pie a la mode. There, they can voice their real opinions, even if only to themselves. There, and only there, they can be themselves. Ironically, by acting like the Wizard, they have become like Dorothy, homeless. There is no community, no family, no safe and secure place where they can be accepted, embraced and loved for who they really are. Hiding behind his curtain, The Wizard has become the proverbial “man without a country.” It is behind the curtain (the mask) that life gradually begins to unravel. The exhaustion of wearing the mask, coupled with the lonesome existence it necessitates, becomes the breeding ground for a host of destructive habits. Bereft of intimate relationships and the freedom that comes from authenticity, a vacuum is left in the “homeless” individual’s personality. Into the vortex of this vacuum a thousand methods of self-destruction may be drawn. In desperate need of personal contact, but unable to take the “risk” of genuine intimacy, a secret life of affairs, hiring of prostitutes, or pornography addiction begins. In urgent need of pleasure to offset the drudgery of the never-ending vaudeville act that has become his public life, the modern-day Wizard of Oz retreats into compulsive gambling, shoplifting, or overspending. The desperate desire for relief leads him into alcoholism, drug addiction, or a host of other escapes intended to temporarily deaden the pain. The eventual collapse of such a person is inevitable. Whether through medical problems, public humiliation, or arrest, exposure is unavoidable. It is inescapable because the relief that comes with exposure is the unconscious goal of the behavior that causes the disintegration of one’s life to begin with. Man’s Best Friend For me, the hero of “The Wizard of Oz” is the little dog, Toto. What the Wizard has feared most – exposure as a mere mortal – is revealed by the crafty canine to be more liberating than terrifying. His curtain turns out to be more of a self-imposed prison than a protective shield. By merely pulling back the curtain, Toto has set the Wizard free to enjoy the full benefits of relationships, authentic living, and reality. Within minutes of his exposure, his frightening persona has been transformed into one of generosity and encouragement. And he is soon on his way…. home. For this reason, I offer the following advice: “Pay More Attention to that Man behind the Curtain.” Pay enough attention, indeed, to recognize the curtain as the inevitable jail cell created by those who choose to live their lives as illusionists. And pay enough attention to perceive disillusionment as your last and best hope for a jailbreak, your final opportunity to disrupt the relentless inertia that propels your illusions to become a new, frightening and agonizing reality.

Written by billyriggs