By Esther Mann, LCSW
My life is a fraud. Everyone who knows me probably thinks I am impressive in every which way. What I believe they see is someone who is mild-mannered, polite, and generally concerned with everyone’s well-being. They see an Orthodox young woman who dresses modestly, always makes berachot loud enough for others to say Amen to, and attends as many shiurim as I can push into my busy life. I visit sick people, I cook and bake for friends who have recently had babies or are otherwise in need. I walk the walk, I talk the talk. I am a perfect role model.
What no one knows, including my husband, my family, and my closest friends, is that my thoughts don’t match up to my persona. I am just not that person. I am a creation.
My parents like to reminisce and laugh at what a difficult child and even teenager I was. How I really gave them a run for their money and at times had them worried about what would be with me someday. They don’t know that at some point during my teenage years, I felt like I hit rock bottom. I saw the direction my life was taking and decided I had to re-create myself, if I was going to coexist in this world with everyone I was connected to. It’s not like I suddenly started to agree with their ideas. On the contrary. My thoughts were moving further and further away from their lifestyles and beliefs. But I knew I had to figure out a way to coexist, and so I began to behave in the ways that I knew would earn me acceptance and admiration. I became very, very good at playing my role perfectly.
When it was time to marry, I knew just the sort of young man my parents were hoping I would bring home to them to serve as their latest son-in-law and someone they could be proud of. On dates, I knew just how to act coy yet interesting and ask the boys all the right questions, and I knew exactly what the right answers were to their questions.
So here I am living what I believe to be a lie. I’m not so sure I believe in anything that I’m doing. I’m confused. I love my husband. He is a good, honest man who lives with integrity and much kindness. Sometimes I think that if he could read my mind, he would run for his life.
I love my children. They are adorable and seem to have no problem buying into everything they hear in school. They are much more accepting than I ever was as a child. I guess they take after their father.
Some days I don’t mind the facade all that much. I do what I need to do, and I have to admit that I even enjoy some of the activities that keep me so busy. And, despite myself, I even feel proud of my achievements.
But there are other days, like today, when I start feeling extremely conflicted. I wonder how I got myself into this life of mine. I start to feel as though it’s all so confining and not truly reflective of where my heart is.
But I’m not even sure where my heart is. I have so many questions and not enough answers. Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I discussed my conflicts with my husband. I can just picture the look on his face–he would be horrified. He sees me as someone close to sainthood. Do I dare to burst his bubble? Do I risk losing him?
Where do I go from here?
I tend to think that most people feel that, to a greater or lesser extent, they are in some ways impostors. Certainly, we all wear masks in our attempt to be seen in our best light. We certainly don’t go out into the world showing everyone every emotion that could compromise our most attractive selves. We smile when we are sometimes crying inside. We stop to have irrelevant conversations with neighbors, when in the back of our minds we’re consumed with fear about what the doctor has to say about our blood work. We gently inquire about the price of tomatoes, while we’re wondering if our husband may be the next one on the hit list of people to be laid off at his company.
There are other ways in which some people hide their true selves. People sometimes grapple with questions that they are unable to find suitable answers for. Though for the most part they feel secure and confident in the choices they’ve made regarding their lifestyle and belief system, there are those blips of uncertainty that arise that can feel distracting and even conflicting. Maybe for a moment or maybe it hangs around for a while, but it is the rare individual who can honestly say that he or she has absolutely never had any questions about the nature of the life they’ve chosen.
Or, putting it quite simply, does anyone really know anyone else in totality? Even the closest of spouses who adore one another may not necessarily be privy to one another’s every rogue thought, every flash of evil inclination or moment of jealousy. We all want to shine and be seen in our best light.
I suppose most people can handle the feelings of dissonance that such conflict creates. It’s a part of the human condition. But what about when the cover-up seems so huge that ultimately it leaves us feeling like total frauds? It sounds as though that’s where you’re presently holding.
I empathize with the burden this is creating in your life. Frankly, I would imagine that it’s been hard for you to hold it together for all these years, living the life intended for you, when it must have sometimes felt as though your heart was leading you elsewhere. It can’t be easy. And yet you’ve managed to marry someone who sounds like a total winner, you’ve been blessed with marvelous children, and you can even admit that some facets of your lifestyle actually bring you joy. Is it possible that maybe, just a little, you aren’t the total pretender that you feel so guilty about being? And that maybe you’ve even grown into some elements of your persona?
I think that first and foremost, you need to do a great deal of soul-searching and figure out who you really are. It’s possible you’re not as lost as you seem to believe. Maybe your bar is raised so incredibly high regarding total disclosure, that it would be virtually impossible for you to ever see yourself as the real deal. You probably should be speaking to a psychotherapist who can lead you down the road toward self-awareness and discovery. Together you may discover that the life you’re living is not as inauthentic as you seem to believe. Maybe, while you weren’t paying attention, you actually started becoming your own creation, to some degree at least. It happens.
But even after you’ve gotten a better grasp on appreciating the validity of your life, it’s going to be a tough call to decide what is appropriate and helpful to share with your husband and what is not. Ultimately, it’s often more about our deeds than our thoughts. Sounds like your deeds are terrific. And we always have the option not to believe our thoughts.
However, I question your desire and your belief that your husband needs you to be perfect (“close to sainthood”?). No one is that perfect and no one should be expected to present herself without any human flaws. It’s not realistic. So that might be a good starting point, if you decide to test the waters with him. You may want to ask him how he would feel if you weren’t in fact as perfect as you’ve always tried so hard to display. Who knows? Maybe he’ll tell you that it’s been a real burden on him living with a saint!
I also suggest that you get some spiritual guidance. Sounds like you’re struggling with some heavy-duty questions and that you would benefit from talking to someone who can help you on this particular journey. You may not get all the answers that you are seeking, but you are certain to get some.
So, you’ve got your work cut out for you. But at the end of the day, you are either one of the most dishonest people around or perhaps, ironically, one of the most honest!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.