Origin Story – My P-p-p-p-poker face.
Can you tell what I’m thinking?
You can’t… that Christ for that!
In a world where the only privacy is within your own skull, no one should know what I’m thinking.
But I can tell what you are thinking within 5 minutes of meeting you. Sex. Fear. Love. Liar. They each have their own “smell” or tells…
With having not one but two abusive parents, I learnt the value of having a poker face. When people know what you are thinking, they can make it worse. They can play on your fears and bring you to the brink of suicide. You can’t always rely on them to make it better.
Here is my story.
When I brought home my report card, I know exactly what would happen. I would get a placid “leave it there, I’ll leave it later” and a debrief after dinner of how I fared against their expectations. I can’t recall every feeling their pride in subjects where I was doing well. I do remember feeling their disappointment of where I fucked it up.
When I fancied someone at school, I would be too obvious and would open myself to criticism. My parents would taunt me worse than the kids would at school to get me accustomed to what the other kids would say. It was torture.
I used to listen to other people’s perspectives and assume them for my own, but I would never let them know how much their perspectives hurt me. I knew that by reacting to their comments I would fuel them on. I would expose my weakness and open myself up to further hurt because it would be a button that could be pressed at anytime.
In fact, 12 months before my mothers death she would press a button that she had been pressing since I was 4. It still hurt the same. Not just because I let it, but because I always showed the face. I showed my pain and hurt and whilst it gave her knowledge that she still had a hold over me. Strangely though, there were other topics that cut deeper and hurt more violently but she never knew. She never pressed those buttons deliberately.
From the Early Years
My father was a heavy drinker and would often come home plastered at 330pm. Mum would hate his being so drunk and would taunt him. Like any inebriate, Dad couldn’t keep up with the jaunts and would often result to his fists. Secretly, I think my Mum would like it when he did. Dad would always repent as if it was his fault and couldn’t remember the provocation.
I’m not sure whether I remember this or whether it’s a memory that was originally someone else's, but I think I can remember my Mum smirking after my Dad turned his back. She had won and she knew it.
My Mum could play the dutiful wife, doting mother, passionate lover and don many other faces to help her get what she really wanted. When the tables turned and I stopped reacting to her acting faces, I became immune.
When you see someone cry, you want to comfort them.
When you see someone beam with love, you can imagine that overwhelming feeling.
What happens when that face, is nothing more than a make-believe mask that an actor is wearing. It’s a manipulation at the very core.
After years of taunting abuse from both parents, I learnt to wear a mask of indifference. I practiced it in front of a mirror. I would wear it daily. I would sit near my latest fancy and no one would know. I would receive my parents feedback on my report card and the pain of their disappointment rolled off me.
I wore the mask at school and when kids would taunt me, I gave them no reaction. I was called cold and robotic. But they didn’t stop. They kept coming again and again to try and force a reaction. My mask was strong and they got nothing.
I later wore the mask at work, in my high pressure corporate sales role. I was highly successful. I was perceived as calm and controlled and not the robot that the kids used to tease me about. When I talked people would listen. I was respected and I liked it.
I would attract strong confident men who needed a strong woman, but as I got more comfortable with them I would gradually take my mask off and I found myself being abused in so many ways. Like any “shoe”, I wanted to be able to take off the sodding things at home and relax. I couldn’t do it around my partners and it was exhausting and every partner had a self-life. I would never partner with someone where I couldn’t see the end.
Parental / Ancestral Lineage
If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.
If you’re sad and you know it, clap your hands.
If you feel anything and you know it, clap your hands.
That’s how that song should have gone…
Both sets of my grandparents were born in the wake of world war (part) one and were adults during world war (part) two. Both grandmothers were active during the war and were incredibly proud of the part they played. My paternal grandmother ran a farm in Northumberland and took charge and care of Italian POW’s. Not a single one of them tried to escape. My maternal grandmother made artillery during the day and when she wasn’t making them, she worked on the busses. After gaining her bus license, she was asked to become a transporter for the shells that she and others were making. So she transported the shells to the ships and trains after work, the woman never stopped.
Whenever I asked my grandparents how they found the energy to do what they did, all they would say was “it was a different time”…. “there was no TV and you couldn’t risk putting a light on to read a book”. There was a job that they needed to so to support those at the front, and it could be done “with a tear in your eye or a smile on your face” but it needed doing nevertheless.
As a child, I remember this having a huge effect on me… not for the millions of people who had their lives impacted by war but not understanding the mentality that this bred.
Imagine being a child and seeing your parents work endlessly, they worked their fingers to the bone and still kept going on and on. They were the original Duracell Battery!! And those born in the 40, 50, and 60’s all developed the same mentality. Think about it… born, go to school/ get an education, go to work, work hard, have a family, die.
When the people had a war to fight, there was a reason WHY we needed that mentality to survive. Those left in the UK were needed to make the weapons, artillery, tanks, steel… you name it… in order to support those who were fighting at the front. Everyone had a part to play and you needed to be on you’re a game, constantly. Getting it right was far more important then getting more done than someone. When you do a “good job” you are told to be happy, and you falsely assume that you are happy. So you smile and you get on with it. Everyone wore their own mask.
Reflection in hindsight
Fast forward a couple of decades and there is no world war – Yes the UK had the Falkland’s but that was all Maggie-T’s fault! Anyway… People are now competing with one another to get more done, higher grades, be better, earn more money… we’re finding our own version of conflict. They know HOW to do something, but don’t understand the reason for the WHY. Simply because the WHY is not theirs. This has lead to millions, billions of people being unhappy with their general lot in life but we can’t talk about it or show weakness because that would mean that we are not happy.
I grew up with this HOW. I stressed myself out as a kid to get the best grades and had a full on breakdown when I got an A instead of an A*. And I mean full on M-E-L-T-D-O-W-N at school because I couldn’t take the pressure of competition over a grade. All my parents said to me was “you don’t do that at school. That happens behind closed doors, on your own. Never show me up again”. THANKS DAD!
I ended up doing a university degree in a topic that I believed would give me the best prospects rather than something that I was passionate about, because what I wanted didn’t matter… I needed and depended on other people telling me that I was happy.
I looked to others who had nice cars, big houses in nice areas and posh clothes and saw their smile. This is what its like to be happy and I made it my life goal to get the same things that others had because then I would be happy. I took jobs I didn’t want in a profession that I didn’t care about because it fuelled the personal cash injection that I needed to have more crap.
Only the more money, bigger car, posher clothes I got, the more unhappy I became. Despite everyone telling me that I should be happy… The rip that I felt in my heart was unmistakable. THEY were wrong but I didn’t know why.
I was in my late 20’s, had a bitching career, owned my own place, new car and was single. I couldn’t keep all of the plates spinning at once and needed a partner but I couldn’t find anyone that I felt I could really let in and take the mask off for. It was always a gradual process for me in a relationship anyway, you can’t be one person today and a different person tomorrow. I needed to take my mask off and be comfortable going bare faced.
I was lonely at a whole new level. My friends were those that saw the masked me and whenever I would tease them with the real me they would comment about my sensitivity or note that they thought that I would have a different stance, opinion or view. I surprised them. I didn’t like that either. I couldn’t even take my mask off comfortably around my friends.
All I had was my fucking cat.
The last stand
When you feel torn in two from your very core being, being unable to show, share or talk about the way that you are feeling means that you just bottle everything up. With this, there comes a time where the bottle gets full and starts overflowing – for some this is called a nervous breakdown, for others it’s called losing their shit. I did both.
I started to suffer frustration and found that I was getting more and more easily frustrated. I used to be able to go a whole day without being annoyed, at this point in my life… I could barely go an hour without wanting to rip someone’s face off!
I had always loved the feeling after a workout. I felt so pumped, energized and calm. I started exercising morning, noon and night. I was ripped! I had a V next to my abs and was only 2% bodyfat away from being able to compete professionally. But I reached a point in my professional life where this no longer stopped the frustration.
Two weeks after the company I was working for was bought out, my boss left and my new boss was a guy that I interviewed with before and there was a personality conflict of epic proportions. I knew I wouldn’t fit. He made my life horrendous and I reached a tipping point where I walked out for my own mental health – but I wouldn’t make that decision now. I did walk out with my head held high and a perfect indifferent face/ mask on… with a few parting shots that made him look like a total tool. It’s probably one of the reasons why he tried to dismantle my career… just one more thing he failed at. (BTW, if you ever read this AT … this part was just for you!)
When you are so on edge all of the time, you make snap decisions that only consider immediate ramifications of the actions you (personally) take.
I needed to make this call. With what I know now, I know that the next 2 years would be the universe telling me that I needed to bin off my past and start again. I had always been so frightened of being the last person over the finish line that the prospect of starting again was terrifying.
It took me to the point of suicide. I planned it and everything.
Then someone I knew beat me to it. Everyone was shocked. No one saw this coming. We all said, “I wish I had have known how unhappy they were”, “What more could I have done?”… I saw the impact of this persons actions on others around them. All I had was a cat, but I couldn’t leave her. I knew I needed help.
I found my coach who is actually a clinical hypnotherapist and CBT practitioner… but for me she was and still is a goddess. She helped me to see that the journey is YOURS and where you are now is exactly where I am supposed to be.
I needed the years of torment as a child. The frustration I faced as an adult. The loneliness I felt as a person. I needed all of this to get me to this point. I now that the power to change and together, we removed my mask.
The person underneath was incredibly vulnerable and I didn’t like her very much. I took myself to the stage and ended up performing in three productions. I wanted a main role but was always given the obscure role that no one else wanted. I was told I was versatile and could pull anything of. Hooker. Bimbo. Predatory divorce. I nailed them all!! (No pun intended!)
I learned the value of wearing a mask, playing, acting, make-believe or however you wish to describe it. There were lots of different masks that could be worn. Lots of different personalities that could be played. If I could play them all, then why couldn’t one of them be me bare-faced.
The full learning
I remember an episode of Desperate Housewives where Brie is recalling a memory of her mother. She told her that when someone does something to upset them, smile, give them what they want from you and carry on. Hiding behind the smile is what kept her (mother) safe in an unhappy relationship and it would do the same for Brie. And it did.
Marcia Cross is an amazing actress and I saw so much of myself in her portrayal of Brie. I could see the mask come down every time she smiled. I was thankful that I was never that obvious. No one ever saw my tell of the mask, because I used to wear it so much.
I ended up living my life with the mask on and it gradually consumed me. I became someone who wasn’t me. Even when I took the mask off, I felt so uncomfortable with the person who was left underneath that I was actually repelled by her.
The mask I wore was of strength, although it was created from a position of indifference. I needed to be the person who didn’t react to anything, ever. Partner left me. Mum died. Friend died. Walked out of work. £33m contract negotiation that was going sideways. I reacted to nothing. It also meant that I couldn’t react to it later.
It’s only now that I can look back and unpick my life that I’m able to see that my mask was my armour and as I was always ready for battle, it needed to be worn.
Being comfortable without my mask came with practise. Actually, it’s one of the reasons why I don’t wear make up unless it’s a special occasion. I go bare-faced in life as a reminder to myself that my mask is off.
I don’t just have one poker face, I have a whole set that I can chose to wear when I need to appear differently to how I’m feeling.
I surprise my hubby and his family regularly when I react in different ways that they were expecting. Hey… they had the expectation, they can take the disappointment. I’m able to be true to me.
I’ve got friends. I can make new friends. I rarely wear my mask of indifference… I do often wear the mask of energy when I need to be energetic… or at least seem that way. It’s very handy when you are delivering training, speaking with a contact or simply when your child has kept you awake all night and you have to bring you’re A-Game at 9am.
Now that I know what I know, I am certainly going to teach this skill to my kids. I was never taught how to handle my emotions, I was only shown how to bury them. Being able to fend off bullies and torment by remaining un-phased is valuable. However, being able to take the mask off and be comfortable in the person that you are is of paramount importance. If this is you, check out my program “Little People, Big Emotions”. There’s lots of stuff in their for parents too.
Don’t moan about being the same as someone else. Unleash YOU and if you would like some tips on how to achieve that, grab some time in my calendar.