In the 1950s and ‘60s, a sadistic social psychologist named Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments on the role of love and nurturing on attachment and social belonging, using rhesus monkeys as his subjects.
Harlow took baby monkeys from their mothers shortly after birth and placed one monkey in a cage with a wire "monkey" and another in a cage with a wire "monkey" covered in terrycloth. Harlow’s theory was that infants did not develop attachments solely because they were provided food from their mothers (a theory common among behavioral psychologists), but because of the tactile comfort mothers provided their babies. After about 90 days, Harlow then placed the baby monkeys into the general monkey population, and watched their behavior.
Neither group of monkeys (Harlow repeated this experiment several times) fared well socially once placed in monkey communities. But the baby monkeys raised by the wire monkey surrogate were by far the most socially compromised. They were timid, socially awkward, passive (and thus often bullied), had tremendous difficulty mating, and many of the female babies grew up to be disconnected mothers. The longer the babies remained with the wire surrogate, the more profound and permanent their social difficulties were.
I believe many of us were raised by wire monkeys. And as a result we developed many behavioral patterns that may have served us quite well during our childhoods, but did not prepare us for authentic social connections and deep attachment as adults.
We may have learned to be defensiveness, fiercely protective our emotional and physical boundaries, we may have learned to keep secrets, to hide our true feelings, and to never show real vulnerability in order to protect our hearts.
The problem, of course, is that these behavioral responses aren't particularly adaptive in adulthood, and they can lead to intense feelings of emotional loneliness as we struggle to establish deep and meaningful connections with other humans. We all need a healthy tribe, but some of us may need a little help learning how to find that tribe and remain connected.
Just like the rhesus monkeys in Harlow's experiments, we may find ourselves feeling overly timid in certain situations, perhaps socially awkward, and at times too passive, leaving us feeling too raw and too emotionally exposed. We may allow ourselves to be bullied, but then may feel too ashamed to admit this to others. We may yearn for more social belonging, but social anxiety may keep us inside on our couches, rather than out in the world making new social connections.
Some of us may learn later in life how to navigate certain social situations relatively well, (particularly if we find a terrycloth surrogate to teach us how to connect to others on a social level). But most people who were raised in emotionally disconnected and chaotic households struggle with intimacy throughout their entire lives, caught between the need for social connection and a competing need for self-protection.
Essentially, parents who are either too psychologically fractured or are emotionally immature send us out into the world without skin. And the result is that we often experience deep and enduring emotional loneliness as we withdraw from others to protect ourselves.
These relational challenges tend to really show up in romantic relationships because the ability to connect with another human being on a deeply intimate basis (what is required in an intimate partnership), requires the ability to show our underbelly and be seen in our most vulnerable state, something people raised by wire monkeys often don't know how to do. (So if you're wondering why you manage friendships and relationships with colleagues well, but implode when falling in love, that's probably why).
A common protective measure used by many people (particularly women) is to wear various masks to project a more "desirable" persona (tougher, stronger, happier, more easy going). I didn't know I wore masks, but I did, for years. I wore masks to protect myself, and to project images that I believed were more acceptable than the real me, the unlovable me, the “me” that I believed was the cause of the dysfunction in my childhood home.
I wore these masks so automatically, that I wasn't always aware of their existence. I had my “everything is okay” mask, my “I’ve got it all together” mask, my “cool girlfriend/wife” mask, my “I don’t have a need in the world so don’t you worry about me” mask.
At some point though, I not only became aware of their existence, I began questioning their necessity. They no longer fit. They created barriers to authentic intimacy, leaving me feeling emotionally lonely. And yet, I struggled knowing how to leave them behind.
I became somewhat aware of my mask-wearing in my 20s and 30s, but my insights really escalated in my 50s, creating a kind of 'call to action.' This increasing awareness led me to ask some questions of myself. Why do I feel the need to pretend I’m stronger than I am? Why do I immediately say, “I’m okay,” when I’m clearly not? Why does vulnerability feel so awkward to me, like I really am walking around without skin?
When I was newer in this journey of self-discovery, answering these questions led me to emotionally unsafe places, so I’d typically stop any real self-reflection, choosing instead to distract myself with work, romantic crushes, parenting and general chaos. At some point though, distractions stopped working and I began to experience a growing sense of discontentment. I began to yearn for more self-honesty, more boldness, and more courage. I yearned to be more visible, more relevant, and more cohesive. I yearned to be more authentic and more transparent. I yearned to wear fewer masks.
The notion of living a life of greater authenticity and transparency isn't new. Just Google "authenticity" and you'll get almost 70 million hits. Everybody's talking about living more authentic and transparent lives these days. But as they say, if it were that easy, everybody would be doing it, and they aren't.
I believe that despite all the recent talk about authenticity, the world discourages everyone, but particularly women, from being too authentic or transparent, because honesty is power, and power will upset the current power structures within our society. Women are told to tone down the drama in their relationships, we’re cautioned about being too emotional in the workplace. And even though we are well into the new Millennium, most women are still encouraged to ‘fly under the radar’ so as not to upset the natural balance of things. Generally, in almost all areas of life, women are encouraged to hide.
In this #MeToo era, the very last thing women should be encouraged to do, is hide. And yet many of us do because even a somewhat astute person can see what happens to women who take a stand and advocate for themselves, whether in response to being attacked, or because in some way they are, or wish to be, different. We hide because we don’t want to be ostracized, we don’t want to be shamed, and we want to avoid the criticism so many women experience for having the audacity to chase our dreams.
We feel that initial tug to be more authentic and transparent when we begin to crave greater depth in our relationships more than we crave self-protection. This longing to shed all of the "shoulds" in our life, to let go of our shame and strip ourselves of the masks we wore in our youth, pushes us out of our comfort zone. This is scary territory for most of us, but it’s exactly where we want to be, because that is where real growth occurs.
I believe with all my heart that even those of us who were raised by "wire monkeys" can learn to connect on deeply intimate levels, but first we need to feel more comfortable with vulnerability and transparency, and the only way that can happen is with a lot of practice. Practice is what helps our skin to grow.
Welcome to my Blog!
This is a blog for middle-aged women, like me, who want to live a life of increased authenticity, and greater well-being, with fewer masks and a lot more fun.