Skin Deep

Because skin is so nuanced in its response to environmental circumstances and psychic fields it serves as a barometer for physical and psychological well-being.
~ The Book of Symbols – The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

Extroverts are fueled by extensive social interactions in the external world while introverts are agitated, overwhelmed, and made anxious by such experiences, no matter how they appear on the skin’s surface.

Introverts are fueled by intensive contact with their own, and other’s internal, intimate subjective processes, while excessive focus on internal experience can unskin an extrovert leaving them feeling naked, exposed, anxious and uncomfortable.

My clients may imagine that I am an out-going, expansive and social creature – because, in our culture, extraversion correlates with being “well-adjusted” confident, and happy. But those who know me well, or who have seen my Meyers-Briggs know where I really fall on the continuum.

Introverted, highly sensitive, thin-skinned – any and all of those are accurate – I have developed some externally successful compensatory mechanisms that I wear as a protective hide in group and social settings: Because I like words, and have a lot a language at my disposal, I can be funny sometimes (humor is one of my favorite social shields). I am a good idea-person, a supportive teacher, an empathic healer and mentor. In groups, I am expressive and excited about new ideas, notions, theories, and problem solving.

Because I have a lot of thoughts to offer – usually drawn from reflecting on and by myself in private spaces – I can sometimes find myself pressed by the collective into leadership positions.

I am, in point of fact, a peevish and brittle leader: Non-intimate relationships and group dynamics can too easily drain and distress me even as we focus on solving a problem together or addressing a collective task at hand. When our work is over, I have a hard time understanding what a brief, curtailed, surface relationship might want from me or why they would want or expect anything at all.

To paraphrase C.G. Jung: Intensity is my aim, not extensity. (~ C. G. Jung, Psychological Types – General Description of the Types Ch. 10)

Non-intimate social events and groups can make my skin crawl and my feet itchy. Any chatty, surface engagement requires that I set aside significant recovery time afterward. It is depleting enough for me to take part in these processes that unless I calibrate my exposure, I can become fatigued, burdened, impatient, and plain old cranky due to the amount of energy it takes for me compensate for my inherent nature. I end up spending all my fuel and taking in little – because I only truly refuel in private and personal spaces.

Most frogs…have permeable skin that can easily absorb toxic chemicals. These traits make frogs especially susceptible to environmental disturbances, and thus frogs are considered accurate indicators of environmental stress: the health of frogs is thought to be indicative of the health of the biosphere as a whole.(web source http://www.savethefrogs.com/why-frogs)

I, and other introverted souls are biopsychosocial indicators. We are among the first poisoned by contaminants in the psychological environment. We sense too easily, and too intensely the unspoken, unconscious agendas, hostilities, resentments, hungers, wishes, at play in any social, non-intimate gathering.

Everything enacted in the room and yet unacknowledged seeps inside me. At any given community meeting, class parent gathering, cocktail party all the unnamed, unspoken affect rings louder in my ears than any verbalized dialogue, as I take in a mouthful of toxicity that I would be too impolite, off-putting or downright bizarre to spit out:

“Excuse me, but isn’t it interesting that you chose to cut Harriet off here, just as she was elaborating on her point? Did the two of you quarrel earlier in the evening? I’ve noticed that even though you are smiling, that something about your tone makes me uncomfortable, or even feel scolded… Is there something I have done previously that offended you? Perhaps we were discussing something that was unsettling or threatening to you? I can’t tell what the subtle tension in the conversation is about, but it felt hostile somehow, and I’d feel much more comfortable if you could talk about what may be angering you directly. Oh! and could you please pass that red-pepper hummus? So yummy!”

Instead, I quip and wise-crack, or try to talk, talk, talk, on top of the bubbling, oozing, latent content that bombards me and threatens, like quick-sand to swallow me whole. I keep my eyes peeled, sometimes ending a conversation too abruptly as I lunge for the nearest exit attempting to save my hide.

(The introvert) is always facing the problem of how libido can be withdrawn from the object. The object assumes terrifying dimensions, in spite of conscious depreciation… But, therewith, the introvert severs himself completely from the object, and either squanders his energy in defensive measures or makes fruitless attempts to impose his power upon the object and successfully assert himself. But these efforts are constantly being frustrated by the overwhelming impressions he receives from the object. It continually imposes itself upon him against his will; it provokes in him the most disagreeable and obstinate affects, persecuting him at every step. An immense, inner struggle is constantly required of him, in order to ‘keep going.’ Hence Psychoasthenia is his typical form of neurosis, a malady which is characterized on the one hand by an extreme sensitiveness, and on the other by a great liability to exhaustion and chronic fatigue. (~ C. G. Jung, Psychological Types – General Description of the Types Ch. 10)

This porous-ness requires that I reside primarily within the realm of intimate one-on-one relationships, with brief, purposeful and well-planned trips beyond this membrane. I am my happiest, most fulfilled and generative in interior spaces.

So, to live in the world of other human beings: I became a psychotherapist.

I can’t count the number of times thick-skinned folk say to me: ” I have no idea how you do the work you do! I couldn’t stand listening to other people’s’ feelings all day!”

Frankly, I don’t want to listen to much else.

Psychotherapy is the only job I could find, other than perhaps, living as a sponge on the sea-floor, where being such a pore-bearing creature gives me a significant professional advantage.

I connect to a single person, in a private space (or a natural space if we are on a walking session). We engage in inherently private processes, sharing excruciatingly personal or subjective details about our innermost perceptions. Where else would I be allowed, professionally mandated in fact, to offer my internal impressions back to the person who evoked them – and to have that returned in kind?

Skin is a responsive tactile boundary between self and other and the inside and the outside of an individual.
~ The Book of Symbols – The Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism

And, it is also true that the very same people who try my patience, drain and exhaust me in the world at large, are the very same people who I would undoubtedly feel bottomless patience, expansive empathy, warm affection and deep admiration for if we were to engage in the intimate processes of forging a therapeutic partnership.

It’s a pretty good gig for those who need to live in the interior-lands.

The finest clothing made is a person’s own skin, but of course, society demands something more than this ~ Mark Twain

A neighbor recently sent me an email which stated that of all her neighbors, I was the one that she felt least connected to, and that she found this distressing. (Was this for real? I was flabbergasted. ) She felt that whenever she encountered me that I was always in a rush, that I never seemed to want to stop and chat. (Chat? What on earth about? ) Moreover, she said, that even factoring in differences and variations in personal privacy, she had determined that I was insufficiently social, and that as a result, our relationship (Did we ever have one? I couldn’t think of a single instance when I had laid eyes on her in the past year) was in need of repair. How would I feel in her circumstance? (What circumstance exactly? The one where my neighbors want nothing more from me than a brief, cordial greeting? “Relieved beyond all imagining” were the only words that came to mind)

An extrovert, in external conversation, frustrated and injured that a confounding introvert was withholding much needed social contact. An introvert, misunderstood and in flight from an extroverted pursuer, in an internal monologue about the internal need to avoid extraneous social contact.

I forwarded the email to my more extroverted husband, who responded easily and effortlessly and who has made a point stopping and chatting more. No skin off of his nose.

The thick-skinned and the thin-skinned misunderstand each other all the time. It is not easy for us to comprehend each other. Our experience of ourselves and others, internal and external worlds is inverted. It is too easy to assume our own way of being as a template, and pillory or pathologize those who live inside or outside of their skin differently than we do.

Yet, we all live along a continuum of inner and outer spaces, some cluster toward the center, others distributed toward either end. We are all needed for our species to find balance. Our varied skills and awarenesses are incomplete without our complement. And ultimately the margins that divide us are as narrow as the skin of our teeth.

“Skin the rabbit!!!” my midwestern farmer grandmother would exclaim as we raised our arms high over our heads and she peeled our dirty play clothes up into the air before our evening bath. A false, active, social self stripped away, a true, vulnerable, private, home self set free.

Home and home-like environments are where the introverted return to refuel themselves, when supplies are running low. Retreat into natural environments is also extremely nurturing for the introverted.

One of the communities where I am most comfortable in my skin is a group of community gardeners. We focus on planting, watering. Our hands are dirty. We are unconcerned about external appearances. We sweat and work together. Our conversations focus on our common interests, our shared labors and our personal relationship with bees, seeds, sun, sky, vegetables and flowers. We have internal experiences outside together.

In Winnicotian theory, some of the aspects that Jung might classify as indicative of introversion, are framed as a developmental, maturational achievement: This is Winnicott’s Capacity to be Alone, which is above all the capacity for people to be alone together. To be in the presence of another person – simultaneously wholly in your own skin, and wholly present with the other, who is also wholly in their own skin and wholly present with you.

Not surprisingly many introverted people find their way into my office, and probably into many other therapists offices too. They want to find partners, to raise families, to secure non-toxic work, and ways to be connected to the community at large, to be of use, in ways that suit them. Many have internalized a culturally endorsed, critical bias against their own way of being.

Extroverts come to therapy fearful of their “people pleasing” tendencies, their need for stimulation, their difficulty being alone, their fear of intimate spaces.

And ultimately the psychotherapeutic process creates a space where intimacy can happen, in self-regulated doses, as we examine and accept our own and each other’s inner and outer layers, as we learn somehow, at last and over time, to get under each other’s skin.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Fire-Mouth

Persona: (Latin, “actor’s mask”) One’s social role, derived from the expectations of society and early training. A strong ego relates to the outside world through a flexible persona; identification with a specific persona (doctor, scholar, artist, etc.) inhibits psychological development. ~ Mario Jacoby The Analytic Encounter

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell the truth. ~ Oscar Wilde, quoted in The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images

It started with a dream about red lipstick.

Bright red. A color I’ve never worn, except maybe during my onstage past.

When I woke up – I let my mind wander, and could almost smell my grandmothers lipstick, the blot of red lips imprinted on the tissue paper that floated down toward the wastepaper basket from the vanity.

My maternal grandmother – a farmer’s wife – put on her red lipstick, her girdle, her clip on earrings and sensible shoes before church on Sundays, or maybe in anticipation of a day trip up north to the city. By the time the car pulled off the rural route and back up the driveway home, the girdle, the earrings and the lipstick were all off – removed in the car on the trip home, if not even earlier in a powder room somewhere, stuffed in her handbag.

My paternal step-grandmother – on the other hand – wore red lipstick, and carried a long black cigarette holder in every photo and every single time I ever saw her (which was not all that often) at home with a martini playing bridge or for dinner at the Lafayette country club.

Their red lips marked them as surely as their affectionate kisses marked their grandchildrens’ cheeks: as women of a certain age and era, as women who were beyond thinking what the young thought of them – in the early 70’s the young wore heavy eyes and no lips – or no make up at all – and as old women who had no further interest in current fashion or trends.

Perhaps, in their twenties and thirties in the 1920’s and 30’s the same crimson mouth carried different connotations. Maybe at first a certain youthful, flapper-esque daring, and later a hat-wearing-lady-like respectability.

I thought of it as the fire-mouth, a severe slash of horizontal seriousness and propriety, as a war-face applied before heading into the fray. You took grandma seriously when she wore it. When the lipstick was on, she meant business, and would put up with no truck from a whining child. Red lips meant she had expectations of you.

I’ve never worn red-lipstick, because I associated it with elder maturity, the mark of the Crone, the kiss goodbye to youth and girlhood. For me, red lipstick is what white-haired old ladies, who you do not want to mess with, and who don’t give a shit about looking young anymore, wore when they meant business.

As I dozed and remembered the smell of my grandmother’s lipstick, the eye-watering pain of clip on earrings, and the click of a string of costume beads or the tap of the black cigarette holder in the ashtray and brittle looking ankles rising out of suede high heels I laughed to myself – realizing that already, twenty years younger than I ever remembered either of them being – I am already a white-haired woman, who doesn’t give a shit any more.

And who is done putting up with nonsense.

Time to bust out the red lipstick – and claim my own fire-mouth.

All transformations are invested with something at once of a profound mystery and of the shameful…. Metamorphoses must be hidden from view, and hence the need for a mask. Secrecy tends toward transfiguration: it helps what-one-is to become what-one-would-like-to-be;…. The mask is equivalent to the chrysalis. – Circlot: A Dictionary of Symbols.

As a kid, I was “taught” make up at the local community theater where I spent as much time as possible – as part of the actors craft. It made me younger when I needed to play a smaller child, could change my coloring and ethnicity when coupled with a blonde wig, and could turn me into a boy when needed. It’s first application marked the transition from rehearsal to performance. I once even raced from the theater, still covered with painted freckles, to my mother’s second wedding.

The directors who led our motley troupe – in a pick up truck and gun rack town – were older men: actors, opera singers, musicians who had modulated their big dreams to fit into an underfunded ramshackle theater in small town suburbia. After three or four years of loyalty and hard work as part of the repertory, at 14 or so I was invited to my first “grown up” cast party. The front door opened and I saw men known to me in the rehearsal hall as beige, gray, unshaven, and irritable, in all their glory: A silver turban, a sparkling purple beaded robe, an ivory kaftan with golden thread… and those rosy faces, cosmetically shaped jaw lines, flushed cheeks, dramatic eyes…

and of course, bright red lips.

The finicky and easily exasperated “old” men (probably younger than I am now) who barely tolerated a precocious child actor and regularly shushed me in the wings were suddenly alive, smiling, embracing me – offering me my first ever sip of their gin and tonic: “Just one sip! I do not want your mother to hate me!”

As beautiful as butterflies, as shimmery as peacocks.

Their painted masks introduced me to who they really were.

There are aspects of self that are only accessible and able to be revealed through a mask – as the external image and persona is manipulated to reveal aspects of our true selves that would remain hidden otherwise.

Since the mask stands between one’s self and the world it has a dual nature: It looks both in and out. A mask can disguise, cover, veil, lie, capture, release, reveal, project, protect, disown, recollect, deceive, dissociate, embody and transform. ~ The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images

Winnicott speaks of the True and False self in the same space that Jung speaks of persona and for both the false socialized self is seen as healthy and necessary to some degree for social functioning – without it we would say and do things impulsively, selfishly, that could expose our vulnerable true self or harm others. Healthy false selves keep us from killing when we feel murderous, or initiating sexual contact with everyone we are attracted to.

It also protects what lies underneath: Winnicott says that the False self often brings the true self to treatment – like a protective babysitter – to make sure that the therapist is safe enough, and has created a safe enough environment to let the True self emerge.

Aggression, rejection or distortion aimed at someone’s consciously crafted persona is annoying, but the same act committed upon a True Self is utterly annihilating.

Winnicott also chillingly describes the pathology of the False self:
A False Self that has convinced itself it is the True Self.

It is common for clients to present in therapy in great distress when they have become lost in their persona – when their relationship to their external facade has become disrupted, uncomfortable or painful as internal pressures, changing life-stages, or external events require the surrender or adjustment of the face they have constructed and presented to the world.

Clients can lose their jobs, their function, or their standing in the community that they equate with their identity: How will I recognize or myself if I am no longer wearing the mask of a philanthropist, a church volunteer, a doctor, an artist, a lawyer, a psychotherapist?

Some attach to their role in the family system: as spouse, son, daughter, parent, sibling. When the family system is disrupted by death or separation, divorce, adoption or reunion – they find themselves disoriented in relationship to their own persona.

Internal prods, the insistent Unconscious eruptions of the psyche, the push of pain and the pull of hope also can put us in a dissonant relationship to our mask of choice:
“I never thought of myself as some one who would have an affair”
“I used to love my profession, but I’m so burned out I think I may have to give up teaching”
“I’ve become someone who only takes care of children – if I don’t figure out who I am other than a mother – I’m going to explode – I can’t take it anymore!”

Suddenly, the soul demands that the old persona retire itself and a new mask must be painted that creates a face that matches and protects newly emerging aspects of the self.

Age and body changes associated with adolescence, mid-life and old age should move us through our make up and wardrobe transformations as well – some of us accept such mandated role and costume changes more willingly than others, and for some they evoke profound identity disturbance as their appearance no longer fits how they think of themselves.

There are darker functions served by masks as well:

Masks are also instruments of lies, tricks, and self-deception Our culture endorses the manufacture of many “good” and “branded” personas which mask greedy, devouring and destructive behaviors. Many of us think of ourselves as exemplary citizens while we have hidden from ourselves or flat-out ignored the destructive effects of our cars, consumption habits, institutions, corporations and governments on unseen or disenfranchised others and on other species, and upon the planet itself.

Pigs wearing lipstick abound:

Our culture denies bias, racism, and heteronormativity even while it remains manifest, food labeled “healthy” masks toxic farming practices. Clean coal. Industrial growth is the face of the dark trickster that depletes planetary resources.

Disasters emerge to pressure us to shake off our collective, cultural facades and bring our false fronts into alignment with our realities: terrorist acts, war, extreme weather events, gun violence. But, too often it seems that our collective cultural and national False Selves have usurped the Truer collective spirit.

We all lie to ourselves and to each other continuously. Those who hold on to their personas lightly are willing to adjust their sense of self to accommodate new information about their effect on others. Those who cling tightly to a false self, delete and deny any information that disrupts their status and sense of public persona.

Therapist’s very often find themselves sitting with clients who are actively consciously, or unconsciously deceiving themselves. Sometimes, they choose to maintain the front at all costs, as they hang on to a persona at the expense of their souls. Re-painting the house while the pantry is empty: Staying in dead marriages for fear of the neighbors’ judgement, managing to other parents competitiveness rather than to their own children’s needs, arranging outer-appearances to look just so while mess, chaos, and destruction storm within.

A mask is a disguise which transforms the wearer, hides or heightens his personality, or identifies him with the character of the mask. Purpose: Impersonation of deified natural forces, spirits of the dead, totemic, hunted or phallic animals, respected or derided human beings for:
1) arousal of a desired emotion: bravery, self-esteem, prophetic trance
2) exorcism of baneful sprits
3) coercion of more favorable spirits.
4) Social prestige
5) Moral control and social therapy by fright or burlesque
6) Entertainment by presentation of stories, sacred or secular or by laughter producing satire

Usually more than one motive is involved.

~ Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend.

I still put on my make up when it is time to perform.
Not much really, it’s the ritual that I require, the transition from the comfortable introverted privacy of home to the extraverted bustle of the city and the rigors of the office.

It puts my impinging vulnerabilities away inside. It draws out my sense of strength for those who need to see me as stronger than I may be.

I stand in front of the mirror as my grandmother did, as I did for years in the dressing room before curtain.

I stand still and look squarely in my own eyes: I pull out my brushes, with long black handles. Like my grandmothers cigarette holder, like the set of brushes that waited for me in the drawer at North County Community Theater.

I put on clean smelling lotion, and some translucent powder. (interesting slip – I first wrote “power”) I apply some mascara- I need big eyes to see deeply into complex problems.

And the last thing before leaving the house: I apply my fire-mouth:
For screwing my courage to the sticking point.
For telling difficult truths.
For giving voice to intuitions from the edge of awareness.
For calling bias, contempt, racism, objectification, and abuse by their true names.
For finding words for the destructive realities that we hide from ourselves.

And for reminding the world that I have expectations, and I am well past the point of putting up with nonsense.

copyright © 2013
All rights reserved Martha Crawford

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,032 other followers

%d bloggers like this: