Book Summary: Relational Masks: Removing the Barriers That Keep Us Apart (Russell Willingham, IVP Books, 2004)
Russell Willingham serves as executive director of New Creation Ministries, Fresno, California, an organization dedicated to helping people heal from sexual addictions and relational brokenness. Based on decades of individual and group counselling experiences Willingham provides an insightful proposal of how the wounds from our youth show up as ‘masks’ in Christian circles.
He builds his typology around seven hurtful beliefs we often carry into adulthood:
1. God can’t be trusted.
2. The Bible doesn’t apply to me.
3. I don’t need other people.
4. Intimate relationships bring only pain.
5. Romance or sex will meet my deepest needs.
6. I must do everything perfectly or I am worthless.
7. If I am honest I will be abandoned.
Willingham thinks these twisted beliefs, in various combinations, are the root of relational masks. Those masks include:
1. The Avoider: because of so much hurt the avoider believes it best to check out of life. The avoider doesn't address problems, avoids people, and procrastinates from getting at anything important. Believes they can’t help the way they are.
2. The Deflector: ignores deep pain by becoming a jokester who keeps conversations superficial, stays busy with work or children, and avoids talking about their emotions. Prone to say “Sure, I have my issues, but what about him?”
3. The Self-Blamer: sees childhood wounds as deserved because of their own incompetence or sin and carries heavy guilt and self-condemnation. Believes God is the critical parent who is mad, disappointed or disgusted with them.
4. The Savior: succumbs to “idolatry of serving” through workaholic activity for others and the church. Prone to take on too much responsibility ‘saving’ needy others, boasting of ‘service’ on the surface yet prone to bitterness down deep.
5. The Aggressor: hides deep hurt through high activity, controlling others, and dogmatic expression of their ideas. Likely to think building a successful church program is more important than worshiping or knowing God intimately.
6. The Spiritualizer: baptizes everything in Christian terms, holds “right beliefs”, and has strong us-and-them ideas about who makes up God’s kingdom. Thinks human problems are solved by more prayer and Bible study, confession of sin, and a closer walk with Jesus. Knows a lot of information, but is slow to share personal problems with others.
The author concludes with two chapters: The Secret to Life with God and The Secret to Life with Others to underscore God’s primary work among us right now is to restore us to intimate, trusting, loving relationship with himself, and among His people. In doing so he shows ways the avoider, deflector, self-blamer, savior, aggressor, and spiritualizer may know God’s sufficiency, and genuine healing through the church community.
For readers who are acquainted with the ideas of attachment and wounds, you will find Russell Willingham’s Relational Masks a welcomed Christian perspective to the conversation.
Available through IVP Books.
Bill Strom, Author
I am a believer by faith, a professor by vocation, a husband by choice, a father by blessing, and a friend by hanging out. Along the way I have learned about close relating through my experiences, biblical models, and social science research. Hopefully my ideas and encouragement show up here in ways meaningful to you.