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When someone thinks of masks, often they think of the plastic or rubber objects we put over our faces to hide who we are, and show off an alternate identity– usually one that we’ve constructed. While most halloween masks are not particularly convincing, those with time and skill devoted to the craft can create nearly an entire new persona that could transform even the likes of Robin Williams into a Mrs. Doubtfire.

The reality is, those are not even the most common masks we come across in everyday life. Most of us tend to shade parts of our self in different social situations to meet the needs of that situation. How we interact with our friends might be different from how we interact with our teachers, boss, or other person of authority. However, there are different degrees to which someone uses these masks depending on who they are.

Function of Masks

To set the stage, it’s important to know why we mask, and what it does for us. In short, it keeps us safe, and it is intended to keep us from being “othered.” As human beings, we have a need to maintain our sense of safety, and to belong (which, not belonging ultimately affects our emotional and possibly physical safety).

According to Devon Price, Ph.D, author of Unmasking Autism, masking has two main functions: camouflage and compensation. The process begins with subconsciously watching for actions and traits that are deemed “undesirable” by the world around us. Perhaps you’ve witnessed someone else being made fun of for how they talk, interrupting other people, or even knowing the answers to questions too often. If we then happen to recognize some of those traits in ourselves, the masking process begins.

Camouflage is the process of trying to subdue to decrease those parts of ourselves that could draw attention to us. For example, making the choice to act like you don’t know the answer when you do to avoid attention. In contrast, compensation is increasing other behaviors in order to not have our deficits be seen. For example, someone who naturally has difficulty being organized might compensate by working to become hyper organized, to the point where any disorganization becomes stressful.

The Problem

While masks are adaptive skills, there is a primary issue associated with them: they take a ton of energy to maintain. One group in particular that tends to reap the consequences of masking particularly hard is neurodiverse/autistic individuals. Because autistic masking is so tied to constant hyperawareness of neurotypical social norms that may not be intuitive, there are rarely opportunities to unmask and recharge. It is because of this that autistic burnout is such a prevalent issue.

And to return to the comparison where we started, there are those out there who have put in the time and skill into learning really convincing masking, usually subconsciously and out of necessity. Unfortunately, sometimes those masks are so convincing that a person’s neurodivergence/autism may be completely missed until a natural level of burnout occurs because they didn’t necessarily know they were masking. The truth of the situation may not be clear until it’s already on fire, and even then, those diagnosed later in life may be met with skepticism from friends and family. Ultimately, masking that is too successful might prevent someone from getting resources and assistance that would have benefitted them much earlier.

Other Notable Masks

Other Invisible Illnesses: Other invisible illnesses like chronic pain, many gastrointestinal issues, other mental health diagnoses like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, etc often come with the experience of masking. Many times the thought process is a bit more conscious, and accompanied by the thought “it’s just easier if I put on a smile and don’t have to deal with people’s questions.” Unfortunately, with many of these conditions, stress tends to make them more difficult, and masking is inherently stressful.

Code Switching: Code switching is a term typically in reference to the masking that BIPOC individuals engage in in certain situations to “fit in to the predominant culture,” when their authentic culture feels likely to cause difficulties, often due to institutionalized racism. This might take the form of “linguistic code switching” where an individual changes how they usually speak to fit in with conventional norms of the predominant culture; or it takes the form of cultural code switching, which could be conscious choices to change how one dresses or does their hair to appear “more professional.”

Strategies for Unmasking

  1. Make the conscious choice to notice what feels authentic: Masking is all about changing the things that are authentic, but that we think might be considered undesirable by others. Take some time to figure out what feels authentic, or where it feels like you’re putting in more energy than makes sense. Does it take a ton of energy to maintain eye contact when it’s actually uncomfortable? Do you find yourself trying to stop yourself from shaking your leg, or doing some other repetitive movements that might feel organizing?

  2. Ask yourself genuinely: is this necessary for me to mask? If we’re someone who has a lot of verbal stims (actions that help us feel calmer or more organized), there may be some situations where we have to possibly suppress that in favor of a different stim if we’re in a meeting or similar situation. But is it as necessary to suppress shaking your leg or even flapping your hands? Possibly not. Look for opportunities to let yourself be authentic in the moment without worrying about other people’s opinions. While other people’s comfort can be a concern, it should not be the entire concern.

  3. Keep an eye on your energy levels: Masking is expensive when it comes to the amount of energy we spend on doing things. Consistent masking can easily put us into an energy deficit that is hard to get out of (and ultimately can lead to intense burnout!) Be aware and intention with what you spend your energy on.

  4. Change how we look at masking: How we look at masking can have an impact on how draining it is. There can be a very real difference between masking where we are actually fully covering our authentic self, and masking where we might just be fine tuning which aspects of our authentic self is most prominent, like changing sliders to decide which parts of ourselves are at the forefront.

  5. Choose your supports carefully: Listen to your instincts; it’s important to surround yourself with people that support your authentic self and do not add to the pressure of masking as much as possible. Your authentic self is worthy of being cared for!

  6. Unmasking is hard: It’s worth noting that the process of unmasking is difficult, especially the older you are and the longer you’ve been masking without really knowing it. Give yourself time and grace, and know that it’s okay and not uncommon for things to get a little more difficult in that unmasking period, but the long term benefits are worth it.

For more information on masking and unmasking, check out the book Unmasking Autism by Devon Price, Ph.D.

If you are struggling with masking or the process of unmasking such as those described above, it may be time to reach out for support. Contact 253 Therapy and Consult today to see how we may be able to help.

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