June 17, 2024

What is masking? Unraveling the Hidden Struggles in Neurodivergence

what is masking

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Susana Spiegel

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Kirsten Andersen

Recovery Writer and Advocate

Last Update on June 21, 2024

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Have you ever felt like you needed to hide your true self to fit in with others?

For many neurodivergent individuals, this experience, known as masking, is a daily reality. As you navigate the complexities of social interactions and societal expectations, you might find yourself suppressing your natural inclinations and unique traits. By understanding the concept of masking and its impact on neurodivergent lives, you can support yourself or loved ones who face this challenge.

What is Masking?

Masking, in the context of neurodivergence, refers to the strategies and behaviors individuals use to conceal their neurodivergent traits. You might find yourself mimicking the social behaviors of your neurotypical peers, suppressing stimming behaviors, or adopting communication styles that feel unnatural to you. This effort to blend in and avoid negative judgments can be exhausting and take a toll on your well-being.

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10 Signs You Might Be Neurodivergent

  1. Difficulty understanding social cues
  2. Preference for routine and predictability
  3. Sensory sensitivities
  4. Hyperfocus on specific interests
  5. Struggles with executive functioning
  6. Need for solitude to recharge
  7. Challenges with verbal communication
  8. Feeling different from peers
  9. Using repetitive movements or sounds for comfort
  10. High levels of anxiety in social situations

The Cost of Masking

Masking might seem like a helpful way to fit in and make social situations easier, but it can take a serious toll on your overall well-being. Constantly trying to be someone you’re not can be really tough on your mental and physical health.
Absolutely! As a neurodivergent person, you might find yourself masking as a way to cope and blend in with everyone else. It’s like putting on a disguise to hide your true self and avoid any negative judgment or rejection from others.
It can be tough to spot when someone’s masking, but there are a few signs you can look out for. If you notice inconsistent or forced social behaviors, like they’re trying really hard to maintain eye contact or they’re suppressing repetitive movements (stimming), that could be a clue. Also, if they seem super anxious or exhausted after social interactions, they might be masking.
Neurodivergent folks often mask to avoid discrimination, bullying, or being left out. By masking, you can navigate situations that might not be very accommodating or understanding of your neurodivergent traits. It’s a way to appear more “normal” and avoid any negative consequences.
Imagine you’re neurodivergent and you’re at a social gathering. You find maintaining eye contact and making small talk really uncomfortable and unnatural, but you force yourself to do it anyway. Why? Because you don’t want to stand out or be judged. That’s a prime example of masking.
Neurotypical masking usually involves hiding emotions or behaviors to fit in with social norms. But for neurodivergent folks, masking is a much bigger effort. You’re trying to hide your neurodivergent traits and copy neurotypical behaviors to avoid negative judgments and fit in with what society expects.

There are quite a few different types of neurodivergence out there, but keep in mind that neurodivergence exists on a spectrum, and that each experience is a unique one.

You may find that you identify with multiple types of neurodivergence, while others may not fit neatly into any specific category. Some of these types include:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyspraxia
  • Tourette Syndrome
  • Sensory Processing Disorder
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Synesthesi

The Emotional and Psychological Price Tag

  • Anxiety Overload: When you’re always watching your every move and trying to act “normal,” it can be super stressful and make your anxiety skyrocket.
  • Feeling Down: Hiding who you really are can make you feel disconnected from yourself and others, leading to feelings of sadness and low self-worth.
  • Running on Empty: Keeping up a fake persona is exhausting! Over time, it can leave you feeling totally drained and overwhelmed.

The Physical Toll of Pretending

  • Stress That Won’t Quit: All that constant stress from masking can take a real hit on your body. You might start getting headaches, stomach problems, or even a weaker immune system.
    Exhaustion Central: Faking it all day long can really zap your energy. You might feel tired all the time and not have the motivation to do the things you usually enjoy.

The Long-Term Mental Health Impact

  • Anxiety That Won’t Let Up: When you’re always trying to seem “normal,” it can make existing anxiety disorders worse or even lead to new ones.
    Depression Deepens: Not being able to be your authentic self can make you feel really alone and worsen symptoms of depression.
    Total Burnout: Over time, the constant pressure of masking can lead to severe burnout, making it hard to function in different parts of your life.

Examples of Masking Behaviors

You might copy the social behaviors of others to appear more typical, such as forcing a smile or laugh when it doesn’t come naturally. This can involve studying and imitating the facial expressions, body language, and social interactions of neurotypical individuals to blend in and avoid standing out. Social mimicry can be exhausting, as it requires constant observation and adjustment of one’s behavior to match the social norms of a given situation.

How to Support Someone Who is Neurodivergent

When supporting neurodivergent loved ones, the most important thing you can do is create a space where they feel accepted for who they are. It doesn’t matter if it’s at home, at school, or at work – just do your best to make sure they feel welcomed and embraced, no matter what. Be the ally they can always count on, and help them see that they don’t have to hide or pretend to be someone they’re not. Remind them that being neurodivergent is part of what makes them unique – it’s nothing to be ashamed of or feel like they have to suppress. Encourage them to be their true, authentic selves by being patient, understanding, and keeping an open mind.

How Friends, Family, & Colleagues Can Offer Support

As someone who cares about neurodivergent friends, family members, or colleagues, you have the power to make a real difference in their lives by offering your patience, understanding, and encouragement. It’s so important to remember that opening up and being their true selves around you might take some time, and that’s okay. Give them the space and understanding they need to do that at their own speed.

One of the best things you can do is take the time to learn about neurodiversity and the unique challenges that neurodivergent people face. This will help you provide much more meaningful support. You can also dive into articles, books, or personal stories about neurodivergent individuals, check out workshops or seminars, or have some respectful, open conversations with your neurodivergent friends or coworkers. Acknowledging and appreciating their strengths, interests, and perspectives will help to create a safe, accepting place where they feel valued and supported for being who they are.

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Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Neurodivergent Individuals

  1. Seeking Support: Building a network of supportive friends, family members, or professionals who understand and accept your neurodivergence can provide a safe space to be yourself.
  2. Self-Advocacy: Learning to communicate your needs and boundaries effectively can help you navigate social situations with less stress and anxiety. Don’t be afraid to ask for accommodations or express your preferences.
  3. Stimming Safely: Engaging in stimming behaviors, such as fidgeting, rocking, or repeating sounds, can help regulate emotions and manage sensory overload. Find ways to stim that feel comfortable and socially acceptable to you.
  4. Pursuing Special Interests: Engaging in activities related to your passions and interests can provide a sense of joy, fulfillment, and stress relief. Seek out communities or groups that share interest to connect with like-minded individuals.
  5. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practicing mindfulness, deep breathing, or other relaxation techniques can help you manage stress and anxiety associated with masking. Take regular breaks to recharge and reconnect with yourself.
  6. Therapy and Counseling: Working with a therapist or counselor who specializes in neurodiversity can provide valuable support and guidance in developing coping strategies, building self-awareness, and navigating social challenges.
  7. Embracing Neurodivergent Identity: Connecting with the neurodivergent community, whether online or in-person, can help you find a sense of belonging and pride in your unique traits and experiences. Celebrate your neurodivergence as a valuable part of your identity.

Remember, coping mechanisms are highly individual, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s essential to explore different strategies and find what resonates with you. Be patient and compassionate with yourself as you navigate the challenges of masking and embrace your authentic neurodivergent self.

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Unmasking the Future

As you navigate the complexities of neurodivergence and the challenges of masking, it’s clear that creating a community that truly embraces neurodiversity in all forms is essential. By working together to have open and honest conversations and amplifying the voices of the neurodivergent community, you can help break down the stereotypes. Building a culture of empathy and understanding ensures neurodivergent individuals have the opportunity to live authentically, creating a more inclusive, accepting, and supportive world where they can thrive as their genuine, unique selves.

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Author & Reviewers

susana spiegel recovery writer and SEO expert
RECOVERY WRITER & ADVOCATE

Susana is a recovery writer and advocate with over 8 years in addiction recovery. She is passionate about sharing accurate and helpful information about mental health, addiction, and recovery. She holds a Bachelor’s in Christian Studies from Grand Canyon University and has over 7 years of working in the addiction field. 

lionel estrada lisac clinical director
CLINICAL DIRECTOR & REVIEWER

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s Scottsdale treatment facilities. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges; he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues.

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