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To mask or not to mask? I wish that were the question

Being afraid to meet mask-less me

I am an autistic woman. Like many autistic women, I have spent my life masking to fit into a neurotypical world. Pretty darn well, if I do say so myself.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve become curious about what the “real” me is like. What would look and sound different if I didn’t mask at work? What would my friends think? What would I think!?

For me, masking means that I…

  • manually interpret others’ facial expressions and body language, by referring back to books and TV shows on those subjects

  • manually “work” my face or body language to show what I think is expected in a given situation, including eye-contact

  • stop reacting to or adjusting for constant sensory issues while around other people

  • endlessly rehearse conversations, no matter how trivial — then struggle when people don’t stick to that “script” in real life

It’s exhausting.


The costs of masking are huge

I had no idea that masking was a thing until right before my diagnosis. As soon as I did, a lot of things made sense.

No wonder I keep burning out at work. No wonder meeting new people at events can make me physically ill. No wonder having a few social things in one weekend can leave me staring unblinkingly at a wall for hours.

The physical effort causes increased anxiety, meltdowns, burnout. But worse still, it can cost you your sense of identity.

Masking to fit in can mean going along with things you are expected to find fun or interesting. Absorbing the identities and interests of those around you. Forgetting what you were happy and comfortable doing before the rest of the world interfered.

It was mind-boggling to me that I’d been expending all this effort without even realizing it. Hiding the “real” me from the rest of the world — myself included. Hiding well enough to fit right in, but for a very high price.

It seems logical, therefore, that I should stop. It’s not quite that simple, though.


The benefits of masking are complicated

I am certain that being very good at seeming “normal” — whatever that means — has got me to places that I would not otherwise have reached. It has probably let me connect with colleagues, clients, friends and partners who would struggle connecting with the “real” me. This is all kinds of problematic.

For one, displaying autistic traits should not disadvantage anyone. Full stop.

Secondly, getting to some of those places has cost me a LOT. I’ve felt a sense of achievement — rightly or wrongly — in fighting huge anxiety around all sorts of things. Management, public speaking, networking, consulting. All the soft, people-ey things that smart, successful people are meant to be good at. And I am good at them… but they have also broken me—too many times.

Finally, anyone in my life who finds they can’t or won’t connect with the “real” me… probably isn’t worth my time? Sorry if you are one of them.

Also, bye, I guess.

All of those things are easy to say. They make some logical sense. But again, it’s not quite that simple.


I don't know how NOT to mask

For all that I’ve said, if I decided: “OK, from tomorrow, no more masking!” I would not know what to do.

I have never met mask-less me. I mask while alone. This was a strange, recent revelation.

I almost always imagine and behave as if there is someone in the house with me. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember. I expect it started as a safe training ground for social interactions. Somewhere to practice how to act and move and interact, without any negative consequences if I got something “wrong.”

It was unsettling to realize. I’d never questioned it before. But it means I am exerting some effort to mask at times when I should be recovering from doing that everywhere else. It also means I’ve been inadvertently hiding from myself all this time. I don’t know what the “real” me looks like…

What does mask-less me even do? What if people don’t like her? Even worse, what if I don’t like her?

I can feel some internal resistance to finding out the answers here. I am afraid of adjusting my own visions of career, social life, who knows what else. I am afraid because it will mean as-yet unpredictable changes (very scary) and adjustments to my self-image (more very scary).


Meeting mask-less me

More-very-scary though it may be, I owe it to my mental and physical health to do something with this information.

If I can understand exactly what I am doing to mask, then there is at least a choice. It might never be something I can totally switch on and off. But I can gradually figure out which things I am willing to spend more/less energy on.

So, I’ve been trying to notice what is different when I’m alone. After a little chat with myself to remind me that no one else is looking, of course. Then I am deliberately testing some of those things out in “safe” places to see how they feel.

The main differences I have noticed so far are: moving around more clompy-ly or on my tip-toes, not suppressing my reactions to sensory issues, not moving my face very much, constantly rehearsing conversations that could happen when I am next not alone.

I have a few “experiments” currently live as a result:

Suppressing my reactions to sensory issues less when with a partner or close friend. This still feels super weird. It’s hard to adjust to having what still feel like quite strange and sudden reactions in front of people. But nobody has seemed to mind so far. In fact, I think they notice a lot less than I am expecting them to. And it usually means I can move past or resolve the issue much quicker, which is good for my anxiety levels. I expect it will feel less weird with more practice, so I’ll keep going with this “safe” group of people for now.

Turning my camera off sometimes in video calls at work, so I am not tempted to make so much effort with my face. I can feel this saves a huge amount of energy, and I’ll definitely keep doing it. I’m a bit torn about whether this should be “sometimes” or “always.” I need to figure out where I want the line to be and in which circumstances — if any — I should let others’ expectations around meetings dictate what I do.

Trying is to rehearse conversations less. When I catch myself rehearsing something innocuous, I interrupt myself and distract myself with something in the present. That might be the task I’m doing, something sensory, or just a thought about what is going on today. When this works, I can feel that it frees up some brain space, which is good. There’s still a way to go, though: yesterday, I caught myself rehearsing a conversation about the fact that I have been trying to stop myself rehearsing conversations… *facepalm*

It’s all a work in progress. I certainly don’t have all the answers (yet!) But I am hopeful.

These little experiments have shown me that, although the “real” me might be different from what I am used to, maybe that can still be ok.

I’ll come back to this in a few months and update you on how these experiments progress, what else I’ve tried, and the impact it’s had.

(Update: I have written about how I'm doing six months on here)

Lauren x


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