I want to talk about Masking (also known as camouflaging) – the act of appearing neurotypical.
Quite often the research around this frames it as a good thing or a conscious choice. This is rarely, if ever, the case. It’s an adaptation to extreme stress after a life time of conditioning as we are told that being ourselves is unacceptable and so we start to hide our true selves.
There’s ample research now on the negative effects of this on Autistic people, but this likely applies to any minority group that has to hide elements of their identity. For those with intersectional identities the extreme stress of hiding more and more of yourself takes a toll.
I know from personal experience. For the first 35 years of my life I kept most parts of my identity secret except to a few people. As an ADHD, Autistic, and non-binary bisexual person I was terrified growing up in a toxic masculine environment that if I showed anyone who I was – I would be outcast.
My favourite psychologist – Carl Rogers – talked about the fracturing of the self to create an ideal self that was unattainable.
Rogers identified the “real self” as the aspect of one’s being that is founded in the actualizing tendency, follows organismic values and needs, and receives positive others’ regard and self-regard. It is the “you” that, if all goes well, you will become. On the other hand, to the extent that our society is out of sync with the actualizing tendency, and we are forced to live with conditions of worth that are out of step with organismic valuing, and receive only conditional positive regard and self-regard, we develop instead an “ideal self”. By ideal, Rogers is suggesting something not real, something that is always out of our reach, the standard we cannot meet. This gap between the real self and the ideal self, the “I am” and the “I should” is called incongruity.Carl Rogers – Wikipedia page
I have lived with a constant identity crisis since I was very young. I never felt like I had a fixed personality and I was terrified a lot of the time that I was a psychopath, or sociopath because of this. Whenever I interacted with people I knew that there was parts of me that I was blatantly hiding.
Simply put I was forced into trying to attain an ideal self that was:
a) Impossible for me to attain
b) Completely at times at odds with my own values
In order to fit in masking I drifted further and further away from how I perceived myself toward the ideal self created by whatever group I was in. This damaged my psyche in ways that are hard to explain. Except that every time I strayed further from my values the higher the level of internal conflict – until finally I entered a life threatening Autistic Burnout.
The diagram above is what the discovery of my full neurodivergence explained to me. The more I demask and live authentically, and shed the expectations of a society and world that doesn’t align with my own perceptions, the more stable and happy I have become.
There’s no positive benefit to masking innately for neurodivergent people who have to hide their traits. Instead it causes a huge internal hatred. Simply living to appear neurotypical is exhausting.
The way to lessen the load of the damage done to masked neurodivergent people is to allow them to take off the mask – unfortunately this isn’t an easy process. I still do it unconsciously all the time, and then realise I am extremely stressed after doing it. It’s become an instinctive performance whenever I interact with other people.
I often wonder what my life might have been like had I not had this forced incongruence. I am reconnecting with my ability to innately feel joy independent of other people – that was the first price paid for my act of ‘fitting in’. If you encourage neurodivergent people not to be themselves – they will never truly belong.
Brené Brown aptly captured the argument I am making here in her Netflix special.
I truly believe that this is why we tend to thrive in neurodivergent spaces, because we are able to be ourselves – not the broken neurotypical imitation the world forced us to be.