As of the moment, we are currently in the third week of the #TakeTheMaskOff Challenge, and the experience of writing about masking and stimming has been quite liberating for me, and it is also interesting to see how far I’ve come from when I myself didn’t understand my own diagnosis and myself, and I hope that these posts, which talk about masking from my own personal point of view, will allow the readers to understand what we go through, and at the same time, I hope that others like me are encouraged to speak out and make their own voices heard. So far we have talked about masking and stimming. So, for the third week of the challenge, let’s take a look at the physical and mental cost that masking has on individuals with autism, my own personal experience of how exhausting it can be, and what coping strategies I use now in order to lessen the physical and mental exhaustion and stress.
As we are three weeks in, I don’t think I have to tell you what masking is anymore. But for those who are only joining us now, masking is a term used when individuals with autism put on a front, or try to mimic socially accepted behavior by their peers in order to be accepted, and so that they won’t seem out of place or behave in a different way from their peers.
In my own experience, I did this a lot during my teenage years and early 20s, so that I could be accepted by my classmates, my groups of friends, and whatever work environment I am at. I would mimic their behavior, all the way from movements to how they say things or the slang that they use, and I tried to also like the things that they liked as well.
Masking, in my experience, means knowing what exactly to do in particular social situations, knowing what exactly to say and what not to say, what behaviors are accepted and not accepted, and “putting on a face” depending on the situation. For example, the “mask” I’d put on fro hanging out with friends is different from the “mask” I’d put on when I’m at the office and dealing with co-workers and superiors.
Doing this allowed me not only to be socially accepted at those moments, but it also allowed me to “survive” in a way.
However, if you’ve noticed, masking requires a lot of effort, so it is no wonder that it can be physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.
Masking, in my experience, makes me very anxious and on edge. When I’m masking, that anxiety manifests itself with me double guessing myself by wondering if every action I’m doing or if every word (complete with intonation) was appropriate, and then I worry about what they might think of me and beat myself up after figuring out what I should have done or said better. And of course, that takes me through a whole range of emotions that leaves me emotionally exhausted in the end.
There were also a lot of moments in which I double guessed myself, and wondered if there was something wrong with me as it seemed as if I led a double life. I did everything and liked everything that my peers did, but deep down in my heart, it wasn’t really who I was, and comforted myself with the fact that when I got home, I can be myself again.
Masking made me feel that I wasn’t being truly myself or authentic at all, as I felt that I had to hide my true self in order to be accepted.
The physical toll of masking isn’t something that I was that much aware of until I fall asleep and wake up still tired the next day.
However, now, with the self-awareness that comes with truly accepting everything that my own diagnosis entails, I have managed to come up with coping strategies that help me behave in a more socially appropriate manner, without having to fully mask and hide my true self.
Yes, I still do prepare and have particular “masks” or “faces” on depending on the social situations, but instead of true masks, it’s more of coping strategies put together through years of experience. I still prepare small talk topics for myself, give myself pep talks on what to expect, and remind myself on what is considered good manners and socially appropriate behavior before diving into particular social situations; but I no longer hide my smaller stims or pretend to like things that my peers like. So, over the years, instead of masking, I just use my coping strategies, which, honestly, lessens the mental, physical and emotional exhaustion when it comes to socializing or going out.
Masking is definitely something that shouldn’t be encouraged as it requires too much effort to do, and forces you to not be true to yourself. It also has a heavy toll on your physical well-being, as you’ll feel exhausted because of everything you had to do to survive a social encounter; and it leaves you with very low self-esteem as you end up double guessing yourself when you are with your peers, not to mention the heightened anxiety you’ll also feel. Instead, individuals with autism, especially those with high functioning autism, should work closely with their therapists in order to come up with a set of coping strategies for socially accepted behavior that is good manners, so that they can fall back on that instead, and not have to pretend to be someone who they aren’t.
Do you have any questions about masking and how harmful it can be on a person’s emotional, mental and physical well-being? Have you ever experienced something like this? Let me know in the comments below!