Hands in a heart shape holding an infinity rainbox. Underneath the words Sandra Bell ND Coach
#21 ND Masking

·        What is ND Masking?

·        Is ND Masking good or bad? 

·        Becoming aware you are masking is key.

What is ND Masking?


Masking in the context of neurodivergence, is not being able to be your authentic neurodivergent self in a social situation. Instead of being able to just be themselves, in order to be psychologically and/or physically safe, the neurodivergent individual – usually unconsciously – damps down who they are and what they really feel like doing and saying. Often this has become the person’s default or unconscious response because when they were little and didn’t self-censor themselves this way they in no uncertain terms got the feedback from peers and adults that they were too…, too loud, too blunt, too honest, too fidgety, too pushy etc… So ND children take this on board, and if they’re able to they change how they act and what they say in order to stop the constant barrage of negative feedback, they do, and on comes the mask. Over time it becomes unconscious, to the point that some people continue to mask even when they aren’t around others, and become lost to themselves as well.

Is ND Masking good or bad?


Masking can be both good and bad. There was a trend a little while ago about unmasking, sort of like an ND liberation movement. Just be yourself, don’t mask. It’s not that simple though. Sometimes you need to mask to remain psychologically and/or physically safe. 

As an example of when it can be good or helpful - I was in the supermarket the other day, not feeling physically well so it also made it harder for me mentally to be in that sensory overload environment – unnatural light, so many choices to make, and too many people to deal with; I struggle to predict where they are going to move next, and with just how long I have to wait for them to decide when they are right in the way of what I need to get off the shelf, and on and on. I spent most of my time in the supermarket on the brink of bursting into tears because I was so overwhelmed. But this supermarket wasn’t one that had self check-out so I knew I had to go through that (for me) socially painful experience of going through the checkout. Small talk, interacting with staff and maybe those on either side me in the checkout line; when all I wanted to do is let out my emotion and cry and be at home in my safe cocoon, but we needed the food so just walking out wasn’t an option. Instead I took a deep breath, put on my “happy, competent customer mask” and went through the checkout. And that was actually the best thing to do for me and my mental health, I went from on the verge of tears to being able to say “I’m really good thanks” with (I think) a convincing upbeat tone, to that inevitable question of “how are you today?”. In this instance I did this consciously, mainly because I had already started toying with the idea of this as the topic for this week’s blog post, but I assure you I have done that same thing many times before without making a conscious decision to do so. And to be honest, it wouldn’t have been better for either myself nor the staff and other customers around me if I’d answered that question honestly. (Which confuses my autistic brain as to why you would ask a question that you don’t really want answered honestly, but that’s another blog post all in itself.) The person on the checkout didn’t want or need to hear that I was on the verge of a meltdown because the environment I was in was overwhelming, and I was feeling a bit unwell so it just made it all that much harder than usual. Being that honest would have made the tears come straight away, and I wouldn’t have wanted sympathy or empathy from them, I just wanted to buy my groceries and get home. So masking actually kept me psychologically safe, I could get my groceries, get to my car, have a little cry to help me reset, and keep getting through my day.

But masking can definitely be bad as well. The main reason is that when we mask we lose a little piece of our authentic self. If we are masking a lot; at school, at work, and sometimes at home as well, that’s a lot of pieces being lost, and we can become disconnected with ourselves and what we need and want. That’s when it can lead to mental health issues. It can mean that things like bullying at work or school can go on for years without anyone really knowing about it. The person who is being bullied is masking so they don’t consciously feel the full impact of it, so it bubbles along under the surface until it just can’t be ignored anymore, so they person breaks down. Or it bubbles out as meltdowns or shutdowns but because the masking has helped the person disconnect they don’t understand what is really causing these. 

Becoming aware you are masking is key.


So masking can be good and bad. Becoming aware of when you are masking is the key to better mental health outcomes. My suggestion would be to start small, like my becoming aware I mask in supermarkets. I only go a few times a week, and I spend about 20 minutes or so there, so it isn’t a huge part of my life. Becoming aware I mask there doesn’t make me question the fundamentals of my life, so it is a safe place to start unpacking how I’m masking and why. I mask in that environment because it is overwhelming, but it is a necessary task, and when I can I use the self check-outs. I mask by dampening down my frustration at people getting in my way, and by making small talk with other people or staff when I absolutely need to interact. It can mean that sometimes at home I have to really talk myself into going, because I know it will take mental effort, but trying to be unmasked would actually make it more difficult. 

From there you can start to work towards parts of your life that are closer and closer to your core or most important to you. You can work through how you are masking, and why you are doing it in that situation. Then you can work out if it is helpful or harmful. And take the best action for you from there.

What’s a small step that you could take to start to learn more about your masking? 

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Please note all information and strategies shared as part of the blog are for information and educational purposes only and do not constitute advice for any particular individual or circumstances.