stop masking, start LIVING

Most of the time, we’re viewing our world through a filter, however that might look. We put on masks to fit in, letting our truest selves fall to the wayside. To stop masking means to start living your truest, most authentic life.

The reality around us and within us may differ drastically from what we see and display to others. That skewed perception persists in our social media, face-to-face communication, and ignorance of what’s truly lurking underneath a tidy, pretty-looking surface.

We filter ourselves to ensure nobody questions our strength and resilience, but how many of us are having these same thoughts in the harmful game of comparison?

We know the norms to uphold. What’s expected of us in terms of behaving and expressing. My proposal, to stop masking, means acknowledging what’s “typical” and choosing to forge your own path. Without shame.

I have a long way to go in my own process to stop masking. I speak as an autistic adult who has managed mental illness for most of my life. This unmasking, shedding the skin I’ve built up to suppress my honest self, is a rediscovery of who I am. Even if that honest self isn’t who I expected to be.

If you’re neurodiverse like me, deal with chronic illness, or have built up your walls too high to remember where you put the key: this one’s for you. It’s time that we stop masking and start living.

what even is “masking”?

A great question indeed. What does it mean to stop masking? And how do we know we’re doing it in the first place?

If you feel like you’re ever holding yourself back to make everyone around you feel comfortable…that’s masking. Or perhaps going against your gut instincts to mime what everyone else is doing in a given situation. Chronic masking turns unconscious as we turn over our authenticity to the majority’s standards.

When my mental health became a prominent factor in my developing years, I realized how often I pretended to be fine when I wasn’t. Actively picking up that “brave face” mask to put on before leaving the house., I lost touch with how I really felt. Any major problems, I shoved into a closet to deal with later.

Bring things to the present day, and my journey to stop masking has become a priority. Women with autism are great at this. We so desperately want to connect and fit in, we sacrifice everything to play a neurotypical role. My masking, my denial to realize what I actually need to thrive, has held me back when I thought it’d propel me forward.

You may identify with masking in other ways. Regardless, if you’re masking, you’re limiting your potential. If we stop masking, then we can at least begin acknowledging everything underneath the surface.

what it really means to stop masking.

We cannot fully embody a role not meant for us. That’s not to say that you’re existence thus far has been fake; it’s just been a diluted version of who you can when you stop masking.

Let’s be real: to stop masking means embracing discomfort. You’re facing real emotions. Not to mention digging up everything you buried beneath layers upon layers of suppression.

Don’t feel ashamed if you resonate with these words: masking is a survival strategy. It’s a natural adaptation for us to navigate society and participate in everything we’re “supposed” to do.

But masking is exhausting. For me, when I have to go out into the world, it takes most of my energy and effort to be friendly and put on my “public face.” It’s genuinely draining for me to be among a group of people, to engage in “normal” conversation, to look people in the eyes.

At some point, you’re bound to crash. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, something has to give. It’s unhealthy to deny your emotions and coping mechanisms like stimming. The several times I’ve crashed, it ended up in long periods of severe depression. I could never explain what may have caused these depressive episodes…until I realized I’ve been masking my entire life.

let’s stop masking and start thriving.

Here comes the crucial part: we’ve recognized how and why we mask our authenticity. Now it’s time to stop masking and start living.

This isn’t a night-and-day change. Don’t assume you’ll wake up tomorrow as a completely different person. To stop masking is likely a long, ongoing process requiring patience and acceptance.

Here are some tips that have helped me stop masking, or drastically reduce how often I feel the need to mask:

1. find others like you.

The main reason why I’m on Facebook anymore is to interact in groups of fellow autistic women. It’s appalling how much I identify with their traits or life circumstances. Actively seeking out people and information to help me understand my true self more has been a huge “aha” in realizing who I am underneath the facade.

Consider support groups, forums, and maybe just researching to explore what chronic illness and neurodiversity entail. Trust me when I say it’s beyond refreshing to see and hear things that make you realize, “Wait…this is me.

2. express how you feel. for real.

Similar to finding others going through similar situations, it’s liberating to defy the masks you wear and just express the nitty-gritty emotions. Maybe you won’t have words or ways to fully understand what you’re feeling after long-term masking, but it’s important to start somewhere.

If you have a therapist, a loved one, or anyone you feel close enough with, be honest. Tell them what’s up, and not in a small-talk way. Write out everything into a journal or type it up in a Word document. The longer we bottle things up, the harder it becomes to let go of what’s inside.

3. explore what feels good to you.

This is the part where it might feel like you’re in high school or college again, doing a bunch of random things just to see what you like or dislike.

If you’ve been masking for a long time, that means you’ve held back any inclination to act upon those gut instincts and interests. As you slowly unravel yourself, utilize this time as an opportunity to relearn how to listen to that gut.

Try different stims. See what it feels like to dim the bright lights in your room or wear headphones to quiet the noisy chaos of crowded areas. Step back and see what you’re drawn to doing.

Perhaps new, intense interests arise. The important point to remember is seeking out happiness. What actually makes you happy and content? Beyond what your peers or marketing have told you?

4. advocate for yourself.

To stop masking is a conscious choice and effort. Sure, the alternative ultimately leaves you constantly anxious and drained, but unmasking has its own challenges. In this neurotypical world we live in, people don’t automatically accept the “misfits.”

We’ve trained ourselves to fit into the norms, and now we’re retraining ourselves to opt for authenticity over the majority’s expectations. It’s both easy and difficult to walk on this line of wanting to survive in the world and unabashedly be ourselves.

Once you become more familiar with what makes you feel good and healthy as your authentic self, ask what we need from others and the world. Utilize accommodations if applicable. Admit how you’re feeling and how you may be struggling. Find those places that are flexible and understanding enough to make room for you.

Sometimes we do need to mask. When that happens, make sure you take care of yourself and give yourself enough time before and after masking to avoid complete burnout. A great illustration for this is the spoon theory.

your life of freedom begins now.

With whatever diverse condition and trait(s) you have, know that they are your superpower. What you have to offer is a different perspective than most others around you.

Awareness of mental illness, chronic illness, and neurodiversity is growing. But awareness doesn’t equate to acceptance. Society still has a long way to go before that happens.

Until then, you deserve freedom. Freedom to be who you’ve always meant to be. Masks off. Fully present. True to yourself and proud to live as a unique, amazing human being.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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3rd October 2017 at 8:58 pm

Thank you for you vulnerability. Your right! Major depression is not pretty. Its tough, tiresome, and sometimes we just want to give up. I too used to lay in bed wondering why cant i just get up. My body felt fatigue, my thoughts kept circling. I am constantly searching to find beauty and strength within mental illnesses. As you know mental illness persons constantly have to fight their thoughts and thats where i see beauty. The strength i see in mental illness persons is when we keep pushing even when are emotions make us feel like were done with life. I really appreciate your post.

7th October 2017 at 2:45 am

I can’t add to this, since it has been so very truly said already. It is a never ending fight where we need each other to create a different view, gain strength and understanding.

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