The toxicity of saying ‘fake it till you make it’, is more harmful to some groups than others. Neurodivergent individuals will experience more obstacles due to rampant ableism in society. This discrimination reinforces a false standard for everyone to appear and behave neurotypically. Such a disconnect is how masking for neurodivergent individuals came into being.
What masking looks like
Masking is a term explaining how neurodivergent people feel the need to camouflage in social situations to appear neurotypical. Masking is a form of social survival displayed in different ways depending on the behaviours the individual wants to conceal.
Due to societal pressures and expectations, there are many behaviours neurodivergent people want to mask, including:
- Rehearsing conversations or scripting them before engagements
- Planning responses to stimuli, questions or other social cues
- Faking smiles or other facial expressions
- Not disclosing personal interests, opting for ‘socially acceptable’ ones
- Mirroring hand movements or other gestures
- Making yourself maintain eye contact during conversations
- Acting as if overpowering sensory stimulations don’t affect you
Neurodivergent people may also train themselves so their stimming behaviours are less noticeable. Stimming is a self-stimulating response, usually a repeated body movement or noise such as rocking back and forth or repeatedly listening to the same song. These can take many forms, some seen as more socially disruptive than others. That’s why neurodivergent people may focus on finding ways to suppress stimming. However, stimming provides comfort for many neurodivergent people and interrupting the habit can cause undue stress.
Feeling ostracized brings a host of mental health complications, so it is a natural response to attempt to fit a mould. However, this adds a lot of invisible pressures and difficulties to neurodivergent people. They feel the need to present non-authentic selves because the mould of ‘normal’ was forced on them by neurotypical people.
Why it is harmful
The reasons individuals mask reveal the detriment it can bring. Masking occurs because individuals feel unsafe in social situations or want to avoid bullying. Some even deem it necessary to succeed in obtaining a romantic relationship or making it at their job. What about maintaining friendships and – in some cases – familial acceptance?
Studies have shown neurodivergent people mask to feel like functioning members of society. This is ableism in effect. Masking deepens stereotypes ableist culture holds about neurodivergent individuals, asserting they can’t appear neurodivergent or they will fail. This adds to feelings of isolation, self-betrayal and paranoia they will present incorrectly to the public eye.
There are many other harmful effects masking can have on people, including:
- Anxiety, depression or other mental illness from lack of self-worth or loss of identity
- Stress from time investment, social exertion or paranoia of being ‘outed’
- Exhaustion from planning strategies
- Delay of a professional diagnosis
- Engaging in risky behaviours like addictive substances
- Increase in suicidal ideation
There is innate desperation to belong in neurodivergent and neurotypical people alike. The way for these side effects to disappear is to create a cultural mindset that accepts all types of people. Neurodivergence is equally acceptable in every situation, professional and personal. The wait for this cultural shift may be long, but in the meantime, there are ways to mitigate the adverse effects of masking.
How to overcome
With over 40 million people with disabilities in the country, neurotypical individuals must educate themselves and be inclusive. Also, many neurodivergent people need to learn self-acceptance to be their true selves. Creating a more inclusive world involves everyone. It is helpful to embrace uniqueness as an opportunity to share new perspectives and experiences.
Neurodivergent people can learn to practice self-love, knowing open-minded and loving people accept their mannerisms, behaviours and communication styles. Being your most genuine self also helps others become more aware of different kinds of people. Surrounding yourself with nourishing individuals is essential, as focusing on changing behaviours is outside your control. Finding a support system is an excellent tool for understanding innate self-worth.
Practising self-love looks different for everyone. For some, it’s meditation and journaling. For others, it’s joining local community groups of like-minded individuals for solidarity.
There are also helpful resources if you struggle with masking or reaching a point of self-acceptance. Mental health professionals are there to guide you to the best strategies for productive coping and healing. The key is not to be too hard on yourself and to know finding the proper methods takes time. Practice patience and the drive to mask could dissipate as the desire to compare yourself to others fades.
Hope for an accepting future
Society does not need to concern itself with ‘curing’ neurodiversity. Pressuring anyone to change their behaviours to fit a mould causes communities to be full of people who don’t feel comfortable in their skin. Society needs to accept all variations of behaviours to overcome ableism, so masking doesn’t feel necessary for neurodivergent people. It would benefit all to create more inclusive, varied and honest workplaces, social circles and communities.
Mia Barnes is a health and wellness writer and the chief editor at Body+Mind. She especially enjoys writing about mental health, psychology, and healthy living.