Masking: What It Means to 'Mask' Your Symptoms
Have you ever felt like you’ve hidden a part of yourself from others to avoid harm? This is known as masking, and while it can help individuals feel safe in the short term, it can lead to negative impacts over time. In this article, we'll explore the concept of masking, why it happens, how it's expressed, and a path forward in addressing it.
Table of contents
What is masking?
Masking refers to the act of hiding or suppressing one's true identity, behaviour, emotions, or thoughts to fit in with societal expectations or avoid negative experiences. It is often used as a coping mechanism by individuals who feel different or unable to express their true selves due to various factors, such as social anxiety, discrimination, or trauma. It's similar to donning a mask, where you present a false facade to the world. However, wearing a mask long enough can make you believe it's your true self, so it’s healthy to check in with yourself from time to time.
Where does masking come from?
Masking is a survival mechanism that is often developed during childhood when someone does not feel safe to express their true self. This unsafe feeling can be caused by bullying, trauma or abuse, unhealthy family dynamics, or a variety of other social factors. Over time those grown-up children learn to adapt to their environment and internalize the need to hide their true selves to fit in, resulting in masking becoming a habitual and automatic response.
Masking can be an important coping tactic for someone that's neurodivergent, as it can help them manage their symptoms and function in their daily lives. This can provide a sense of control over their symptoms, empowering them and boosting their self-esteem.
Masking can also help someone avoid the negative consequences of their condition. By altering their behaviour, thoughts, or emotions, those who mask may be better able to navigate social situations and avoid discomfort.
Masking is not a long-term solution
While masking can provide a sense of control, it's important to recognize that it's not a substitute for effective treatment and support. Seeking professional help and support from loved ones can help someone manage their symptoms more effectively and reduce the need to mask.
What's the link between masking and neurodivergence?
Neurodivergent individuals may mask their condition consciously or subconsciously due to the societal demands of a predominantly neurotypical world. Examples of neurodivergent individuals and how they can hide their symptoms include the following:
ADHD: People with ADHD may mask their symptoms in various ways, depending on the type of ADHD they have. Those with inattentive ADHD may try to focus very hard and put extra effort into paying attention but still struggle to stay focused. They may also hide their difficulties in organizing and completing tasks, which can lead to procrastination or missed deadlines. Those with hyperactive ADHD may make themselves appear calm and collected, even though they feel restless and constantly need to move. They may also suppress their impulsiveness, avoiding interrupting people or blurting out inappropriate comments. Those with combined type ADHD may experience symptoms from both categories and mask them in a combination of the above ways. Additionally, they may hide their feelings of being overwhelmed or anxious, and avoid engaging in repetitive behaviours or movements, known as stimming, even if it helps them to self-regulate.
Anxiety: Those with anxiety disorders may mask their symptoms by avoiding situations or activities that trigger their anxiety. They may also use coping mechanisms such as deep breathing, distraction, or positive self-talk to avoid drawing attention to their anxious thoughts or behaviours.
Autism: People with autism may mask their symptoms by mimicking the behaviours of others to fit in socially, avoiding eye contact, or withdrawing from social situations. They may also use coping mechanisms such as routine or repetitive behaviours to prevent sensory overload.
Depression: Someone with depression may mask their symptoms by putting on a happy face, pretending that everything is okay, and avoiding conversations about their true feelings. They may also isolate themselves from others to avoid having to put on a façade.
Are you masking?
One tip for spotting masking in yourself is to pay attention to how you feel when alone. If you feel significantly different or worse when you're alone than when you're with others, or if you're constantly putting others' needs before your own, it could be a sign that you're masking.
Why do people mask throughout their lives?
Masking can become a subconscious habit over time, making it challenging for individuals to break away from this pattern and develop authentic relationships with themselves and others. Some of the most common causes for masking include the following:
Stigma: Unfortunately, many experiences tied to mental health are still stigmatized in many parts of the world. This stigma can lead to a fear of being judged, discriminated against, or ostracized by others. As a result, many people feel the need to hide parts of themselves to avoid negative reactions from others.
Shame: Even without the stigma from others, people may still feel ashamed. They may worry that their symptoms are a sign of weakness or that they are somehow to blame for their condition. This shame can make it difficult for people to talk openly about what they are going through.
Lack of diagnosis: When the cause of someone's symptoms remains undiagnosed, they may not clearly understand what they are experiencing. This lack of awareness can make it difficult for them to recognize that they need help or seek resources. As a result, they may mask their symptoms without realizing they are doing so.
Don't blame yourself
Masking is a common coping mechanism, and it's helpful to remember that mental illnesses are a natural part of life for many people. Individuals should not feel ashamed if they have been masking their symptoms, as it is understandable to do so.
Types of masking
Just as the cause for masking can differ from person to person, so can the coping tactics taken by each individual to mask themselves. While there are countless ways masking can be expressed, they often fall into one of the four categories below:
Behavioural masking involves modifying one's behaviour to hide or suppress symptoms. For example, an individual with social anxiety may avoid eye contact or practice breathing exercises to manage their symptoms during social situations, while someone with ADHD may create lists or use a timer to manage their tasks and avoid becoming overwhelmed.
Emotional masking involves hiding one's emotions or feelings from others. For example, someone with depression may force themselves to smile or laugh in social situations to avoid appearing unhappy, while an individual with bipolar disorder may use distraction techniques, such as exercise or work, to avoid feeling the intensity of their emotions during a manic or depressive episode.
Social masking involves conforming to social norms and expectations to fit in with others. For example, someone with autism may consciously mimic the facial expressions and body language of others so they don't stand out.
Self-masking involves hiding or minimizing your symptoms or mental health condition from yourself. For example, someone with ADHD may write off their symptoms of distraction, forgetfulness, and impulsivity as laziness, a lack of motivation, or a character flaw rather than recognizing it as a symptom of ADHD.
How masking can hurt
Although masking can occasionally be a helpful coping mechanism, that's not always the case. Masking can lead to negative outcomes that harm both those masking and those around them.
Exhaustion and burnout
Masking requires individuals to monitor and regulate their behaviour constantly, which can be mentally and emotionally taxing. This constant self-regulation can lead to a sense of exhaustion and fatigue, making it difficult for individuals to function in their daily lives and manage their symptoms. Those who mask may find themselves sacrificing their own needs and desires to fit in, leading to a continuous sense of burnout and frustration.
Masking causes people to hide their true selves and present a persona that fits in with societal expectations, which can make it difficult to connect with others authentically. Navigating life and the hardships that come with it without authentic connections can be emotionally draining and isolating, leading to feelings of loneliness. Masking can also prevent individuals from receiving the help they need as their condition goes unnoticed by others and themselves.
Self-doubt and poor understanding of self
Masking can cause individuals to internalize their symptoms and make it harder to acknowledge and address their challenges. By blaming themselves, individuals may inadvertently invalidate their own experiences, leading to shame, self-doubt, and even disconnection from their true selves. This self-doubt can make it challenging for those masking to develop healthy relationships with themselves and others.
Things can change
If this resonates with your experience, please know that it doesn’t have to continue this way. With the right support, those who mask are able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy coping tactics and adjust their reactions over time.
Unmasking: How to deal with masking
Unmasking refers to identifying and acknowledging instances of masking and compensatory behaviour and developing strategies to address them.
It can be helpful to look back at your personal history and see if you can identify any masking patterns. This way, you can better understand your experience and develop coping strategies that work for you.
Feel free to contact those closest to you and ask for their input on your behaviour and traits. They may be able to offer valuable insights that you may not be aware of and can provide support and encouragement as you work on unmasking.
If you suspect that an undiagnosed mental health condition is causing you to mask your symptoms, it's important to seek help from a medical professional. They can evaluate your symptoms, provide a proper diagnosis, and recommend a treatment plan that works best for your unique needs.
Remember, seeking help is a brave and essential step towards self-healing, and there is no shame in asking for support.
Frida may be able to help
If you believe you may be experiencing symptoms of ADHD, consider taking our free self-assessment to see if Frida is a match for your needs.