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Advice

Unmasking

Taking off the mask can be complex, but the work is worth it.
There comes a point in many of our journeys where we realize that, whether or not we intended to, we’ve been masking for most of our lives. Masking ( ) has an active aspect where we actively perform neurotypical behaviors, but it also has a more passive aspect where we consciously halt our own natural behaviors.
At some point in our healing journey we often realize that, hey, wait a second. Why are we spending so much of our energy living for other people? If I’m only ever expressing my mask’s needs, wants, interests, and intentions then what happens to my needs, wants, interests and intentions? Is this why I feel so neglected and unsatisfied on an existential level all the time? Holy shit am I the one neglecting my own self?
If you’ve hit that point then you know it’s time to start unmasking.
Just, uh. How?
Step One: Ending the Active Masking
It turns out it’s easier than you may think to stop a lot of your active masking behaviors; some of them may be harder than you can imagine. It just depends on how deeply ingrained these things are in you and what your various motivations are for the different masks you wear.
Behaviors that come from a sense of “when I was a kid I learned that this is just how the world works” are easy enough to stop — you just stop doing them. You don’t have to wave or smile, you don’t have to say thank you or apologize if you don’t mean it. There may be social costs to stopping these behaviors, but if you’re at a point where you’re experimenting with figuring out how to stop letting your mask control you, it’s worth exploring how it feels to go to an opposite extreme for a bounded period of time.
Here are a few exercises you can try to experiment with dropping your active mask:
(optional but recommended) Communicate openly to everyone that you are neurodivergent and working through some things, and that if your behavior seems different lately it’s because you’re trying to get more in touch with your authentic self. Explain that your expressions and behaviors may seem different but that you’re the same person, and that you’re absolutely open to hearing about it if anything you’re doing causes anyone any distress.
Let your face do whatever it naturally does. You don’t have to control or contort it. If other people have a reaction to your natural facial expression, that’s on them. If EVERYONE has a reaction, then take note of that and consider that this may be an area where you can choose to mask sometimes in the future for the sake of easing your social interactions. But if you choose to do so, you’d be doing so consciously and intentionally, with an awareness of the cost you’re paying to do it.
It’s possible that your mask is driven at least partially (if not mostly) by feelings of shame ( ). You don’t need to carry those feelings — you can choose to reject them, put them down and move on with your life. One way to do that is to stop apologizing. If you find yourself constantly feeling the need to mollify everyone around you with an apology every time you think you may have caused them the slightest inconvenience, I’ve got news for you, friend — you can stop doing that. Most people don’t need that, and the ones that do are toxic. (Note: you should still apologize if and when you’ve caused actual harm and you understand and regret the harm caused.)
Learn to say “no” without explaining yourself. This one blew my mind in therapy a few weeks ago — my therapist did an exercise where he simply asked me to do things and my job was to say “no”. I thought “this is a safe space, it’s not going to feel real” but after three or four simple requests my heart was pounding through my chest — even just saying “no”, without justifying it, even in a safe context, terrified me. That’s a sign that I have some healing work to do there.
Stop participating in events and activities that you don’t actually want to participate in. Yes, going to work happy hour every Thursday in a loud sports bar where you can’t hear yourself think and where you struggle to participate in meaningful conversation is a form of masking, and you can stop doing it.

Basically any time you find yourself thinking, “Ugh, I wish I didn’t have to...” before doing a thing? You don’t have to. Just try listening to that voice for a while (within reason!) and see how far it gets you. Before you know it, you’ll have changed a lot of your default behaviors, but you won’t have lost the ability to use the old mask. It’s just that now you’ll understand when you’re using that it’s a tool, it’s not who you are.
But you’re not done.
Step Two: Ending the Passive Mask
This one is trickier because the passive mask is much harder for us to see. How do you stop doing the not doing of a thing? Quite often we have not only suppressed our natural behaviors but forgotten that we’ve suppressed them. This will actually take a bit of research and experimentation to unpack, and is a bit of a journey. I’m still on this trip — parts of me still feel so heavily locked down that I don’t feel like I can fully access my life, and that’s frustrating and painful.
What I can do is share what I’ve learned so far, and ask you to contribute in the comments below if this journey sounds familiar to you and if you have your own advice to offer.
So, how do you find the parts of yourself that are buried, plastered over with repression and false self? You need some kind of map, right? Well I’ve got great news, you’ve got a map — it’s your sense of shame. Your shame is a map to those parts of yourself you were taught to hate and cover up. That’s how shame works — other people instruct us to change our behavior by making us feel bad about ourselves.
So you end the passive mask by looking into the things you feel an irrational and overwhelming sense of shame about. Are you secretly really into show tunes? Do you have a doll collection that nobody knows about? Do you hide aspects of yourself out of fear that if anyone saw them they’d reject you (and maybe be right in doing so)?
THOSE are the behaviors that you’ve been taught to suppress. That may look like flapping your hands, that may look like speaking in silly voices, that may look like picking at your hair, whatever, we’re not here to make judgments. We’re here to understand how to recover our natural behaviors.
Once you’ve identified an area where you feel shame, just explore it. Don’t overwhelm yourself, the shame and panic are real and not to be trifled with — but try to embrace those specific feelings with curiosity so that you can respond to them instead of reacting to them. Slowly you’ll come to find that the shame you’re feeling may not be as appropriate as the people who shamed you felt like it was. You have permission to put the shame down and move past it.
What you may find is joy and a connection to your inner child that hasn’t been used in a long time.
The Inner Child
Ultimately, masking is about recovering the self, and the most direct way to the authentic self is by connecting with your inner child. If this sounds silly to you, I’d ask you to please have an open mind — these practices really work, and inner child work has led directly to rapid and thorough healing of specific wounds that I’ve carried my whole life. Here’s how it works.
At some point in your childhood you experienced some trauma. Maybe you were 8 years old and you felt abandoned by your parents in some time of emotional need. Maybe you fixated on it for months, but to them it was a Tuesday, and nobody understood that you were upset, let alone that you were building up a trauma. An 8 year old has no good way to deal with feeling abandoned, though, so this trauma remains unprocessed and unhealed.
Decades go by, and you’re having an interaction with someone who has to leave abruptly. You suddenly find yourself breathing heavily, your heart racing, panic welling up — where did this come from? Well, your inner 8 year old woke up because he was reminded of his trauma. Now he’s fighting with your self for control of your body, trying to react and get away from the threat using an 8-year-old’s strategies. Suddenly you’re becoming avoidant or you’re picking fights in ways that you haven’t done in years. You’re not acting in accordance with your values because your actions are being driven by a terrified 8 year old.
The way to heal this kind of damage is to get in touch with that 8 year old and show up for them as a parent or guardian who understands their trauma and helps them process it. You can literally have a verbal conversation where you ask your inner child to tell you what’s going on and then you talk to them and give them a healthy adult perspective on the matter that understands and reconciles their trauma. I literally mean talk to them — you can have an out-loud conversation where you speak for both parties, or you can do this in your head, but really when it’s their turn to talk you gotta listen. They are real in a way you may not fully understand or appreciate.
So in our hypothetical example we’ve got an 8 year old terrified of abandonment. We can’t really deal with this while in the middle of a trauma flashback, but afterwards, when we’re calm, we might ask the 8 year old what happened and why they were so afraid. They might explain that it felt like they were being abandoned and that that makes them feel scared and powerless. Then you tell them, “well, I can’t control what that adult did when you were 8, but I don’t think they wanted to hurt you or even understood how much harm they were causing. Still, I’m sorry that that happened to you. If you’d like, I can promise you that I will never abandon you and you can come to me any time you feel scared. Would that be okay?”
This next part is tricky, because we have to respect their agency and they may say “No.” If they do, that’s okay — that means they don’t trust us yet. We have to keep trying, keep demonstrating to them that we understand what they’re about. Eventually they’ll come around.
And when they do something magical happens, at least for me. I can literally feel the wound close across time, from that inner 8 year old to my present adult. It’s like I changed the timeline in some science fiction show, my whole life is suddenly and ineffably different and it feels amazing. Like each time I find and heal a source of trauma I’m more thoroughly integrating into a coherent self who is aware of his needs, wants, interests and intentions.
Conclusion
Find that person, find your authentic and true self, and you’ll find what’s under your mask. There are a number of paths to take to get there, and I recommend taking all of them at once. Just go slowly and remember that this is serious and heavy work, that there will be setbacks, and that some of what comes up will be scary. It’s okay — you’ve got this, you’re safe and you’re on the road to recovery.

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1
Melanie
I have always suffered with abandonment. I was the only known child & my parents died 8 months apart when I was 9 yrs. Old. So I was really terrified & I think went totally inwards.
Before they died though, it was bad too. They would leave me alone at night & I would stare out the picture window feeling sick & scared & hoping every car that turn down the road was them coming home. I was 7 yrs. Old. Sometimes I would go in her closet and finger a dress and smell her perfume to feel safe. The night my dad died I was home alone & The sheriff came to the door.the phone was buried in pillows so as not to wake me I guess. Sheriff left & came back. It was a horrible night.
Then mom got sick & I got sent to a camp for weeks and was terrified. I was bullied there & scared all the time.
Long story short- The last time I saw her her stomach was covered in silver zinc with six holes the size of quarters dilled in her stomach and her skin was orange. It was at the male clinic. I think I fainted. She died 3 days later.
My childhood was basically nothing more than one long nightmare. I honestly don’t remember feeling anything but fear.
Then at 12? I found alcohol & boy! Did That ever help.!! (Not) so then I began my journey into being a ‘bad child’.
I can’t fix the bottom of this page. It won’t let me. Oh well. And so it went my whole life. More & more abandonment. I don’t think that’s fixable -
I’m so
She died
The I
2
Marla
I think of “guilts” rather than shames. When I call them up, I feel a burning pain in my chest. If I remain calm and hold the sensation, it feels like the fire flickers and dies.
I've had a fun filled life but masking made it possible. At 54, newly diagnosed, and 16 months into recovery from a nearly catastrophic burnout, I am feeling quite lost.
3
@maddoodlek8
I’m intrigued by the idea of inner child work. Without knowing of this, one of the things I found myself doing at the start of lockdown was identifying with my inner children. I wrote the biographies of my inner child at different ages and the person they would have been without the external input that made me drop bits of myself along the way. I became aware of my masking very early and actively shut down pieces of myself due to others and fear of rejection. It’s been a healing thing exploring the various aspects of myself and my childhood, but still a long way to go. The difficult area is that passive stuff learned pre-cognate. The youngest my inners go is 3 and I’m sure much of my shamed-into-submission and exclusion fears come from earlier than that. No one did it to me deliberately which just adds another layer of shame because everyone else seemed to get though life without all this baggage and burnout. I look at my kid-pics and wonder where that person went. Still loads to do to find who I should be.
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