What is Masking?
In the context of mental health and neurodivergence, masking refers to the actions or coping strategies that individuals use to conceal their genuine thoughts, emotions, or challenges.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
May 19, 2023
Table of Contents
In the context of mental health, masking refers to the behavior or coping mechanism individuals may employ to hide or conceal their true thoughts, feelings, or difficulties related to their mental health. It involves presenting oneself in a way that conforms to societal expectations or norms, even if it contradicts what one is truly experiencing internally.
People may engage in masking their mental health for various reasons, including fear of stigma, judgment, rejection, or a desire to maintain a sense of normalcy. Masking can occur in different forms and can involve suppressing emotions. It is important to recognize that masking is not a healthy or sustainable strategy. Open communication, seeking professional help, and cultivating a supportive network of understanding individuals can be more beneficial in promoting mental well-being.
How can you tell if someone is masking?
Identifying whether someone is masking their true emotions or mental health can be challenging, as individuals who mask often go to great lengths to hide their struggles. However, there are some signs and indicators that can help you recognize potential masking behaviors.
While these signs are not definitive proof, it’s always best to approach the situation with empathy, respect, and sensitivity. Here are some possible signs of masking in an individual:
The person consistently displays emotions that seem incongruent with their circumstances or experiences. They may appear overly cheerful, positive, or composed, even when facing challenging situations.
Discrepancy between public and private behavior
There is a noticeable difference in how the person presents themselves in public versus their behavior or expressions when they are alone or in a more intimate setting. They may let their guard down and show signs of distress or sadness when they feel safer and more comfortable.
Withdrawal or isolation
The individual may isolate themselves or withdraw from social interactions to avoid revealing their true emotions or mental health struggles. They may prefer to deal with their difficulties alone rather than risk being exposed or judged.
Sudden changes in behavior or personality
If you notice sudden and significant changes in a person’s behavior, such as a shift from being outgoing to withdrawn or from being talkative to silent, it could indicate that they are masking underlying emotions or mental health issues.
It’s essential to approach these observations with care and respect. If you suspect someone is masking, it’s important to create a safe and supportive environment where they feel comfortable discussing their feelings.
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Body language and masking
When it comes to masking, body language can play a significant role. Individuals may consciously or unconsciously adopt certain postures, movements, or gestures to hide their inner turmoil.
Some common examples include:
Masking individuals often attempt to control their facial expressions to hide their true emotions. They may force a smile or maintain a neutral facial expression, even when feeling sadness or despair. The aim is to avoid drawing attention to their inner struggles.
Eye contact is a powerful form of nonverbal communication. While it can convey authenticity, trust, and emotional connection, individuals who engage in masking may employ specific strategies to hide their inner struggles through eye contact.
Masking individuals may consciously control their eye contact to give the impression of being engaged and attentive, even when they are struggling internally. They may maintain steady eye contact, but their eyes might lack genuine warmth or depth.
Additionally, when facing challenging emotions or conversations, individuals may use eye contact as a distraction technique. They may fixate their gaze on something else in the environment or shift their focus frequently to avoid revealing their true emotional state.
Why do some neurodivergent people mask?
Neurodivergent individuals, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or other neurodevelopmental conditions, may engage in masking for various reasons. It’s important to note that not all neurodivergent individuals mask, and experiences can vary widely among individuals. Here are some factors that can contribute to neurodivergent individuals engaging in masking behaviors:
Social expectations and conformity
Society often has specific norms and expectations regarding social behavior, communication styles, and social cues. Neurodivergent individuals may mask to fit in and conform to these societal expectations, trying to avoid judgment, exclusion, or negative reactions from others.
Fear of stigma and discrimination
Neurodivergent individuals may be aware of the stigma and misconceptions surrounding their conditions. To protect themselves from potential discrimination, bullying, or marginalization, they may mask their neurodivergent traits to appear more typical or “neurotypical” in social situations.
Camouflaging for social acceptance
Some neurodivergent individuals may engage in masking as a way to navigate social interactions more smoothly. They may imitate or mimic the social behaviors, expressions, or communication styles of their neurotypical peers to be better understood and accepted, even if it does not align with their natural inclinations.
Coping with sensory overload
Many neurodivergent individuals experience sensory sensitivities and may find certain environments or sensory stimuli overwhelming. Masking can involve suppressing or concealing reactions to sensory stimuli to appear less affected or to cope with sensory overload in social settings.
Desire for personal success and achievement
Some neurodivergent individuals may feel pressure to excel academically or professionally. Masking their neurodivergent traits, such as difficulties with executive functioning (which refers to a set of cognitive processes that involve planning, organizing, problem-solving, and self-regulation to achieve goals effectively) or social interactions, can be a way for the neurodiverse person to meet societal or personal expectations and pursue their goals.
What conditions are associated with masking?
Several mental health conditions are commonly associated with masking behaviors. Here are a few examples:
People with depression often engage in masking to conceal their feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or lack of interest. They may put on a brave face, appearing cheerful or functioning well in social situations while experiencing significant internal distress.
Individuals with anxiety disorders may mask their symptoms to avoid drawing attention to their worries, fears, or panic. They may try to maintain a composed demeanor, suppress physical signs of anxiety (such as trembling or sweating), or hide their constant mental preoccupations.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
People with PTSD may mask their traumatic experiences and associated symptoms. They may avoid discussing or acknowledging their trauma, suppress emotions related to it, or use coping mechanisms to appear unaffected, all while experiencing significant distress internally.
Substance Use Disorders
People struggling with substance abuse may engage in masking to hide their addiction. They may try to appear functional, deny or downplay their substance use, or use substances to self-medicate underlying mental health issues while presenting a facade of control.
Masking and autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
When discussing masking and its association with mental health conditions, it is important to highlight its significance within the context of ASD. Individuals on the autism spectrum often engage in masking as a coping mechanism to navigate social situations and meet societal expectations. Masking in autism refers to the conscious or subconscious effort of an autistic person to camouflage or hide autistic traits or behaviors to blend in with neurotypical individuals.
Masking in autism can have several implications for mental health:
Increased stress and exhaustion
Masking requires significant cognitive and emotional effort to monitor and adjust behaviors to conform to social norms. This constant masking can lead to increased stress levels, mental exhaustion, and reduced overall well-being.
Anxiety and social difficulties
Autistic individuals who mask may experience heightened social anxiety due to the fear of being exposed or judged for their differences. The pressure to conform can contribute to social difficulties, including challenges in understanding social cues and maintaining relationships.
Masking as a barrier to diagnosis and support
The ability to mask autistic traits effectively can make it harder for individuals to receive an accurate diagnosis, especially in cases where masking leads to a superficial appearance of social competence. This can result in delayed access to appropriate support and interventions.
Identity and self-acceptance
Masking can create a disconnection between an individual’s true autistic identity and the persona they present to the world. This struggle with self-acceptance and authenticity can contribute to identity issues and emotional distress.
The impact of masking on mental health
Masking in mental health can have both short-term and long-term consequences. In the short term, it may provide temporary relief or protection, as individuals may avoid negative reactions or maintain their social roles. However, in the long run, masking can be detrimental to mental well-being. It can lead to increased emotional distress, isolation, and difficulty in seeking and receiving appropriate support and treatment. Here are some of the potential effects of masking:
Increased emotional distress
Masking often involves suppressing or hiding true emotions, which can lead to a buildup of unresolved feelings and contribute to mental health problems in the long-term. Continuously bottling up emotions can contribute to increased stress, anxiety, and emotional turmoil.
Difficulty seeking help and support
When individuals mask their mental health struggles, they may find it challenging to reach out for support or seek professional help. The fear of being judged, misunderstood, or stigmatized can prevent them from accessing the assistance they need to improve their mental well-being.
Social isolation and strained relationships
Masking can create a barrier between individuals and their social connections. When people feel compelled to hide their true selves, it becomes challenging to establish genuine and authentic relationships. The fear of being exposed or misunderstood can lead to social withdrawal and isolation.
Impaired self-awareness and self-acceptance
Continuously masking one’s emotions can result in a diminished understanding of oneself. When individuals consistently deny or suppress their feelings, they may struggle to recognize their own emotional needs and develop a healthy sense of self-acceptance.
Burnout and exhaustion
Maintaining a facade of well-being while dealing with internal struggles can be emotionally and mentally draining. The constant effort required to appear fine and meet societal expectations can lead to burnout and exhaustion over time.
Worsening mental health conditions
Masking can exacerbate existing mental health conditions or contribute to the development of new ones. Untreated or unaddressed emotions and struggles can manifest as more severe mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety disorders (including social anxiety), or chronic stress.22
Lack of authentic self-expression
Masking prevents individuals from fully expressing their true selves and sharing their genuine experiences. This can hinder personal growth, limit opportunities for self-expression, and impact overall life satisfaction.
It’s important to note that everyone’s experiences with masking and its impact on mental health can vary. Some individuals may be more resilient or able to manage the consequences of masking, while others may experience more significant challenges. Encouraging open dialogue, empathy, and creating safe spaces for honest expression can help mitigate the negative effects of masking and promote mental well-being. Seeking professional support from mental health practitioners is also crucial in addressing underlying mental health concerns and learning healthy coping strategies.
Is masking a coping mechanism?
Masking can be considered a coping mechanism in the context of mental health. Coping mechanisms are strategies or behaviors that individuals use to manage or deal with challenging or distressing situations. Masking, as a coping mechanism, involves concealing one’s true emotions, thoughts, or struggles as a way to navigate social situations or cope with internal difficulties.
Individuals may resort to masking as a means to protect themselves from potential stigma, judgment, or negative consequences associated with openly expressing their mental health concerns. It can provide a temporary sense of relief or a way to maintain a semblance of control over their lives. By presenting a facade of well-being or conformity, individuals may feel they can better manage their social interactions or avoid potential rejection.
However, while masking can serve as a short-term coping mechanism, it is important to note that it is not a healthy or sustainable long-term strategy. Masking can lead to increased emotional distress, social isolation, and difficulty in seeking appropriate support. It can prevent individuals from addressing their underlying mental health needs and hinder their overall well-being.
In the journey towards better mental health, it is important for individuals to develop and employ adaptive coping mechanisms that promote openness, self-expression, and seeking support when needed. Engaging in activities such as therapy, self-care practices, and building a support network of understanding individuals can help individuals develop healthier coping strategies and foster emotional well-being.
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How to support someone who is neurodivergent
Learning how to support someone who is neurodivergent involves understanding their unique needs and providing an inclusive and accepting environment. Here are some ways you can support a neurodivergent individual:
Take the time to learn about the specific neurodivergent condition the person has, its characteristics, strengths, challenges, and common experiences. Understanding their perspective can help you provide appropriate support and be more empathetic.
Foster open communication
Create a safe and non-judgmental space for open communication. Encourage the person to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences without fear of being misunderstood or stigmatized. Listen actively, validate their experiences, and be attentive to their needs.
Respect individual differences
Recognize that neurodivergent individuals have diverse strengths, abilities, and ways of processing information. Respect their unique perspectives and avoid making assumptions or generalizations based on their neurodivergent condition.
Be patient and flexible
Understand that neurodivergent individuals may have different ways of processing information, communicating, or responding to situations. Practice patience and flexibility, allowing for additional time or different approaches when necessary.
Advocate for inclusivity
Promote inclusivity and advocate for accommodations and support systems that can facilitate the person’s participation and success in various environments, such as education, employment, and social settings. Encourage others to understand and accept neurodiversity.
Offer practical support
Identify and provide practical support that aligns with the person’s specific needs. This could include assisting with organizational strategies, providing sensory accommodations, or helping them navigate social situations.
Empower the person to advocate for themselves by teaching self-advocacy skills, promoting self-confidence, and providing resources that can help them better understand their condition and rights.
Be inclusive in social settings
When socializing, create inclusive environments that consider the needs and comfort of neurodivergent individuals. Be understanding of their potential sensory sensitivities, communication differences, and social challenges, and adapt activities to be more inclusive.
Avoid judgment and stigma
Challenge and address any biases, stereotypes, or stigmatizing attitudes you may have or witness in others. Promote a culture of acceptance, understanding, and empathy towards neurodivergent individuals.
Seek professional support
Encourage the person to seek professional support from therapists, counselors, or specialists who can provide guidance, strategies, and interventions tailored to their specific needs.
How can Charlie Health help?
If you or a loved one find yourself masking and could use professional support, Charlie Health can help. We offer personalized intensive outpatient (IOP) mental health treatment for teens, young adults, and families, including neurodivergent therapy, neurodivergent-affirming therapists, and neurodivergent-exclusive peer groups.
Our mental health providers practice neurodivergence-informed therapy and have extensive experience helping neurodiverse young adults and teens. At Charlie Health, every client is matched with a therapist who fits their specific needs, and will also be matched with a group of peers who are from similar backgrounds with similar struggles. Your loved one is not alone with their mental health challenges, and remember, neurodiversity is something to celebrate! Reach out today.