#MHMon: Masks Off

“Masking” is the process by which people with mental health issues or disabilities hide their symptoms in order to blend in with society. This can include something like a person with depression forcing a smile, a hearing impaired person pretending to understand parts of a conversation when they can’t read someone’s lips or the person speaks too quickly, someone with Schizophrenia trying to ignore a delusion so they can participate in a normal conversation, or an autistic person training themselves to make eye contact when having a conversation, even when it makes them uncomfortable.

There are lots of ways to mask, and even neurotypical people do it. It’s a defense mechanism that allows us to blend in when we are convinced we are standing out. Just like zebras depend on the blending of their stripes to protect them from lions, humans as social creatures rely on blending in with society to protect us and form connections.

Masking can be a good thing. It can increase our sense of security in a new situation, like when you put on affected air of confidence before giving a big speech or presentation–that sort of “fake it till you make it” effect.

However, it can be difficult, exhausting, harmful, and sometimes dangerous.

On the low end of the spectrum, it takes a lot of energy to mask behaviors that are ingrained in your core. If you’ve ever been in a school play, or had a choir recital or given a public presentation, it’s a bit like that. Imagine that anxiety, that stress, all the time. Every response has to be “in character” or you risk giving yourself away. And since the point of masking is to minimize or hide a specific trait or behavior, giving yourself away is not an option.

This can be confusing, both for the person doing the masking, and for those around us. Because the point is to blend in with a given situation of social group, if you have a friend or family member that overlaps two separate groups, they might feel like you have two completely different personalities. For example, I behave very differently with my Steampunk friends than I do at work, and the way I am with my knitting group is different from how I am with my fellow museum volunteers. My online author personna is not who I am when with close friends, and that again is different from who I am with family.

When these groups collide, it can lead to accusations of being false, “poser” (do the kids still use that word?), or that sentiments are insincere.

Going further, when the mask cracks, we’re often accused of “faking it,” “just wanting attention,” “being lazy,” or “just not trying.” The mask becomes who they see, who they want to see, and all they are willing to see.

The mask is why I didn’t get proper treatment for my mental health problems until after college. Masking became so automatic that even when I asked for help, I was compelled to downplay my symptoms, so they were always dismissed. For years, I convinced myself that it couldn’t possibly be that bad, because no one else saw it that way. Clearly, I was just weak, and needed to grow a backbone or a thicker skin or whatever.

It’s hard to see through masks. They are a protection. They can be a necessary part of self preservation. But just as comfort zones can turn toxic, masks can turn deadly. They can make it harder for people to understand us, rather than easier. They can prevent us from getting the help we need.

They can also keep us locked in miserable little boxes, where we feel we aren’t free to be ourselves.

I can’t tell you what is right or wrong in your situation. I can’t tell you how much is too much. But I hope I’ve shed a little light on a subject that can be difficult to understand, even for those experiencing it.

Got questions? Leave a comment below.

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