Unmasking “Masking”: What It Is, and Why We Do It - Humantold

Unmasking “Masking”: What It Is, and Why We Do It

Karen Veintimilla, LMHC October 26, 2023

We’re not talking about a masquerade ball or Halloween costume, but the behavior individuals may engage in to hide how they’re feeling or who they truly are.

Have you ever heard some of these statements said by others? “I never realized this person was suffering,” or “they look fine,” or “they do not look like they have a problem.” As our society continues to progress in terms of destigmatizing mental health, it’s becoming more common for people to speak openly about their experiences and show their true feelings to others. However, that may not always be the case. What if, despite all of our strides to open up more about therapy and mental health, people still suppress their true feelings, symptoms, behaviors, or difficulties because of fear of judgment? This behavior is known as masking. 

Masking refers to the habits or behavior an individual may use to suppress their true symptoms, emotions, and difficulties due to the fear of judgment. This behavior is common in the world of neurodivergence, especially for those who are autistic or who have ADHD, in order for individuals to fit in with social norms and expectations, such as forcing yourself to make eye contact even though you’re uncomfortable with it, or smiling because that’s what is expected of you in the social situation. However, neurotypical individuals will also use masking as a way to hide their anxiety and depressive symptoms. Masking allows people to blend in with those around them and is a safety mechanism to feel accepted, even when it may be inauthentic to who they are or how they’re feeling. There may always be the fear that one will be rejected, teased, or punished if they are their true self, and so they try to project that they are not atypical or struggling with any mental health symptoms. In short, masking is rooted in safety and the fear of stigma, need of social acceptance, and desire for achievement and success. 

There are three different types of masking behaviors that people engage in to feel accepted and fit in with others. 

  1. Social masking refers to someone engaging in social behaviors that are considered acceptable and do not come naturally to the person. 
  2. Behavioral masking is hiding behaviors such as fidgeting or stimming (this is most common with autistic individuals*). 
  3. Compensation, which is when those who are struggling will take more time and energy on tasks.* Compensation is a common behavior for those with ADHD, as they often struggle with specific topics or subjects and usually work harder and do more to match their peers' efforts. 

Oftentimes, those who mask will adopt the movements, mannerisms, attitudes, and behaviors they perceive to be acceptable due to worries based on feedback shared with them (either verbally or non verbally) by others in the past or feeling that their behavior will look strange to others. It can also be used to hide mental health symptoms such as depression or anxiety, when people try to appear happy or carefree to others despite internally struggling.

And yet, people may not always recognize that they are masking. Masking can be an unconscious and learned behavior that is developed over years of social interactions and learning how to behave across various social settings, often amplified as people get older and spend time in different social groups and settings. The desire to be accepted is deeply important; biologically, acceptance by others was a necessary way to protect ourselves from predators, and socially it was a way for us to feel a part of something and in a community with others, which has a positive impact on our mental health. Protecting against ableism, the discrimination against people with disabilities, is also a contributing factor. Ableism maintains the belief that there is a correct physical and mental way for people to function, and any other way is incorrect, which again would explain why hiding behaviors that are seen as different would be a necessary protective factor for social acceptance as well as personal and professional achievement. 

While masking can be an ingrained survival and coping mechanism for individuals, it has been shown to increase distress and potentially cause additional mental health issues, including increased anxiety and depression as people continually fear the repercussions of being their true selves. Masking behaviors can increase the risk for a misdiagnosis by a professional when behaviors are not accurately portrayed or discussed, and may mean the person does not receive adequate support. This is especially dangerous for those who have a history of suicidal behaviors and attempts. We often see this with people who have completed suicide and people around them felt like there was no warning or awareness about the fact that they were suffering. Another prominent example is Chester Bennington from Linkin Park; after his death there were multiple reports that days before, he had been doing “better” and seemed “hopeful.” Someone may be engaging in masking behaviors if you notice there are inconsistencies between their behavior in private versus in public. 

Therapy can be a way to help yourself or others who may be masking. Although there is not one intervention that can diagnose or “cure” masking, there are many therapeutic approaches that may help us begin to explore and unpack masking behaviors. One intervention is cognitive behavioral therapy, which explores thoughts and patterns relating to behavior and recognizes how behaviors came to be (or how cognition is created). For example, if someone who identifies as an “introvert” goes out to a party despite their emotional battery being drained, CBT can assist in attempting to understand why the person goes despite their own preference, and challenge the negative thought patterns and emotions that coincide with or precede that behavior. Another intervention draws from psychodynamic principles, a method to help clients identify recurring patterns in their thoughts, emotions, and behavior. An example would be looking into past instances where behaviors or emotions were not accepted by loved ones, which led to a need to “protect” themselves by masking their behavior or feelings. Attachment focused interventions like EFT could also be used to explore how a masking behavior resulted from not feeling safe with an attachment figure. Of course, this is not a comprehensive list of all approaches; therapists may take many different routes to exploring one’s reasons for masking and creating safety and space for change. If you find that you may be masking, know that there is help out there to begin to show your true authentic self. 

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