I watched a TV programme recently, by Christine McGuiness, who opened up about her recent autism diagnosis after so many years. She also talked about the concept of masking and how she uses it as a coping mechanism.

Individuals on the autism spectrum often engage in masking to navigate social situations and conform to societal pressures.

Masking means camouflaging or hiding your natural traits or behaviours to blend in and fit with other people. It also involves concealing one’s true emotions, thoughts, or struggles, to navigate social situations or cope with internal difficulties.

It got me thinking about my disability of profound deafness and how I have used masking over the years just to fit in, in particular while doing my job.

Masking begins when you feel a need to hide your differences in relation to the space you are in. It’s a bid to feel safer or come closer to a sense of belonging.

But in those times, you never feel that you belong. Once that persists, your mental health can fall. You feel excluded and not accepted. At the same time, so much of your energy is eaten up by the effort of masking, and all too often the result is physical and mental exhaustion.

Not surprisingly, this is what happened to me. I ended up burnt out and took some time to recover and rediscover my authentic self, while embracing my disability of profound deafness in full.

Mental health impacts

Suppressing your natural behaviours by way of masking can have several mental health impacts. These are:

Increased stress and exhaustion

Masking requires extra effort to monitor the situation regularly and adjust your behaviours just to fit in. This can lead to stress, mental exhaustion and reduced overall well-being as you are on alert all the time.

Increased levels of anxiety

People with disabilities 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.

I certainly experience social anxiety when we meet in groups, for fear of not following the conversations and feeling excluded. However, I have still gone to these group meetings as a way of conforming to social pressures.

Inadequate support

The ability to mask effectively can make it harder for individuals to receive the correct support they need, especially in cases where masking leads to a superficial appearance of competence.

I know I am guilty of this – I have been too successful at fitting in, to the extent I am a victim of my success. I covered my struggles too well. But this was at the cost of my mental health and my authentic self that needed far more support than I dared to admit. I hid my problems too well in a bid to fit in the corporate environment where I worked. I even participated in social events when I knew I would struggle to follow what was going on.

The fear of being judged, misunderstood, or stigmatized can prevent us from getting the support we need to improve our well-being.

Emotion regulation

Masking often involves suppressing or hiding true emotions. This can lead to a build-up of unresolved feelings, and contribute to mental health problems in the long-term. Continuously bottling up emotions can increase stress, anxiety, and emotional turmoil.

In my case, having to suppress my own needs and feelings of exclusion just to fit in the workplace also led to my mental exhaustion and reduced well-being.

Authentic identity

Masking can create a disconnection between an individual’s true identity and the persona they present to the world. This struggle with self-acceptance and authenticity can contribute to mental health issues.

Constantly masking one’s emotions can also result in a diminished understanding of yourself. When we consistently deny or suppress our feelings, we may struggle to recognize our own emotional needs and develop a healthy sense of self-acceptance.

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.

Masking can also prevent individuals from fully expressing and sharing their genuine experiences and feelings. This can hinder personal growth, limit opportunities for self-expression, and impact their abilities to develop genuine relationships with other people.

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.

This was me at the end of my career in the corporate environment.

In summary, masking can have both short-term and long-term mental health consequences.

A facade of well-being or conformity may provide temporary protection from negative reactions and potential rejection, and enable people to maintain their social roles whilst feeling in control.

But it is not a healthy nor sustainable long-term strategy.

Instead, 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.

Recovery in my mental health

In my journey towards better mental health, I learned to develop better coping mechanisms for my disability. They include:

  • more openness of my struggles as a deaf person
  • self-expression
  • seeking and getting support when I need it
  • better self-care, such as kindness towards myself and mindfulness, and finally
  • surrounding myself with supportive people who accept my real authentic self and are understanding and empathetic. These include people who are also deaf and can fully understand and validate my struggles as a deaf person.

All of these are far better coping mechanisms than masking.

How can you help in the workplace?

Belonging is incredibly important to people with disabilities. It is defined as having the feeling of security, comfort, and support when there is a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and identity for a member of a certain group or place. It means not having to mask your true personality, traits or behaviours to fit in.

Belonging is the opposite of masking.

For people to feel like they belong in the workplace, it needs to be diverse, supportive, and inclusive. A place where everyone belongs and can be their authentic self. A psychological safe space.

So how do you create that safe space? By demonstrating inclusive behaviours every day, including:

  • encouraging open dialogue in a safe space where people can talk about their disabilities
  • showing empathy, while listening to our issues and lived experiences, and
  • proactively providing support to help us thrive and be our authentic selves in the workplace.

If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to now read my last blog post (Hear me out: Inclusive behaviours help us know we belong) where I deep dive into what these inclusive behaviours are, how you can demonstrate them, and why they are so important to the well-being, health and job performance of people with disabilities.

Or if you have already done so, maybe now is a good time to re-read it and check in with yourself on how much you have put into practice.

Doing so may well enable individuals around you to finally remove their mask and breathe

If you would like to learn more about inclusive behaviours in your business, please contact me via my website or email me on sarah_petherbridge@yahoo.co.uk for further training and help.

Written in collaboration with Written by Lyds Ltd (www.writtenbylyds.com)

Read more about me Sarah Petherbridge