There is a concept within the Autistic Community called ‘masking’, but it applies to many people across many different diversity axes. That’s because masking is basically the work we do to try to blend in with those around us – to try to pretend that we are someone that we are not – less autistic, less queer, less disabled, less ADHD … less us. In particular, these ideas are often introduced or reinforced with behavioural methods such as ABA/IBI or conversion therapy.
Although this way of living may help in some situations, some of the time, to allow us to feel less weird or different or to make other people less uncomfortable around us, they are extremely problematic for our mental health because they rob us of our sense of clear identity. Just like it costs an actor/actress emotional and physical energy to bring to life a character on the screen or stage, so, too the energy costs of trying to pretend we are not who we are is high.
The problem is, if you’ve spent your whole life doing this, it’s not enough to simply ‘try harder’ to ‘change your behaviour’ and mask less. In essence at that point you are trying to replace one behavioural goal with another, without ever getting to the root of who you are or gaining the freedom that this unmasking is supposed to deliver.
So what’s the alternative?
I believe the alternative is found in my Values-Based Integration Process. Here’s the basics of how that works.
We start by identifying what our values are.
This diagram shows the process I take clients through. While you may find it possible to use on your own, I would encourage you that this was not designed as a ‘do-it-yourself’ process. When we have masked for years or decades we often need a compassionate guide to help walk us through the process so that we can give ourselves the permission we need to get to true honesty with ourselves.
Then, begin to identify the messages (conscious and subconscious) that currently dictate your masking
This is a process that should be done with a trained coach or therapist. It can be overwhelming to look at these messages on our own, and we can very easily begin to spiral or trigger during this process. Please, don’t try this at home!
Having identified the messages carefully, we then use the values to dissect those messages
We take each value individually and ask that value what it thinks of the message. Usually our values have quite scathing things to say about them. Often there is grief and pain that we need to process as we consider what each value has to say. This is absolutely critical to the process, and cannot be rushed through.
Next, we ask the values what they think we should do in these situations
It’s not enough to simply say “I won’t do that anymore”. We actually need to replace that old message with a new, unique-to-us values-based approach to living life. To get to a clear new message, we first have to listen to each value as they tell us how they think we should respond.
We can construct a new message
Using all that we have heard from our values, we have the opportunity to construct a new message, this one rooted entirely in how WE were uniquely made to live and move and be.
Finally, we ask our values how we could put this into practice.
We try to find a single, practical way of grounding ourselves in this new way of living. Clients are often afraid that this will feel like a lot of work or effort, but are surprised by how easy it now feels. The ease comes from having worked through this process in its entirety, and with the ease, a freedom to be able to hide less behind the mask and live more fully as the people we were always meant to be.
Of course, that only takes care of one message, and all of us carry around dozens – even hundreds – of (often contradictory) messages. The process of unmasking is therefore just that – a process, that takes weeks or months of coaching to get through.
That can feel daunting to begin, but the freedom? It’s like nothing I had ever experienced before!
If you would like more information, or to set up a coaching appointment, please contact me here.
4 thoughts on “Unmasking”
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Judy (An Autism Observer)
The value identification process sounds very intriguing and powerful! I’m confused about the next part involving the identification of masking messages. How do we do that? You went into a lot of detail about identifying our values, but there’s only a brief vague paragraph about identifying messages. I feel just as lost if not more about identifying when I mask, and why I do it. (By adulthood I think it’s common to not even realize we’re masking because we’ve done it for so long that it becomes internalized. And even though it causes distress to mask we actually forget how to be ourselves.) Did you intentionally leave that part vague because you want people to work with a trained coach/therapist? If so, do you have written material available somewhere that a coach/therapist can use with us to do that part of the integration?
Thank you for sharing your insights and tools!