Once you’ve figured out you’ve been masking your autism, you may find the idea appealing of becoming more fully yourself. And that may be scary, too. I get that. I’ve been there. Part of what was scary to me was that I was figuring it out on my own, by trial and error.
And while each individual’s journey will be unique, I’ve seen this often enough now that I’ve identified some predictable patterns.
So here’s my philosophy on how to unlearn masking, bit by bit, for those who want to (and it’s okay if you don’t).
First of all, know in advance that it is a long process. It does not happen all at once, rather it will progress in stages.
Part 1: Notice masking
Start with just noticing when you’re doing it.
Notice when you’re saying or doing something that is really different from what you actually want or mean.
Not just saying something in a way that’s polite or that’s more easily received by the other person, but actually contrary to what you intend or want.
When you notice you’re doing it, start questioning what you get from it, and what it costs you.
Part 2: Questioning internal narratives
Notice the stories you tell yourself about what the other person thinks about you. What do you think they are expecting from you? Is that true? How can you tell?
We often have narratives, stories, beliefs, thoughts, etc. about what other people want from us and how they are going to react to us, which come from how we were treated in the past, and which may not be relevant in this particular situation. When we act as if they are true, we deny ourselves opportunities to change the story.
Start identifying the stories you’re telling yourself about other people.
When you find one, gently and compassionately question that thought, story, belief, by asking yourself if it is true. Can you be absolutely certain this is true?
Don’t try to talk yourself out of the facts of a situation. Try to separate out the facts from your interpretation of the facts. We often make a situation even more painful when we layer painful interpretations onto already painful experiences.
For example, when someone rejects us, that hurts, and if we tell ourselves the story that they rejected us because we are unlovable, that hurts even more. And it’s not true. Question that part, the painful interpretation.
Part 3: Early success
As you start noticing when you are masking, and question whether you might be able to be around people in a different way, you will naturally start trying to be yourself a little bit more around people.
Be gentle with yourself as you do this. Try to set yourself up for success early on by choosing carefully who you share bits of yourself with. Try to pick someone who is likely to be supportive, and share just a little bit of yourself at a time.
Early successes are crucial to reinforcing hope instead of reinforcing those painful narratives.
When things go well, try to let yourself feel that success for as long as possible, even if it is seconds or minutes. Rehearse that success in your mind the way you rehearse rejection.
Part 4: Experimenting with people
Unmasking is not-all-or-nothing. You can unmask just a tiny bit at a time, and only when you choose.
Nevertheless, as you start to put yourself authentic self out there, be aware in advance that you will get hurt.
There are reasons why you started masking in the first place, and why you kept it up. Not everyone will accept you, and you won’t always accept yourself. Remember that both are learned patterns of self-protection and not signals of universal truth.
What is true: you were put on this earth the way that you are, and that means that you deserve to be on this earth the way that you are. You belong here.
It’s OK to choose who to unmask around, and when, and how much. You don’t have to share your development with anyone until you’re ready. Family is often the hardest to share with, unless you’re one of the lucky bunch for whom it’s the easiest.
In general, people can be roughly divided into four types in terms of acceptance when you unmask around them.
1. Some people will accept and support you unquestioningly. These people are gold; cling to them.
2. Some people will have questions, but they will ask out of curiosity, interest, and wanting to learn. These are also good people to have around.
Remember that you also were new to all of this at one point, and you grew to learn more about yourself. They may need some time to learn about and adjust to the parts of you that they have not seen before, yet they may turn out to be very supportive.
3. Some people will ask questions spitefully, maliciously, mockingly, with blatant disrespect and demonstrate no interest in real answers or honest discussion. Be careful with what you share around these people. Avoid them when possible.
4. Some people will use the new information you’re sharing with them to intentionally hurt or attack you. These are not safe people to unmask around, and probably not safe people to be around at all.
Part 5: Getting to know the authentic you
If early experiments go well enough that you want to keep trying, you will face the question at some point, “How do I know what I really want?”
Again, start with noticing. When you are faced with options, notice which one feels slightly better or slightly worse.
Or if it all feels bad, which one is slightly less worse? Move towards things that feel a little better (less worse) and see how they work out.
Start with small decisions that are not likely to be earth shattering no matter which one you pick. Gradually build up to more important decisions in your life.
Know in advance that you won’t be consistent. Sometimes you’ll unmask a little, sometimes a lot, sometimes not at all, sometimes you will revert to fear-based reactions. This is normal and not a sign that you’re not doing anything wrong.
You may also notice difficult emotions that you had not been aware of before. Many people discover suppressed anger, grief, resentment, etc. that it did not feel safe to express in the past. This is normal. If you are able to let yourself feel these difficult emotions, possibly in the presence of someone you feel safe with, you can learn to integrate them and use your emotions as information that can lead you towards the things that you want, both in the moment and in life.
Personal growth is not a steady, consistent progress; it is messy and inconsistent. That is normal. Keep going.
Part 6: Changeback attacks
As you unveil more and more of your true behaviors, socialization, thoughts, wants, needs, opinions, etc., some people will misinterpret you. Some people will be surprised but come around. Some people will not be willing or able to adjust.
Keep in mind that people will need time to understand the changes that are going on in you, because it will mean that they need to change as well. At the very least, they will need to revise their mental conceptions of you to accommodate the new information you’re giving them.
Some people will not make that transition willingly, or easily, or at all.
A changeback attack is what Martha Beck calls it when people around you feel threatened by your personal growth, and they say or do things to make you doubt yourself, question the validity of your experience, make you uncomfortable, outright attack you, etc.
Their goal is to get you to change back so that they don’t have to put in the work to adjust to your new normal. Resist!
This is incredibly common, and not a sign that you are doing anything wrong. Rather it is a sign that you are doing something right. You are changing and growing in ways that are recognizable to others.
Go back to questioning (part 2) the things they say and do to you to evaluate whether they are true. Question as well the negative self-talk that comes up when you are around them.
Part 7: Stabilization
Eventually, with enough tiny moments of unmasking, enough of them will go well enough, that you will get more and more comfortable being more yourself in more places and around more people.
You may even find that you experience more acceptance when you fully embrace your weirdness and quirks and strangeness and otherness, then when you were trying to hide them.
And as you find and unlearn the manifold and creative ways that you have hidden your needs and discounted who you truly are, you will likely notice an enormous difference in energy, anxiety, stress, black-and-white thinking, motivation, ability to communicate with others, and more, that will spread throughout every area of your life.
The goal of unmasking is not to become a jerk who has no consideration for other people. And yes, you can still be polite and respectful of others and ask them what they want while unmasked.
The goal is to be comfortable enough with yourself and others so that you can do the things you want to do in life. To have more choice (instead of habit, learned protective behaviors, or trauma responses) over when you interact, with whom, how much, and why.
The goal of unmasking is to let the best version of your true self shine, both when you are with other people and when you are alone.
And yes, this is possible. I am living it, and so are many other autistics.