Neurodivergence at Work is a column that chronicles the day-to-day realities of how being neurodivergent affects our work life and beyond, including expert insights and lived experiences from those who self-identify.
We all wear masks. Every day we enter into situations that require us to hide certain parts of ourselves, our pain, our anxiety, our self-doubt. Many of us are asked to code-switch or adapt to the common denominator—it’s a reality of civilized life that is pretty tricky to escape.
But for neurodivergent people, the phenomenon of wearing a mask is more than just a periodic situational adaptation; it can feel like a survival tactic that’s almost constantly necessary.
Masking, in simple terms, is actively changing your behavior to cover up a part of yourself that might make you seem too different or incompatible with others. It’s a coping mechanism people with ADHD, high-functioning autism, and other neurotypes often use to appear “normal” or what society deems behaviorally acceptable.
It’s normal to want to feel accepted. Still, most neurodivergent individuals have had to overcome varying degrees of trauma—most often in the form of social rejection—simply for being themselves. We quickly learn that to avoid those situations and stay emotionally safe, unfortunately, we need to monitor our behavior extremely carefully.
And sure, in the company of close friends or family who love you, it’s easier to remove the mask and be your perfectly imperfect self. But in the context of a more rigid professional environment, the stakes are much higher. There are rules and protocols and social nuances to abide by, and people with neurodivergent brains often fear their traits could harm their chances of advancing in their careers.
Most neurodivergent people have grown accustomed to a perceived reality that masking is the only way to get through the workday, but what if there was an alternative?
The Origins of Masking
For neurodivergent individuals, the beginning of a lifelong pattern of masking behavior often starts in childhood. When you’re a kid and maybe a bit of an oddball, people are usually pretty accepting of it. You’re encouraged to speak your mind openly, express yourself creatively, and make mistakes as you grow.
Then there comes a moment when society rears its ugly head, and you’re suddenly told—explicitly or by observation—that the way you naturally are, isn’t quite right.
For me, a person with ADHD, it happened in high school. I was happy with who I was, and then one day in 10th grade, my friends all told me they didn’t want to be friends with me anymore because of how weird, spacey, and blunt I was.
Enter: the mask. I changed how I interacted, mirrored people’s energy, and painstakingly monitored everything I said. It took most of the following decade to get more comfortable with my authentic self, but in many situations, the mask remains.
“If you are neurodivergent, it is easy for others to misinterpret your behavior—for example, someone with ADHD who is forgetful may be seen as less intelligent or as less serious,” says Ari Tuckman, PsyD, psychologist and ADHD expert.
Many of us were taught that the comfort of others was a priority over our own comfort. And as such, we learn to abandon ourselves for approval.
For other people, these masking triggers may have come from being scolded for acting out or not paying attention in class, being late on assignments, or having moments of emotional dysregulation.
Many people have no recollection of when their habit of masking began, nor would they receive an official diagnosis until adulthood. In many cases, these instances are what lead to a diagnosis, which is the first step in beginning often life-changing treatment.
“Masking is such a tricky thing to overcome. We mask because we are taught that fitting in is vital to survival and that we aren’t acceptable as we are naturally,” says Paul, 30. “Many of us were taught that the comfort of others was a priority over our own comfort. And as such, we learn to abandon ourselves for approval.”
Unfortunately, when we chronically camouflage our true selves, it can lead to burnout, anxiety, and potential self-loathing.
Masking as an Adult: Be Professional
Fast forward to adulthood, and masking can feel increasingly necessary. In a perfect, equitable world, everyone with ADHD, autism, and other neurodivergent brain types would be allowed to operate according to their unique psychological programming.
We’d somehow make money by endlessly shifting interests, work on projects at whatever time of day we feel the most “on,” and never have to sit still through hour-long budget meetings.
While some people are lucky enough to end up in careers that give them this kind of freedom, most of us have jobs that require a certain set of behaviors and interactions if we want to be successful (and keep getting a paycheck).
For instance, employees are generally expected to exercise tactful diplomacy at work. This means choosing words carefully, hiding emotional reactions, minding workplace politics, and reading between the lines. Small talk is also a must.
None of these things come easily to neurodivergent individuals, so we mask those behaviors that could result in rejection. This might be interrupting, being too direct, being fidgety or distracting, spacing out in important meetings, outwardly stimming, tardiness, talking too much, forgetting deadlines…the list goes on.
The problem is we may not even realize how much energy it takes to suppress these behaviors, nor do we realize how much it’s affecting our mental health.
The Consequences of Overmasking
Studies focused on autistic adults have found that masking generally has a negative effect on mental health. A key reason for this is tied to the exhaustion associated with constant self-monitoring and mimicry, and also the experience of feeling disconnected from their true selves. And because masking is associated with avoiding stigma, it can exacerbate feelings of shame surrounding a diagnosis.
“It takes mental energy to act differently than your natural tendencies,” says Tuckman. “Worse, though, is when someone internalizes that difference. As in, ‘everyone else is so good at this, but I have to work really hard to hide it. If they only knew, they wouldn’t respect me anymore.’ Or even worse if they feel shame about it. This can lead to anxiety and depression, along with problematic ways of dealing with that suffering.”
Ari Tuckman, PsyD
It takes mental energy to act differently than your natural tendencies. Worse, though, is when someone internalizes that difference. As in, ‘everyone else is so good at this, but I have to work really hard to hide it. If they only knew, they wouldn’t respect me anymore.’
Another study found masking was more likely to be correlated with depression in men than in women, and also that women masked more than men.
The researchers believed this could be due to the greater social expectations placed on women, which force them to get good at camouflaging from an early age. More research is needed, of course. Still, it aligns with another study which also found that girls with ADHD develop masking coping skills earlier than boys.
Essentially, women are better at masking than men and are very good at hiding the impact masking has on their mental health.
“There are many relationships where you never even show your true self very much because you never feel safe enough to unmask,” says Jill, 34. “Masking causes so much extra anxiety and often deters me from wanting to work on team projects or take on extra assignments because it is so exhausting.”
Is It Ever Ok to Unmask at Work?
Masking certainly isn’t all bad, as it can be a useful tool in your neurodivergent management toolbox.
The key is striking a balance between knowing when to mask and when to let your guard down a little in order to let all the amazing qualities of neurodivergence shine through. Traits like directness, out-of-the-box thinking, and hyperfocus can be real assets in any job, just as long as you can identify the right context.
“Some situations are more forgiving than others,” says Tuckman. “There is also the matter of which opportunities you want to protect versus the situations where you are more willing to let your guard down. Don’t take others’ misconceptions personally—that speaks more about them and their lack of understanding than it does about you.”
And while masking can make you appear neurotypical to your colleagues, in reality, you’re doing yourself a disservice by hiding your tendencies rather than managing them.
Even if you don’t feel like disclosure to your colleagues is the right move for you, you can still practice taking off your mask, little by little. This can be tricky when we are hardwired to feel embarrassed by our non-masked traits, but if you supplement a healthy coping mechanism in place of the masking behavior, it can really help.
I’ll still wear a mask when I’m in a group or if I’m in a meeting where I’m not quite comfortable, but I’m slowly but surely getting to a place where my comfort is a priority and that’s a massive shift!
“I have found great relief by ‘unmasking’ in certain ways that many co-workers don’t even notice,” says Lily, 27.
“I wear headphones (sans music!) because they act as a cue and help me resist chatting as much as my brain wants to spit out everything that comes to mind. I have a stress ball at my desk that I toss between my hands, and I’m intentional about keeping it small, not distracting others. If I’m in a conference room with a high-top table, I always stand instead of sit.”
Would it really be such a big deal if you were a little more honest and straightforward with your boss? Will people actually be so bothered if you stim? Can you suggest meeting times that are more in line with when your brain is the most alert? Who really cares if you talk too much or sometimes interrupt in meetings? Doesn’t it show eagerness and enthusiasm about the subject?
It’s little adjustments like these and the reframing of behaviors that can encourage a mindset of self-acceptance. As neurodivergence continues to become more normalized, your colleagues might just be more accepting of your unmasked behavior than you’d expect.
Iman Gatti, a certified grief recovery specialist shares, “I’ll still wear a mask when I’m in a group or if I’m in a meeting where I’m not quite comfortable, but I’m slowly but surely getting to a place where my comfort is a priority and that’s a massive shift!”
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