Camouflaging our neurodivergence for self-preservation
This morning I came across a neat IG post by @adhdoers that inspired me. It was a series of images depicting various masks people with ADHD put on in order to get through social situations in which we feel insecure (which, let’s be honest, is pretty much most — if not all — of them).
Many neurodivergent people spend our lives feeling “left out” or feeling as though we don’t fit in, and trying desperately to change the very essence of ourselves to avoid the fallouts of being different.
The reality is we often don’t fit in. What I’ve come to learn is that it’s not just us though, it’s societal expectations and neuronormative culture.
Not conforming shouldn’t be viewed as a negative thing, yet it usually is, unless our quirks benefit mainstream society. Masking is exhausting, and often harmful long-term.
Just because neurodivergents are the minority in a lot of social situations doesn’t make us inept, it means we’re constantly battling culture clash, in which most of the people in the room have a completely different way of relating, communicating, thinking, and simply being.
We’re just different, not less.
So without further ado, I give you, eight different types of masks we wear.
The Class Clown
We absolutely must be the life of the party. We spend so much time being fun, we don’t realize how exhausting it is being “on” all the time.
Our self-worth comes from how much we can entertain others. People say we’re extroverts, or very social people, so we can’t understand why we’re so drained after socializing.
We feel amped up when we’re in party mode, but once we get home and finally take a breath, we over-analyze every interaction and conversation. We experience post-social anxiety, wondering if we made a fool of ourselves, and worry that we inadvertently offended someone.
We’re painfully self-conscious and don’t want to talk too much, or info-dump about our special interest. We find it hard to jump into conversations without feeling like we’re interrupting, so we just stay quiet to play it safe.
In fact, we’ve been told so many times that we “talk too much” or to stop interrupting, we’ve learned to bottle up our enthusiasm for fear of annoying others.
People think we’re shy or quiet, but we’re really afraid of further and repeated rejection and criticism. It’s no mystery, it’s trauma with a lowercase t.
The good and useful friend
Our self-worth comes from helping others. We don’t feel valuable as individuals; we must provide for, help, and be useful to others to earn a sense of worthiness.
I feel this one. I remember a conversation with my closest friends. They were doing a major paint project and invited me over to keep them company, so I offered to help with the painting.
My friend said “you can just come hang out, y’know, you don’t have to help if you come over.”
Oh. On its own, this would be an innocuous interaction, but this is something that comes up a lot for me. I have to be useful to my friends, otherwise what good is my friendship?
Me. My friendship is worthwhile because my friends like me and enjoy spending time with me (that’s difficult to write, let alone internalize).
In its extreme form, Good and Useful masking leads to unhealthy boundaries, where we constantly put our own needs aside for others.
I have gotten much better at this, but in my younger years, this was a major issue — especially during the tumultuous adolescent years. I would stay up all night comforting a friend, but when I needed someone to lean on, those same friends would cut me off and say they needed to get some sleep.
I now recognize there’s a balance. You can occasionally put yourself out for a friend in need, but not to the point of having zero boundaries and zero self-care like I used to, and not for fair-weather friends who aren’t there when you need their support.
We’ve internalized our repeated experiences of rejection and criticism, so now we pretend not to notice the micro-aggressions in order to hide the hurt. We’re the people you see maintaining one-sided friendships, or hanging out with people who don’t seem to respect them.
We’re the people who laugh when others make mean-spirited jokes about us, rather than standing up for ourselves, because we’re learned that no one else will come to our defense and it’s easier to just laugh it off.
We’re the friends who always put ourselves down, keeping expectations low, and hoping people don’t ask much of us because we’re always afraid we’ll disappoint them.
We feel insecure, so we feel the need to be perfect because mistakes reveal our weaknesses. We have to do everything exactly right, and if we think we won’t be good at something, we don’t want to try in case we fail.
We’ll talk ourselves up. We may seem like we’re bragging, but we’re actually trying to “sell” ourselves because we don’t think others see our value — when in reality, we’re the ones who don’t see our own worth.
I feel this one hard.
My entire life, my value has come from my achievements and skills. If I wasn’t the best hockey player on my team, I felt threatened because my whole identity as “best player” was at risk. I didn’t have a sense of worth if I wasn’t the best or exceptional.
The über professional
Similar to the perfectionist, we’re afraid of making mistakes, so we put on a hyper-professional persona.
We may come across as “uptight”, but we’ve probably gotten in trouble at work before for being “too much” of something — too loud, too direct, too blunt, too intense, too sensitive, too everything.
This is a mask we wear at work out of necessity. We can’t be our authentic neurodivergent selves because it can cause us trouble at work, even put our employment at risk.
Hyper-professionalism can also be a way we camouflage in a variety of situations such as volunteer work, coaching, or when interacting with other professionals.
The tough guy
We’ve been hurt a lot, so we develop a tough persona as a form of self-protection. We pretend we don’t care, and push people away when they try to help, but it’s out of fear of being hurt again.
Oh, the bravado! I used to play the tough guy nearly all the time, especially in my teens and early twenties. I have c-PTSD, and putting up walls is a way of trying to protect myself.
Hyper-independence is also a trauma response. When we grow up having to take care of ourselves, and knowing we can’t count on the most important people in our lives, we come to resent others’ attempts to help. When people offer their help, it makes us worry they think we’re incompetent, or unable to care for ourselves.
I am less apt to put on the “tough-guy” act unless I feel threatened, which thankfully is much less often than it used to be. However, I do still put up incredibly thick walls when I feel hurt, or feel at risk of being hurt.
I have a really, really hard time letting anyone help me with anything, ever. I’ve been married for over 13 years to a partner who has always been kind and respectful to me, yet I still struggle to let him help. When I am upset, I close people off, I retreat and withdraw.
I should probably try to work on that. Good thing I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions… Whew.
I saved this one for last because it’s the one that stings most for me.
When wearing the smarty-pants mask, we tend to over-intellectualize and hide our insecurities behind our intelligence. We may come across as arrogant, but it’s a thinly veiled cover for our self-doubt.
I am incredibly aware of doing this, even with my spouse and closest friends. I am that insecure. One of my close friends has even called me out on it, and I acknowledge that I do this, yet I can’t seem to stop.
I was a “gifted kid”, and like the perfectionist, my self-worth came from being the smartest person in the room. Except there’s no such thing. The “smartest” person in the room changes depending on the context, the subject matter, and the values of the people therein.
I am a nerd, I do love to read and learn, and I love to debate and have deep, intellectual conversations. Sometimes I’m honestly not trying to “show off”, I’m genuinely wanting to discuss something I find interesting, but it doesn’t come across that way.
Part of that isn’t entirely on me. Sometimes it’s a result of other people’s insecurities that they feel I’m being condescending when I’m truly trying to engage in dialogue.
Although I recognize how I think I’m presenting and how I’m actually being perceived by others are often incongruent, I’m not quite sure what to do about that.
I think it’s a matter of clear communication, which I’m (usually) good at; making one’s intentions clear, and asking the other person to let you know if you stray from the intended message. That requires both people to be open, direct, and honest with each other — something with which many neurotypicals struggle.
Thanks again to adhdoers for the inspiration!
Happy New Year,
© Jillian Enright, ADHD 2e MB
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