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‘Mask mapping’ – getting to know your masking Self. (Autistic masking, HSP)

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

This is the blog version of a recent free, video based training on something I call ‘mask mapping’ – meeting the ‘masking Self’, or the part of us that masks to fit into the environment and conserve energy units. This is an abridged transcript of the video.

The goal of the whole exercise is to work out what tools can we use to help reduce the masking Self’s use. And what goals can we set, around reducing its use? How can we strengthen our authentic self? And can we approach our masking with more compassion, rather than see it as something detrimental?


Autistic masking

If you're an individual who's neurodivergent, especially autistic, this content will probably appeal to your sensibilities; but it may also appeal to anyone who's highly sensitive. Maybe you’re an HSP; perhaps you consider yourself to be an empath. Maybe you're just an introverted person who needs to camouflage to get through the day sometimes?


As usual, this content doesn't constitute medical advice, nor consultation with your own GP or health care practitioner. Associated theory will be parts work such as that advocated by Roberto Assagioli (sub-personalities), Richard Schwartz’s IFS or internal family systems, and Michelle Chalfant’s adult chair model. Those models are big influences on me, so maybe you could research them as well.


Mask mapping; what is it?

So, mask mapping, what is it? It's really a melding of parts work - the model that considers we are aspects of a whole personality, rather than one whole personality; and looking at why we mask. If masking is a phrase that is new to you, perhaps if you're not part of the neurodiversity community, let me explain – masking, and autistic masking, is really a form of camouflage.


It's a way of fitting in - something we do socially, so as not use up too many energy units, in any given time period. Masking is generally regarded as being not terribly healthy or helpful for the body. However, I do look at masking in perhaps more of a generous way, in that it can be functional, and a tool that, with intentional use, is almost a necessity for a lot of people. I am not advocating that we mask all the time, because then we are masking our actual authentic self, and that's not good for anybody, and can lead to burn out (autistic burn out is common, for example). But I think anyone who does 'mask' will know that it it's there for a reason.


Fronting

So in my mind, masking is when we bring a part of ourself to the front of our personality. I've borrowed the word ‘fronting’ from the mental health sector and Disassociative Identity Disorder, or DID.

The DID community uses the word fronting to describe the part of the personality who is who is at the front of a person's 'system'. I just think it's really good for us to notice what part of us is fronting our whole Self at any given time.


So I'll go into the more detailed side of this idea of mask mapping in a further video training, available on my personal study page. If I am doing the full version with a client, we would map the masking part of Self to help us understand when we might need to mask or bring that part of us to the front, and why we might do it. And also ascertain how we can be a bit more alert to it, relating to the triggers in our body (emotions, thoughts, sensations etc). Mask mapping is likely a piece of work that will spread over multiple therapy sessions.


Compassion for our masking Self

So grab your journal or pen and paper and just make some notes, because this is a bit of a dive into your own experience. Masking is a completely natural thing to do, and an absolute part of humanity. There’s nothing strange or malignant here; we don't want to be getting rid of these parts. We might find that parts of ourselves act in a way which isn't that helpful or healthy, which could be the case for the masking Self. But it's very important to give some compassion to these parts of ourselves. Just as we would if we had a part that turned to unhealthy coping mechanisms, maybe around substance misuse or disordered eating, just as examples. To repeat, it's surely important to have some compassion for these parts of Self.


Key questions

So ask yourself - what was that masking part of Self looking to achieve, when it first appeared? What was it protecting in you? These masking or coping strategies originally would have been used for a benefit, to look after you. Maybe protect you from rejection or ridicule, if we are considering the masking Self?


Commonly, a mask will be there to get you through life – to get you through the day. This is perhaps about, “I don't feel like I fit into the environment. The environment right now requires me to expend more energy units to function.


My current personality, or maybe the faculties I have available to speak, or emote, or express anything, or function, are seen as being lacking in some way. Maybe I am out of energy units or ‘spoons " (to use the disability metaphor.)


Other people might have told us or insinuated that we are not quite adept to meet the environment; or maybe we just sense it. Maybe we’re out of social battery. Consequently, we create at some level, a coping persona. We feel that our authentic self isn't quite right for the moment. So we act as we would act if we WERE good enough. We act as if we DO deserve to be here. We act is if there was less chance of being rejected or ridiculed.


Get to know your masking self

So what I'd like you to do is, on your piece of paper, get to know your masking self.


One of the first questions will be - when did that part of you show up? So think back; it usually starts in childhood. Think back to when you first needed to mask. If you’re autistic, you may have had difficult times when your needs were not met when you were younger, probably at school-age. If you’re autistic, remember that historically, not many autistic folk would have been diagnosed or would have been able self identify very early on in life, due to assessment procedures and lack of awareness generally.


But masking doesn't just have to just be about a neurodivergent experience. This could also apply to a sensitive child; an introverted, shy child; and any child who had a traumatic background of caregiving at home, or mental health issues. All of these people are going to develop coping skills and probably masks at some level, to fit in.


Cast your mind back

So cast your mind back. Think about when you first needed to mask - where was it? How old were you? Maybe even visualise that you that part of you - that younger you. What were they feeling? Maybe left out, ostracised, confused - what emotions might have been showing up for them? What are your earliest memories of a sense of difficulty to fit in? This process is quite sensitive. Please do look after yourself if anything is triggering you as you think about these things. If you do feel upset or in any way, triggered, please take some time out - go and have a nice, soothing drink. Just ground yourself, and connect to your environment in the room. Perhaps use some breath work as well.

So we've gone back and identified where your masking might have started. Next, ask yourself - what does that even mean? Is it just putting a smiley face on? Is it that you're people pleasing? If you're people pleasing as part of your mask, you're avoiding expressing your needs. You're putting other people before yourself. You're showing up in a way that makes you feel validated for helping or being there for other people.


Maybe you're being a bit of a perfectionist? Maybe you’re feeling something of an impostor because other people have it easier than you and you don’t know why. Maybe you feel you need to work twice as hard in the workplace, so your mask is busyness.


What are your masking behaviours? How does the masking Self show up in relationships? And when does it show up? Because in an ideal, healthy, regulated world, we wouldn't need to mask when we're in our safe zones. So if you're still masking at home with your spouse, or your family, or your siblings, or when out with friends, that’s when it's less helpful, because you should have a safe zone where you can let your mask down, and take it off.


Ask yourself – why can’t you be your authentic self in your safe space? This could be around boundaries, i.e., what boundaries do I need to put in, to express my needs? What does my masking Self actually need? WHO does it need around me? What values do they have? Maybe, I need to be seen; I need to be heard. Or maybe I need to not be seen, or not be heard. Perhaps I need to hide, I need to withdraw. I want to be someone else.


Pros and cons

And also write down, what are the pros and cons, in very simplistic terms. In what ways does this masking part of Self serve me? Cons could be, I am not expressing my needs. I'm not being authentic; not being autonomous. I'm not sharing how I really feel. And a pro might be; I am getting paid. A pro could be socio-communicative; it could be that it's helping you develop new interactions with people. Even just little things like saying good morning on a dog walk; a small piece of human connection.


Maybe there's some aspects of what your masking Self does that you'd like to soften the edges of, or change. And really, the goal here is to be quite intentional about when we use the masking Self. So we're not ‘fronted’ all the time, and letting its use get out of our control. Instead, we're trying to be intentional about when we mask. Using it to save energy units, not as a ‘pretend self’.


On your paper you should have a list of words, feelings and facts. Build a picture of your masking Self, and please connect to it in a compassionate way.

In the next video we will also look at aspects like –

What values drive my masking Self? Are they my values, or values around serving others?

What cycles go with the mask – is it a reaction to thoughts and emotions? What behaviours does the masking Self use?

How does the masking Self tie into the autonomic nervous system – does it tally with a particular state, eg the flight state, and anxiety?

Finally we can work out – what tools can we use to help reduce the masking Self’s use? And what goals can we set around reducing its use? How can we strengthen our authentic self?

I hope some of these considerations have been useful to you.


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