It's critical to state that we mask for many reasons, and the main one is for safety. And taking off our mask can be scary. It can cause further trauma and shame. Plus maybe that mask is fused on. So it’s not always such a simple question – ‘how do I unmask?’
1. Start with self-reflection: Begin by reflecting on your masking behaviours and the ways in which you suppress your true self- take time to identify the masks you wear and the reasons behind them. Maybe ask others for their input too? Here are a few questions to start with:
Am I resisting or hiding what feels natural to me?
Why am I resisting or hiding them?
What parts of me am I forcing that don’t feel natural?
Why am I forcing those things?
Who am I with my mask on?
Who am I with my mask off?
2. Identify Triggering Situations: Pay attention to situations, environments and people where you feel that you have to mask your autistic traits. Notice where and with whom you feel most pressured to mask. These triggers can provide valuable insights into your masking patterns.
Around who do I mask more?
Around who do I mask less?
When do I mask more?
When do I mask less?
3. Embrace Stimming: move your body the way it wants to move. Let your eyes look where they want to look (within reason haha- maybe not full-blown staring!) Embrace your stims as an integral part of who you are…wait- was that an actual happy hand flap or t-rex arms that I saw?? Listen to the same song on repeat all day- who cares what the neighbours think!
4. Challenge Internalized Stigma: Challenge your negative beliefs about autism by working on self-compassion and self-acceptance. As autistic activist and author Temple Grandin emphasizes, "The world needs different kinds of minds to work together." Challenge the internalized messages that tell you your autistic traits are 'wrong' or 'deficient.' You have great worth and value as an autistic individual!
5. Practice Self-Compassion: Be gentle with yourself as you navigate the unmasking process. Unmasking is not easy, and it's okay to feel vulnerable. Practice self-compassion and remind yourself that you are worthy of love and acceptance just as you are.
6. Set Boundaries: Establish boundaries to protect your emotional well-being and honour your authentic self. Learn to say ‘no’ to situations and people that compromise your authenticity.
7. Seek Support: Surround yourself with understanding and supportive peolpe who accept you just as you are. As autistic advocate and author Steve Silberman suggests, "Community is a big part of the process of healing, of recovery, of building resilience, of resisting and overcoming stigma." Connect with fellow autistics and allies who celebrate neurodiversity. Having a supportive community can provide invaluable encouragement and validation. Ditch the junk!
8. Practice Mindfulness: now, i'm not a huge fan of mindfulness, but it can come in handy if you can focus long enough on your thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness can help you stay present in the moment, allowing you to connect more deeply with your authentic self, so it's an important skill to at least try.
9. Celebrate Small Wins: Celebrate each step in your unmasking journey, no matter how small. Every act of self-expression and self-acceptance is a victory worth celebrating. Acknowledge your progress and be proud of how far you've come. Meiow to that!!
10. Be Patient and Persistent: unmasking is a gradual process that takes time and patience. Unmasking is a journey, not a destination (corny-sorry!) Be patient with yourself and trust in your ability to uncover the layers of your authentic self. It will take time. You may take decades. You may never get there. But 10%, 20%, 50% less masking is all progress...
If you're still scratching your head and saying- but how??....here's another place to start- you could start by doing any activity that fuels your creativity. What activities have you enjoyed doing? I love to garden and to play with my cats/kittens, Do you like painting? Crafting? Drawing? Journaling? Playing music? Cooking? (I’m crap at that!) Maybe you haven’t done any creative activities in years. Maybe you've NEVER had creative hobbies or interests. So, what would you have wanted to try as a child, or even now, if you were allowed to, or had the money to?
When you’re doing this creative activity, allow your inner child to come out to play and talk with you- maybe you can ask him/her/they how they feel, and what they would like from you? How can you allow them to have more fun, and to be themselves? Give yourself permission to fail and to be messy- sometimes literally! I love getting my hands in the mud in the garden. Trying different plants, and where to put them. The only way to get better is to keep creating and never give up. As you nurture your inner child through pursuing your creative interests, you’ll start to heal. You’ll discover yourself more, and as a result, you’ll become more in touch with the authentic you that’s always been there
I'd like to add that unmasking sounds super sexy and exciting, but it's scary and dangerous sometimes. So if your safety is ever at risk, you need to maintain your mask. Trust your instincts. Also, if you're not yet ready to confront the emotional and mental challenges of unmasking, that's completely valid. The decision to reveal your autistic identity is deeply personal, and it's essential to honour your comfort level and readiness. Remember, opting to maintain your mask temporarily doesn't diminish your authenticity; it's a necessary measure to safeguard yourself in a society that may not fully understand or accommodate neurodiversity.
Otherwise, go for it!