Understanding Masking: Challenges and Diagnostic Implications

19 Oct 2023




minute read

Last Updated

Dec 8, 2023

Masking describes how someone consciously or unconsciously camouflaging their true feelings, experiences, or characteristics. Understanding masking helps us understand the experiences of many people, especially neurodivergent people, who sometimes hide their authentic selves.

If you haven’t already, read about why people mask and the pros and cons of masking.

Interpreting Masking

Understanding why someone masks can give helpful insights into their experience of the world around them. However interpreting masking can be complex and presents several challenges including:

  1. Subjectivity: Masking is inherently subjective. What one person sees as masking, another might see as just fitting in. People’s introspective worlds are interpreted in light of their own self narrative and worldview. Stories about ourselves can change over time and according to our audience. Thus, identifying masking based on people’s own internal self-narratives or ‘phenomenology’ can be elusive.

  2. Diverse Manifestations: Masking isn't uniform. A student with a learning difficulty masking their reading struggles might use different strategies to a similar student, or even to themselves at a different point in their own life. The variability can cloud identification, especially if there are several other unique factors at play which give a person’s life individual character. Knowing what is and what isn’t masking can be very hard.

  3. The Unconscious Layer and Insight: Not all masking is a conscious decision, and whilst some habits of masking may have been a choice, they can gradually become automatic. Some individuals might not realise they're doing it, and some may actively resist the notion they are doing anything unusual (which is arguably also masking). Thus, a person’s insight into their own compensatory behaviour can vary greatly from those around them. A skilled observer may be able to detect compensatory behaviours, but this is often complex.

Limitations of the Masking Concept:

The concept of masking can be useful in helping us understand how people change and adapt depending on the environment around them. However, there are some limitations we have to consider when discussing masking:

  1. Overgeneralisation: While the term "masking" helps in many contexts, there's a danger in assuming that all adaptive behaviours stem from a need to mask. Sometimes, adaptability might be genuine growth or change, not merely a façade.

  2. Potential for Stigmatisation: Labelling certain behaviours as "masking" might unintentionally stigmatise adaptive behaviours. It can send a message that adapting is deceptive or inauthentic, which isn't always the case. Masking implies there is a true self underneath, which is implicitly more valid. These kinds of assumptions in language are good to re-examine for their usefulness.

  3. Ambiguity in Definition: The line between masking and coping or adaptive strategies isn't always clear. While masking often has a negative connotation, adaptive strategies are seen as positive. This can create confusion in both interpretation and response: masking suggests something is wrong and a person must conceal themselves, whereas adaptation implies growth and competence. Which kind of language would you use to describe your own experiences, and why?

Masking and Diagnostic Challenges

Masking can also prevent some diagnostic challenges and therefore act as a barrier to a diagnosis or accessing support networks. Masking might contribute to:

  1. Misdiagnosis: Treatment and support strategies are often based on presenting symptoms. If these are masked, interventions might not target the root issues. Continuous masking can lead to professionals misinterpreting or overlooking symptoms. For instance, an individual with ADHD who has mastered the art of appearing attentive might be misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed altogether. If the real challenges are obscured by masking, individuals might not receive the timely support they need, hampering their well-being and development.

  2. Misattribution and over-estimation: Because masking is a vague and ill-defined concept with difficulties evaluating it consistently, it allows room for over-estimation of a condition existing. For example, somebody may consider various aspects of their self-perception to be examples of masking of a neurodiversity, or a trauma response, but it may in fact reflect something else about their character altogether. The lack of specificity means that masking alone is a poor indicator of an underlying condition, meaning a broad and deep assessment may be needed to uncover more useful information.

While understanding masking and the reasons why people mask can give insights into the lived experiences of many, it's must be approached with nuance and care. Recognising the challenges and limitations associated with it allows for a more comprehensive, empathetic, and effective response to the diverse tapestry of human behaviour and experience.

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