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  • Cynthia Coupe

Neurotic ND Part 2: Masking

Updated: Sep 3, 2022

**Little check-in here: I just want to be CLEAR and let you all know that I do NOT think neurodivergency is neurotic...I am titling these posts "Neurotic Neurodivergency" because sometimes I feel neurotic, but I realize I am not...far from it. I do not wish to cause offense or shame or any other negative possibility; I'm simply making light of a particular way I tend to be when my ND feels a bit overwhelming**


That said, I want to take this time to talk about masking. Masking is when we are pretending to be a way we are not naturally…generally (for me) that means gregarious, outgoing, making eye contact, asking and answering questions…you know, the stuff most outgoing neurotypicals do with apparent ease.

For me it brings up DEEP anxiety, and there's a whole lot that goes on behind the scenes you have likely never been aware of. To be honest, until I started paying close attention to it, I wasn't aware of it either. I realized certain situations caused anxiety, but I hadn't separated myself from the experience to see what the process was...

Now I have. This, my friends, is that story.

I’m an introvert…an outgoing introvert, but without a doubt, a definite introvert. I’m the shy girl in the corner not talking to anyone, just observing. When I’m comfortable, I’ll speak up, but if it’s a new situation or new people…you can generally forget it. I mean, when I have to, sure…I’ll do it…but that’s not my first nature.

At the moment I'm headed into a fairly crazy time of my life with the growth of my career. It’s manageable, but not without some serious thought and logistical orientation. In the space of a month, I’ll be networking like mad…speaking at an event for 200+ people, sitting on 3 panels over the space of a weekend, and then giving 2 keynote speeches at a tech conference in Philadelphia.

These are amazing, incredible opportunities, and I’m spinning out of control a bit. I'm trying to ground myself as much as I possibly can. But here's what you won't know if you meet me there..

I'll be masking. I'll be putting on a smile. wearing nice clothes. I'll be laughing and making eye contact. I'll probably appear mostly at ease. Definitely funny. A little bit quirky and gregarious. But it's a mask. It's who I'd like to be. But it's not who I really am. Really, I'm the one that likes to observe silently from the sidelines. Many have told me they initially thought I was “all business,” “bitchy,” “stuck-up,” or “disinterested.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. I wish I could be that girl in the middle of the room who is holding court…saying all the right things, laughing at all the right times, who looks like she just stepped out of a salon…I’ve spent most of my life wishing I could be that girl, and now, after years of practice, I can. I know I can. I’m a fabulous actress, and I can play the part. I’ve observed others long enough to know what is supposed to be done. I've been on stage enough times and played enough different characters that I’ve learned the logistics.

I can mask because that's what it takes to do my job and to educate the world about neurodiversity. People can hear my message because, well..because, from the outside, I don’t look or sound autistic. I seem so…normal. And that’s good, I suppose. Or at least it's been intentional. You see: I straddle both worlds. My brain most certainly processes information and experiences like that of an autistic brain, and yet…I’ve grown up in a neurotypical world and challenged myself to learn and grow and present differently which has actually allowed me to come out of my shell and act with more Intention. I’m grateful for that. I know I can pivot and learn to enjoy parts of the masking experiences, because being gregarious is, in perfect honesty, a little bit fun, but boy is it exhausting.

I’ve already spent a day crying about it…freaking out about what I am going to wear that is comfortable but also fits in, where I will feel like myself rather than just a dressed-up version of someone else. I’ve run over all the things I can say, should say, might say…smiling in the mirror and practicing greetings. After the networking and conversations with near strangers I'll be really tired and will probably cry. I’ll make sure to include a lot of self-care tactics both before and after such as exercise, being alone, spending time in nature and meditation.

As I write this, something that is giving me incredible anxiety is realizing that Frank was my grounding rod. Frank was the one that I could check in with before doing these things, and get feedback afterwards. He was the one I would throw on the front lines and network so I could go and hide. In addition to cheering me on and networking for me, I would often ask him to physically ground me by literally laying on top of me, fully clothed, because, sometimes, all I need to fall back into my body is a shit ton of weight holding me down so my nervous system can relax. Realizing this has tears streaming down my face. I can barely breathe, it feels like there's an elephant on my chest and a giant lump in my throat. I'm scared, and this is part of the preparation. I have to play out all the scenarios in my head…best case, worst case, anything in between. I have to cry about something that hasn’t happened so I can let go of the stress and move on.

I get to summon Frank in meditation, talk to him beforehand and somehow believe that he's there. And then afterward, I’ll get to go back to my hotel room and maybe phone a friend. I don't think it'd be appropriate to ask a random stranger to give me a bear hug, so I won’t do that, but maybe I’ll give myself one instead.

I’ll pull myself together and nobody will know. And that’s’s my privilege to ride both sides of the rail, to be able to pass as an NT while knowing my brain is anything but typical. It’s my honor to represent the world of neurodivergency and to be putting myself out there...

In fact, I learned something pivotal in this last conference. I gave myself room to be the person I am...I arrived at the networking event (a 3-hour block) at the beginning. I was introduced to several people, minded my pleasantries, and then just circled the perimeter of the room. I got some snacks and a drink and positioned myself at a table where I could watch everyone. I observed. I circled the room again, and then I left. I went back to my hotel room, checked some emails, completed some work, and subconsciously decompressed. Towards the end of the event, I went back. I met a few more people, circled the room one last time, plastered on a fake smile, and went to the next event. By the 3rd and final networking opportunity the next morning, the epiphany hit me. I understood the reason I needed to observe and vowed to give myself that space going forward. It helps me gain insight and clarity to the people around me. I understand motivations, intentions and personalities. There's something in this that is crucial for allows me to be myself a bit more and mask a bit less. Once I get it, we're all good. And literally, until this event, I'd spent most of my life kicking myself for being so shy. Trying to push past the anxiety and just be nice and fit in. But...when I"m able to sit back and relax and just be me, it's so much better.

To recap, here's how masking works for me:

  1. I find out about the opportunity I need to be 'not myself' for; I freak out,

  2. I need to know EXACTLY what I am going to need to wear. Somehow this helps reduce the perceived anxiety. My daughter is exactly the same.

  3. I gather AS MUCH information as many people, where is the venue, what time, who will be there, is there any kind of theme or dress code, what does that theme or dress code actually mean, and a whole host of other questions ans factors, all tangible. Is there a printed schedule, pictures from previous events,..these things I must know.

  4. I'll probably freak out a bit beforehand. Especially RIGHT before hand.

  5. I prefer to observe, not interact.

  6. I put on a happy smile...and...go...!

I’m all about growing in this lifetime…pushing myself to the edge so I can grow as a human. And what a fine example of that this is…I'm learning to give myself the space to be me, to be an observer and see what richness that brings me. Neurotic or not, here I grow.

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