I have been having so many conversations lately with friends, family, and clients about neurodivergence. Neurodivergence has become my latest special interest (more on that in a later blog), and one of the questions I keep hearing from others is: how do I learn to unmask?! I have to admit that I have not been the most helpful counselor in those moments as I, too, have been wondering that very thing. Up until very recently, the answer has been a very distressed, "I don't know!" I have some good news, though - I think I finally have some real advice.
Before we even begin, you may be wondering what neurodivergence even is. At its most basic, neurodivergence is a pattern of cognitive function (or brain function) that is different from the norm. There's a lot to go in to with that definition, so if you'd like some more info, check out my previous blog.
What's the Problem?
When folks come into the therapy room to work on their experience of the world and start to discuss how difficult it has been for them to simply exist, I find that we often get into conversations around a similar theme. When it comes to neurodivergence, much of the distress we (neurodivergent folks) experience is not because of our specific "flavor" of divergence. On the contrary, it's the expectations, both implicit and explicit, from the neurotypical world that are distressing.
All humans are driven by rules, and at their most basic, rules centered around acceptance. There are literal reactions in the brain to perceived or actual rejection that look (and as such feel) the exact same way that physical pain looks in the brain. It makes sense from a survival standpoint, too. If caveman Whitney gets rejected by the group, I'm much less likely to be able to protect myself and find enough food to survive. Acceptance into a group means survival.
Rules Rules Rules
We are taught from a very early age how to get along in the world and get our needs met:
- Say please and thank you
- Don't hit
- Raise your hand - don't interrupt or shout out
- Ask for what you need
As we get older, the rules become more complex, less explicitly stated, and more nuanced:
- Don't talk too much
- Don't be too loud
- Don't hurt people's feelings
- Don't say "I love you" first
Navigating the world and our social relationships becomes more and more difficult. Being good at following these rules sometimes helps, but as we grow up, we start to discover the situations where the rules are incomplete or sometimes even just plain wrong. With a focus on not hurting feelings, for example, what started out as a way to learn empathy for others becomes a tendency to put others first and ourselves last at all times. We become people-pleasers, vulnerable to abuse, and lose sight of what we are even feeling and thinking in the first place.
Focusing on following rules becomes the only option for our brains, and failure to follow rules leads to physical, emotional, and cognitive pain. And yet, the harder we work to adapt and adjust, the more and more tight our lives become. We cannot be too much, too loud, too weird, too different, too kind, etc. Assimilation is the only option wherein we survive!
Our mental energy is depleted, leading to a decreased ability to figure out the rules and act on them. As we approach burn-out, our masks slip, revealing all of the TOO MUCH and NOT ENOUGH that we have been trying to hide all along. Our physical bodies are riddled with tension. We are exhausted, drained, and lost - and worse still, feeling rejection all the same.
Masking, the working so hard to assimilate and behave according to those rules, feels as if it should be the solution to the problem of feeling different, and yet, it becomes the very problem. The solution, then, is the process of learning to unmask.
Unmasking seems overwhelming, especially for us folks who have been working very hard for a very long time (with a lot of success) to become great at it. For some people, it's difficult to figure out who you even are without the mask. This is the process:
- Acceptance of neurodivergence: without being willing to recognize and welcome your neurodivergence into your life, it will seem to be a problem to solve and a condition to hide. Acceptance of neurodivergence can look many different ways and isn't a simple choice - it's a daily practice of encountering the self with curiosity and joy.
- Exploration of the self: when masking has been the norm for the majority of your lifetime, it may take some time to figure out who you are, what you like, what you need, and how you feel. This is a process, much like the first step of acceptance, of purposefully paying attention to your own thoughts, feelings, urges, and other internal experiences and allowing yourself the permission to explore. This process can start in private where you feel safe, and gradually spread to other areas of your life where you allow other folks to "meet" the real you, too. (A note of encouragement, here - the research shows that allowing folks to meet the real you not only increases well-being for the one unmasking, but also leads to greater acceptance from others, too!)
- Values clarification: similar to step 2 where you are exploring yourself, this step is a process by which you don't just discover who you are, but that you take the additional step to discover what is important to you. There may be some rules that you lived by while masking that you no longer find to be important (e.g., maybe you don't care too much about not saying "I love you" first - maybe instead you care deeply that your loved ones know that you love them). There may be some rules that you lived by while masking that you choose instead to keep (e.g., maybe asking for what you need is actually one that you find to be useful). What's important about this step is figuring out what is important to you and living according to that.
This process is not an easy one, and it definitely isn't a quick one. It's really a new way of living and being - a practice - that will continue on throughout our lives. And it's also a way of living that opens up new doors for relationship with self and others that is more authentic, healing, and free. For some information on the theoretical background of this process of unmasking, check out my previous blog where I discuss Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
You don't have to start this journey on your own, though. If you could use some support as you explore how neurodivergence does or doesn't make sense for you, please reach out.