What is social masking and is it sabotaging your self-esteem?
Social masking behaviour could be sabotaging your self-esteem. Here’s how to spot the signs
“I’ve done such a good job of pretending to be an outgoing person that friends and family are shocked when I tell them I’m not.” Amanda* (37) is talking about her experience of social masking. She says it’s something she’s always done.
Ever since she was a teen, she became an expert at working the room. She would seamlessly adopt the mannerisms of the people around her in a bid to fit in, while concealing her true personality.
"Social masking typically involves suppressing your natural urges"
At times, this would extend to the clothes she wore, the people she dated, and the jokes she would tell. And by her own admission, sometimes it was hard to tell who was the real Amanda and who was the fake.
This is social masking, the process of suppressing or concealing your natural way of interacting with others so you can feel accepted. Social maskers aren’t trying to deceive anyone, rather they are hoping to blend in with everybody else.
“Social masking is a learned set of conscious pattern-matching behaviours, movements and actions where you mimic 'normality' to fit in rather than stand out,” explains psychotherapist Dipti Tait. “It’s generally adopted by people who are unable to naturally act in a way that is considered socially acceptable.”
Social masking is often used by neurodivergent people
Social masking behaviour is often used by people on the autism spectrum, but according to psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo, it’s something that we all engage in to a certain extent.
She says social masking can manifest as copying what others do such as body language, facial expressions, and behaviour or practising what you may want to say.
While it can look different for everyone, social masking typically involves suppressing your natural urges (for example, forcing yourself to sit still or smile), offering rehearsed responses, and changing your personal interests to fit the crowd.
Social masking to fit in
In a world that often tells us to just be ourselves, you might wonder why many of us are reliant on these behaviours.
“Social masking happens because we as a species want to be included,” says Tait. “It’s a tribal thing of being together rather than being on our own; a primitive part of our evolution to blend in, rather than stand out, to socialise, rather than be anti-social, to fit in rather than be a misfit.”
The mask is usually protection against our self self-doubt. “We all have certain masks to protect ourselves from ridicule, exposure, difference and imposter syndrome. Our masks enable us to get through some tricky life situations with confidence,” Tait surmises.
Social masking is a way to try and fit in with a majority group
To an extent, social masking is also built-in at a physical level. Tait says we are creatures of pattern-matching.
“We have something in our brain called mirror neurones. These are pattern-matching neurotransmitters that give us indications of how to behave and blend in to essentially stay safe and not stick out,” she explains.
Add to that, Quinn-Cirillo believes social media may have made it even harder for us to be ourselves. She notes that social media gives us set images and videos that may make us believe this is how we should be.
You might be wondering how social masking differs from being a slightly different version of yourself around different groups of people. For example, you might find you’re the life and soul of the party around your closest friends, but more subdued when you’re with work colleagues.
"There is a difference between being in natural rapport with someone and consciously social masking"
Our personalities are largely fluid, they naturally change shape depending on the company we keep, and Dipti says there is a huge difference between being in natural rapport with someone and consciously social masking.
“When we are in natural rapport with someone, we unconsciously get into sync with that person. Our breathing patterns begin to match the other person, our pace and tone change, and our body language adapts,” she explains.
“These are subconscious clues that we are 'on the same page' as the person we are speaking to and interacting with. It happens naturally, and there is very little effort involved.”
Social masking on the other hand involves a conscious effort to mold your personality to suit your surroundings.
In some scenarios, this can be beneficial. For example, it may curry favour with your boss and help you net a promotion or allow you to forge new connections with people outside of your social circle.
However, for Dipti, social masking moves into dangerous territory when you try to be someone you are not. She references the popular adage, "Fake it ‘til you make it".
“If the ‘fake it till you make it' system is used to improve a quality in one’s self for self-development purposes, then this is a very good way of training the brain and the body to adapt and create better thoughts, feelings, habits and beliefs,” she explains. “But if it is being used to patch over self-doubt and boost one's self-belief, self-worth or self-value, then this is where the system can be damaging.”
"The more Amanda masked her true self, the more she says she lost faith in herself"
Social masking can compound the belief that you are not enough as you are and chip away at your confidence and self-esteem over time. The more Amanda masked her true self, the more she says she lost faith in herself.
“I couldn’t see the positive qualities I had to share with others and the more my confidence dipped, the more I felt I had to rely on social masking behaviours,” she muses.
Confidence issues aside, social masking can also be incredibly draining. “For anyone who masks, it can impact mental health in the long term due to the effort involved,” Quinn-Cirillo points out. “Continually stepping outside of who you are can impact your self-esteem and self-worth and you may feel that you are ‘stuck’ in a cycle of having to present a different self to the world.”
So, how can you break the cycle? Getting rid of the mask involves working to improve your self-worth, self-belief and self-esteem.
The goal, says Tait, is to feel safe enough to remove the mask; to feel comfortable in your own skin and to be able to use your voice clearly.
It’s by no means a quick fix. The next time a thought of self-doubt pops into your head, Tait encourages you to ask yourself what you’d say if a friend was experiencing that very same thought. “This answer is often much kinder. You need to work out how you can use this kinder approach on yourself.”
Next, learn how to interrupt those damaging thoughts that all too often tell you it’s not okay to be yourself. Tait says to be on the lookout for phrases like, "I am not good at that", "I can’t do that", or "I am not worthy".
Then once you hear these thoughts, take action and stop the damaging dialogue. Tait advises asking yourself, “What if that self-limiting belief was not true, what would change and what small thing would I do differently?”
Start being your true self around the people you trust
Doing this repeatedly over a long period of time gives those self-defeating thoughts less power and improves your self-belief, meaning the urge to social mask won’t be quite so powerful.
On the practical side of things, Quinn-Crillo suggests finding someone you can easily and authentically connect with when you first arrive at an event and deciding how long you want to stay before you get there.
For Amanda, the key has been testing the waters with close friends and family. “I’ve started showing the real me to the people I most trust, and it’s given me the confidence to be a little more myself. It’s a reminder that the right people will love you for you,” she says.
Her advice is to start showing others your personality in small ways: tell that joke you think is funny or say what you want to say instead of what you think people want to hear for a change.
Lastly, be kind to yourself. Quinn-Crillo says social situations can be tough to navigate for all of us.
*Name has been changed
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