ADHD, PTSD, CPTSD, and Narcissism. Although these conditions are different, they all have one thing in common and that is ‘masking’ aka social camouflaging. Masking, first used to describe the act of concealing disgust by Ekman (1972) and Friesen (1969),  is a behavior whereby an individual changes their natural personality to conform to social pressures, abuse, or harassment. Bottling up these social corrections, rejections, and bullying is creating a feeling of inadequacy (not being good enough), anxieties, and insecurity. And, over time, it produces a lifestyle that keeps people at a far distance from their goals, relationships, and ability to handle certain situations. Although the underlying emotion for the social camouflaging we can observe with the above conditions is insecurity, it has different faces, causes, and reasons for exercising. 

pic Masking…a behavior to use for you to fit in a society that has agreed on behaviors and thoughts and expressions that are considered to be ‘normal’. Personally, I find this to be incorrect because it speaks of a ‘rule’ that says that you are not allowed to be yourself.

Why do people mask?

We are told that e.g. technology and social media are giving us an inflated sense of self. But most of us don’t walk around feeling like we are all that great. In fact, there is one underlying emotion that overwhelmingly shapes our self-image and influences our behavior, and that is insecurity.  

Everybody deals with this feeling of grogginess (insecurity) from time to time. It can appear in all areas of life and come from a variety of causes. It might stem from a traumatic event, patterns of previous experience, social conditioning (learning rules by observing others), or local environments such as school, work, or home.  It can also stem from general instability. People who experience unpredictable upsets (psychological blows) in daily life are more likely to feel insecure about ordinary resources and routines.  

Masking how you really feel or what your preferences really are is something we all learn to do as children. We pretend that we are happy when we are actually sad. That we are confident when we are actually nervous. That we like something maybe more than we actually like it so that we can fit in with the group we are hanging out with. And pretty much everyone does this sometimes.   

In other words, people mask to conform to social pressures, to avoid rejection or bullying, and as part of impression management. They are often corrected and even punished for their “weird” behaviors growing up. And so, we learn to suppress them.

Recognizing masking with ADHD 

For those who are dealing with ADHD, fitting in often requires an additional type of masking.  It is an act of hiding your neurodivergence.  (coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer) And, unlike emotions, the way your brain naturally works isn’t something that comes and goes. You are always neurodivergent, and often have to pretend that you are not. 

Although  I am not entirely sure that I was born with these behaviors, I myself was, in my teens, diagnosed with ADHD.  Personally, I think that my behaviors have been created while experiencing life underneath this umbrella of narcissism. How often did I, as a youngster, hear the comment “Why can’t you be normal for once in your life?!”  (A comment as such can have its origin in confusion, people not knowing how to respond to your energetic behavior. This confusion with people can trigger feelings of fear and shame which in turn shows itself as anger and irritation.) 

So, dealing with several of these ADHD traits myself I fully understand that watching every single thing or behaviour that might make you look not normal (for whatever that might be) and then fixing it, makes you automatically to the behavior of masking. 

Having to bottle it all up and making a conscious effort to behave in ways that are neurotypical, like hiding your hyperactivity with calmness, sitting quietly at a desk without sitting very strangely or squirming in one’s seat, or responding or making eye contact as you are expected to do during (class) discussions even though your mind may feel chaotic… it is exhausting! 

Pic ADHD masking is also known as impression management. Impression management was termed by Russell Barkley, psychologist, who also was the one who claimed that almost one-third of people with ADHD prefer masking their condition.

Other than hiding your behaviours you might also find yourself copying the behavior(s) of other people who do not have ADHD. This is how you camouflage with the rest of the world. You simply imitate the body language and behavior of non-ADHD people so that you appear just like them. 

For example, imagine you are in a public place and you are sitting with your arms crossed or you’re leaning back and staring a bit in the distance. Or, you are absolutely focused on a beetle that is walking over the table or a bird that is sitting outside. After a while, you notice that people start reacting to your behavior with a concern or perhaps with furrowed eyebrows. They might ask questions like, “Are you feeling okay?” “What’s wrong?” “Can I help?” 

Sometimes these moments are very welcomed. It allows you to express your thoughts and feelings at your own pace to those you are feeling comfortable with. But when these moments happen consistently, it starts to get annoying. Therefore, in order to avoid possible moments of bullying or rejection, you simply wear your mask all day.   


Long-term effects of masking

This kind of social camouflaging can, in some cases, be beneficial. It can help you achieve your goals, like getting a job or help you to establish relationships, especially with people who are not neurodivergent. In the short term, it can seem to keep you “safe”. But it turns out, that the kind of masking that is often asked to do with conditions like ADHD, PTSD, CPTSD, and Autism, comes at a cost. Especially long-term. 

  1. It is distracting. It can be hard to focus on what you are trying to do or trying to learn when you also have to actively monitor sitting still, have to make eye contact, and respond when it is appropriate to respond. It takes up working memory slots. So there is less of a chance of actually retaining the information you have been given. 
  2. Hiding can make it hard for people to believe that you are struggling. You don’t get the level of support you actually need because it doesn’t seem like you need it. This can lead to a delay in diagnosis, misdiagnosis, or, getting the level of support you might need after diagnosis.  Intentionally masking is not the only thing that can hide your struggles but it definitely contributes.
  3. Masking constantly is exhausting and on a long-term basis, it can potentially lead to isolation and even a burn-out. It can set false expectations, or expectations that you can’t consistently meet, which can sometimes make people angry with you. And, you are angry or embarrassed with yourselves when your mask inevitably starts to slip. (when you start noticing that your mask slips every now and then simply means that you are feeling comfortable around that person. He/she is giving you the freedom to be yourself) 
  4. It can be lonely. It affects your sense of self and your connection to others if you constantly have to hide fundamental aspects of who you are. And, it is anxiety-inducing. Because of a lot of the “weird” things you might do (e.g. being sensitive to light or noises, pacing up and down, having emotional outbursts, staring at things or people), your brain is letting you do this for a reason. They are coping and self-regulating mechanisms to help you focus or relieve anxiety. 

Social camouflaging out of shame

Social camouflaging (masking) can be strongly influenced by environmental factors such as work environment, authoritarian parents, rejection, and emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. You may not even know you are wearing a mask because it is a behavior that has, over time, become second nature and, can take many forms. 

Pic: If you could enter the minds of people around you, even the narcissistic ones, you’re likely to encounter ceaseless waves of insecurity.

At the moment we are talking about PTSD and CPTSD people can feel particular insecurity or shame to voice their thoughts, anxieties, and emotions. (one sign of insecurity is low self-esteem or negative self-image (thinking badly about yourself, your abilities or achievements), particularly when that image seems to be inconsistent with external observation. It can lead to other problems, especially concerning mental health.)

For example, let’s imagine a person who has a strong and stable appearance and knows what he or she wants from life. Well, at least that is what we observe on the surface.  This fictitious person also has a job that is protecting others in one way or another. Because of his/her job people look up to him/her and invite you to ask a person for advice or help in, for instance, life-threatening situations.  Having this much (public) responsibility this feeling of being ashamed of having particular anxiety or nightmares (waking up in the middle of the night, screaming) spawn from field experiences, and this feeling of weakness is popping up.   

At the moment that people feel ashamed, they try to hide it. In other words masking. You tuck away yourself, your personality. Out of fear of social judgment, being labeled as weak or weird, you hide everything that is inside you that should be voiced at your own pace. And, in the language, you can express yourself the best.   

Masking in order to fit into a society that has agreed on thought expressions and behaviors that are considered to be normal. It is odd and, in my personal opinion, absolutely wrong. It creates unnecessary depressions, anxieties, burn-outs, and addictions, among others. 

Dress to impress 

Now with narcissism, this ‘social camouflaging’ has a completely different cause, look, and goal. Yes, there’s an underlying emotion of insecurity but, as opposed to how it is experienced by people dealing with PTSD, CPTSD, ADHD, and Autism, this insecurity is not coming from the inside out. The insecurity the narcissist is experiencing comes from the outside in and has become a nasty personality trait over time. 

A narcissist finds his or her security in having a beautiful car, a big house, or a glamorous job, for others to look up to him or her. At the moment they think they are losing this material stuff, this external glamour, for people to say “wow,  you are amazing!” they think and feel that they are ‘a nobody’.  By means the narcissist experiencing this insecurity (losing control over people and/or a situation), he/she starts masking in a manner that is truly hurtful to their victims. 

Due to the narcissist living in an altered reality they, according to their mind, gain this feeling of no longer being important or, not being the center of the attention and start to reflect their insecurity on those around them by criticizing them (Hypocrisy) in the most sadistic manner they think of is necessary to gain back the public esteem.  And, some of the things that a narcissist is pretty good at are wearing the victim badge, blame-shifting, triangulation, and creating false narratives. This is their way of hiding their true selves…from themselves! 

Over time they have mastered these behaviors and perfected masking. And so, unfortunately, a huge amount of people start to believe or are believing instantly, their false selves and false narratives.  Those who are dealing with, or have done so in the past, the masking behaviours of the narcissist in one way or another, understand that these people and their narratives were absolutely false and sometimes even based on other people’s experiences. 

In the past years, I had the privilege to speak and meet with people who are, in one way or another, experiencing a form of ‘social insecurity’.  They are hiding their true feelings, thoughts, or personality in order to fit in into a society that has agreed on behaviors and thought expressions that are considered to be ‘normal’. And one of the things I learned over time is, that in a moment that you understand and recognize this behavior, this hiding of people their personality, you need to slow down and figure out what is the reason for that particular person to use this form of masking. And, create a comfortable and relaxed environment where people can voice their thoughts and emotions at their own pace. 

I am excited to see this shift in perception. The world is slowly starting to recognize the many reasons why people are masking and understand these differences in ADHD, PTSD, CPTSD, and Autism for what they are: Differences, not deficits or flaws. 

As the world starts to accept and understand neurodiversity, routinely see unmasked neurodivergent behaviors, and have these behaviors normalized, hopefully, those who are dealing with these conditions (ADHD, PTSD, CPTSD, and Autism) feel more comfortable and safe, taking off their masks. 

*  I want to make this clear though, taking off your mask does not mean that you are absolved of any consequences. You still live in a society with other people and your actions and behaviors might affect others. “I shouldn’t have to mask” doesn’t mean I can be a jerk. I’m not advocating for that. I am speaking of behaviors that don’t hurt anyone like rocking, playing with fidget toys in a way that’s not distracting to others, and sitting weird in your chair at work.

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