I’ve written a lot before about acting and masking. For the cheap seats, it’s a prevalent theme throughout the Asperger’s/autism spectrum community.
The way I see it, “masking” is the idea of putting on a proverbial mask, one that covers up your true personality, your true self, etc. In essence, hiding who you truly are. “Acting”, on the other hand, is related, but different; one either adopts the characteristics or even persona of another, or perhaps constructs a new persona altogether.
I’ve acted and masked all my life, from my second year of kindergarten onward (yep, you read that right; I spent two years in kindergarten. Long story. Not due to intellectual or cognitive impairment). Acting and masking are survival traits of sorts for me. I couldn’t have “functioned” in this world without them. Masks and acting roles construct a hologram of me that is deemed acceptable by my peers.
If I mask who I am, and act like someone I’m not, and I do it well enough, people like me.
But I harbor a dark secret: I’m aware that the bond they’ve formed isn’t with me–it’s with my mask and my acting skills. And in social situations, I’m only as good as my abilities to act and mask.
What if I took it off? Every fiber of my being recoils, alarm bells blaring. I don’t have too many conscious memories, but my nervous system sure remembers that I slapped on the mask, and auditioned for the acting role of Whole New Me, extremely early on, and so when faced with the mere prospect of taking off that mask, my brain folds its arms across its chest and says, “no way, no how. The mask stays on.”
My brain must know something I don’t.
There’s a significant risk in taking off the mask; I know from experience; it’s happened before. People react. They treat you differently; it’s almost like they’re subtly scolding you. It’s hard to place, and harder yet to explain, but there’s a sense of skepticism, or even perhaps a patronization.
They do a mediocre job of hiding it; they think they’re concealing it well, but I feel it anyway. They’re not as good at this Masking and Acting Thing as I am. They put on the Social Face, but what’s really going on underneath is that they’re looking down on you. There’s a distrust lurking there, in shallow waters beneath their surface expression. They think you’re incompetent. They don’t take you seriously. They don’t really respect you.
They go through the motions of social grace, of course. After that moment, the one at which they realize you’re Different, there’s the subtle shift in the air, in the way they look at you and communicate with you, although not much has changed, on the surface. They deliver what is (or they think and what usually is) expected. And maybe such an approach works for them, on each other.
But it doesn’t work so well on me. Because I, like many of us, have a sort of sixth sense. With a little practice, our bullshit-o-meters light up, and we get the feeling that somehow, we’re being played.
I know when the superficial cordiality is merely artificial. I’ve had enough practice, and I know when someone is being less than genuine. I can feel it.
They’re being nice to be nice, but it doesn’t ring true. It doesn’t resonate. It doesn’t echo. It only hurts.
So I usually don’t remove the mask. I carry it around, any time I’m outside of my apartment, like a security blanket.
It serves me relatively well, at least temporarily. Early on in a social setting, other people seem to like me, and I don’t think they can tell that I’m BS-ing them (innocently) quite like I can tell when start BS-ing me (usually not-so-innocently).
But they only like me until they realize The Truth – that I am Different. They don’t understand. They don’t care to find out, because there are oodles of other people just like them, so why make the extra effort to figure me out and adjust accordingly? They’d rather not stick around.
Social interaction between NTs and NDs (in many cases) seems to be a cat-and-mouse game. Hell, I think it’s often a cat-and-mouse game for NT-to-NT interaction, too.
And as long as my mask and my acting role hold up, well, so far, so good.
There’s one problem: they might “fall for” the mask and they may like what they (think they) see…but I don’t like who I feel I have to become in order to gain that acceptance. I feel all slimy inside.
The best way I can describe this is in this way…
Imagine, if you will, that you’re a young adolescent, desperate to be accepted by the majority, especially the cool kids. You’re either in the popular crowd already and trying to maintain that status, or you’re on the periphery of the popular crowd and trying to establish a more central position, or you’re trying to get into the popular crowd somehow.
You’re trying to impress. If the most popular kids in the group are wearing a certain brand of clothing, then you are, too. If they’re making fun of someone or something, then so are you. You might draw the line at alcohol or drug experimentation or crime, but if asked or pressured, you’d pretty much go along with almost anything else.
You might not like it; the activity they’re engaging in might not be your first choice or your ideal pastime; maybe you’d rather be home or at the library or in the computer lab or whatever, but if someone wanted you to accompany them in a game of Ding-Dong-Ditch the neighbors or TP-ing a house on Friday night, you’d probably do it, if acceptance was what you were gunning for.
That was me. I didn’t get into anything considered “really bad”, like substance experimentation or violence or crime, but I stooped pretty low at times in my quest for acceptance. My eyes were on the prize of said acceptance, and I quested after it at almost any cost. Those costs turned out to be higher than I realized. And I wouldn’t even realize the full extent of it for a long time.
This quest for acceptance and belonging are more common than many may realize. This is how “good kids” “go bad” (their parents or teachers start musing that they’ve started running around with a bad crowd). This is also (at least some of) how gangs form. Cliques, too. It’s all about trying to impress. To show how bad-arse you are.
I know, because I was that kid. I never ended up in a gang or a bad crowd, but there were times when my parents noticed a new friend, and expressed concern. The concern always surprised me; it’s not that I wasn’t aware of the potentially problematic road that I would head down if I wasn’t careful. That much I knew, and because of my instinctive tepidity, I kept my guard up. I was more surprised by the fact that they had noticed what I hadn’t yet said anything about.
I was that kid who was desperate to be accepted. I’ve said and done a few things I’m not particularly proud of. It was incredibly selfish, because I placed my own need to be accepted by the popular kids above someone else’s wellbeing. How classy.
I lived a lie and I felt shitty about it. Because here I was, talking smack about someone behind their back, trying to impress people who I now know didn’t deserve impressing, people who wouldn’t have even accepted me if I revealed the True Me.
Who or what was I doing this for? It sure as hell wasn’t for the victim’s benefit. This wasn’t exactly a Breakthrough Awesome Moment in their lives.
It didn’t even do any good for the popular kids, because they would’ve been just fine without my participation. They didn’t need my encouragement, approval, or reassurance. Unlike me, they were sure of themselves.
I’m not even sure if I was doing it for me, because I felt awful about it at the time, and it kept gnawing on me afterward, and I’ve even felt horrible about it ever since.
I acted crappy toward someone who didn’t have it coming to impress people I didn’t otherwise have anything in common with and who probably wouldn’t have liked me as I truly was inside anyway.
Not exactly the pinnacle of integrity.
I’m still guilty of masking and acting. That hasn’t changed. Masking is still a constant, conscious effort, but I have become (somewhat) efficient, and it has become ingrained. My brain doesn’t know any other alternative. I do not, however, join in anyone’s reindeer games of making fun of or harassing anyone else.
Rather, my acting and masking involve innocent gestures–neurotypical social “basics”, like trying to make eye contact and shake hands (although I still haven’t mastered either one), trying not to play with my hair too much in public, trying to remember that there are other people around me, sitting with a posture that makes the solid declaration to the world that I’m Sure Of Myself. It’s still a bunch of posturing, but I take nothing from anyone.
I’m still too eager to be liked, too hungry for acceptance. I end up smiling too much, and I still try too hard to come up with witty answers and use current slang terms in the correct contexts. I try to mind my appearance, although that doesn’t always come easy. I try not to delve too deep with conversational material if I’ve just met the person. I still try to mind the gap of personal space. Lots of mental gauges to monitor.
“Just be yourself” is a common cliche. It’s annoying, because it’s easy for those people to say that from where they sit (which, for most, is the privileged neuro-majority), because they don’t pay nearly as big a price for doing it as I do when I do it.
That slogan also induces a smidgen of heartache inside. “Just be yourself”? Hell, up until last year, I wasn’t even sure who that was. I had buried her long ago. Fortunately, the grave was a shallow one, and my buried Inner Child was still registering vital signs. And since I’ve unearthed her and dusted her off, she shines in the full moon light.
But it still feels unnatural to act natural. To let my true self poke through the surface, or to simply Be Myself, is an even more conscious effort than to mask and act per usual.
But as with many aspects of life, I’m working on it. 🙂
I Tried To Be Cool ~ February 22, 2017
15 Reasons I Love My Aspeger’s / Autistic Friends ~ December 16, 2016
Let Me Tell You About My ‘Mild’ Form of Autism ~ November 12, 2016
The Challenges of Relationships For People ‘With’ Asperger’s / Autism ~ November 11, 2016