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Home » Masks and Shadows: Exploring the Concept of Masking Through a Jungian Lense – DIFFERENT BRAINS

Masks and Shadows: Exploring the Concept of Masking Through a Jungian Lense – DIFFERENT BRAINS

Masks and Shadows: Exploring the Concept of Masking Through a Jungian Lense - DIFFERENT BRAINS

By Nicholas Bamonte

I Am Thou, Thou Art I

While I’m not currently enrolled in a university, I still consider myself a student of psychology, at least to a degree. As such, I hold a great deal of reverence for the founders of many of the early schools of psychology, such as Carl Jung, the father of analytical psychology, often simply called Jungian Psychology. While these earlier schools of thought are more and more considered out-of-date historic curiosities in favor of neurobiology and a more physical view of the mind, I still genuinely believe that there is wisdom to be gleaned from the old masters still. For example, the persona, named after a type of mask worn by theater actors to designate their roles, is a concept in analytical psychology, where people interacting with the world and society will adopt different personalities or identities based on people’s expectations, societal roles, and simply what behaviors get them good results. In this way, the persona is a metaphorical mask worn in order to both fit into society, but also to protect the “true self”. In Jung’s view, this is a natural and important part of the human experience, as a person’s true self is a somewhat ethereal thing, composed of both the conscious and unconscious mind, and therefore not very reliable for day-to-day life.

Many of you may already be drawing parallels to another psychological concept: masking. For those who don’t know, masking refers to the process of hiding one’s natural personality and behavior due to societal pressures… so in other words, a modern take on the concept of personas. The term has gained a particular prevalence in the neurodiverse community as of late, describing a reality for many neurodiverse people trying to navigate a world designed around brains that function differently from their own. Just as everyone maintains certain personas to fulfil their social needs and obligations, everyone masks their true thoughts and feelings at times. To the neurodivergent community, however, this masking may occur more frequently and to cover emotions of even greater intensity than most people.

Some examples could be a person with autism holding back their stimming, placing themselves into an overstimulating environment for the sake of social obligations and trying to hold in their frustration. Another example could be forcing themselves to maintain eye contact, or consciously trying to emote in a way that most do automatically. For ADHD, some examples could be trying to hold in their fidgeting or after a break in attention where they lost track of the conversation, staying quiet instead of asking someone to repeat themselves. While it may be tempting to say that the negatives of masking are self-evident, the truth is that the full ramifications are not truly understood, at least for the modern concept. If masking is a modern take on the concept of personas, then perhaps we should examine what Jung had already identified as the problems with the persona.

What Lurks in the Shadow

Carl Jung wrote of a very real danger that comes from overly identifying with a persona, or losing sight of the truth that we are not merely the role we play. A persona is, essentially, a fabrication, stitched together from societal expectations and useful, complementary, and/or well-liked aspects of the “true self”. Those fragments of the “true self” that aren’t used to form a persona remain however, often sinking below the conscious mind into the unconscious, forming the “shadow”. The shadow is, well, the shadow cast by the persona, the aspects of oneself that are hidden and kept in the dark, whether intentionally or not. The shadow is not a passive force, however. These aspects of oneself still have a need to be expressed, or at least recognized. The more the shadow is repressed, the more psychological distress is built up. In the worst cases, these hidden sides may burst forth, like a spring under pressure, suddenly and violently, creating issues in one’s life. Identifying too strongly with a persona also leads to the repression of one’s individuality, seeing oneself more as their societal role then as a distinct individual, a state that impedes psychological development. While the shadow can often be a source of conflict, Jung does not identify in as a negative force, in itself. Many positive aspects of a person can fall into the shadow simply because they didn’t have an opportunity to be expressed as part of a persona. In fact, the process of facing and communicating with one’s shadow is considered one of the most important tasks under analytical psychology. Through this process, called individuation, a person becomes more aware of and accepting of their whole selves, growing as a person and finding inner peace.

It certainly doesn’t take much to apply this concept to the modern idea of masking. Suppressing one’s genuine thoughts and feelings and the actions that arise from them creates a sense of dissonance between one’s inner feelings and actions, which can be harmful to one’s sense of identity. It can be frustrating, if not plain distressing, to feel like you’re living a lie. Eventually, if allowed to mask for too long, the stress and the need to express oneself genuinely becomes too much, and a person may start lashing out, leading to a meltdown where those traits that they tried to conceal are expressed more extremely than they normally would be. To avoid this, a person must learn how to balance their needs and wants against societal demands. One must learn how to accept all aspects of themselves, convenient or otherwise, and fit in times to let the mask slip, to express those thoughts and feelings in a safe and controlled setting. Only then can one maintain a healthy level of stress and sense of identity. The problem, is that one can mask without even realizing it.

Tearing off the Mask

I used to think that I couldn’t really relate to the concept of masking. When I heard it, my mind went to the concept of trying to hide the fact that one had a form of neurodiversity, and I’ve never really done that. I typically maintain a small group of close friends, some that I’ve known since kindergarten. I’ve also typically always either enrolled in schools that specifically cater to students with learning disabilities, or enrolled myself in programs that cater to people with learning disabilities in more general schools. I grew up in an environment that was extremely supportive to neurodiversity. My family gave me unconditional love and encouraged me to understand that learning or thinking differently didn’t mean worse. Pretty much all of my friends have known me since a young age, and with that comes a lot of understanding, and often I shared classes with people who also had some form of learning difference, being taught by teachers trained to teach people like us. I was never ashamed to say that I had dyslexia or ADHD… or at least, I wasn’t ashamed of the label. Looking back recently, I’ve started to realize that I actually spent a lot of time masking, and I never even realized it. Sure, I never hid the fact that I was neurodiverse from my friends, but I did often try to hide it when I was overstimulated from social activity, or when my desires differed from the rest of the group (my friends would probably argue that I wasn’t very successful, but still). I have a twin brother, and we’ve always shared a friend group, which often led to a frustrating catch-22.

When we were younger, my brother and I would do most things together. As we got older, we naturally began to do more things separately. The thing is, I struggled more than my brother to find time to pursue my own interests, and the times that I did, my brother would want to invite friends over. Since they where my friends as well, it felt weird not to hang out with them, so I would join them even though I personally wanted a day to myself, which resulted in some conflicting feelings and resentment that I suppressed. It eventually got to the point where I seriously feared that my friends didn’t actually care for me, that I was nothing more than a tagalong that came packaged with my brother. While we ultimately worked things out, and I now understand that those fears where unfounded, I struggled for years with these unspoken doubts and often suppressed my own desire for a break from the group due to my own sense of social responsibility. Even though I was always open about my learning differences and neurodiversity with my family and friends, I still tried to hide from the actual effects. I was ashamed for being different, deep down believing that it made me lesser, so I tried to conform and be extra accommodating to the group, even as they told me they wanted my REAL thoughts and feelings.

In school, I would often bristle against suggestions for accommodations to make my workload more manageable. In my mind, I didn’t see it as an accommodation to level the playing field, I saw it as an unfair advantage, or perhaps an admittance that I was lesser would be more accurate. If everyone else could do that many problems fine, why shouldn’t I? If doing these problems was important for learning the lesson, then wouldn’t I be hurting my own learning? And when it came to struggling to keep up with note taking in class, accepting copies of someone else’s’ notes wouldn’t be fair, because then I would just be sitting around while other people worked hard to copy their own notes. Only, now, years after the fact, do I realize that I was hiding from the fact that I had a problem. I acknowledged that I had learning differences, but tried to hide from how those differences manifested. Even though the problem was obvious, I tried to hide behind a mask that all I needed to do was work harder and brute force my way through my struggles, because otherwise I would be admitting that I was in some way, deficient from everyone else, at least in my mind.

As I look back at my issues with a new perspective, I realize that, just as personas come in many different forms, so too does neurodivergent masking, and how important it is that we recognize and acknowledge them. As a man who struggled for years against a mask he didn’t even know he was wearing, I hope that this may help others to recognize their own mask, and be free.

Nicholas Bamonte Headshot

My name is Nicholas Bamonte, and I am neurodivergent. My formal diagnosis’ are dyslexia and ADHD, though the aspect of neurodiversity that I have struggled with the most throughout my life is slow processing speed, which is not typically recognized as a diagnosable disorder in itself. Thanks to early intervention, I do not really remember much of my struggles with dyslexia, though the poor executive functioning aspect of ADHD and often feeling behind the rest of the crowd are a different manner entirely. A graduate of FIU with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, I hope to assist the millions of people who struggle with learning differences and the difficulties that come with living in a world not designed with their particular brains in mind. Even if only as an advocate who helps to spread awareness, the feeling that you’re not alone and that your condition is recognized by society goes a long way in itself.

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