I am incredibly lucky to be able to feature guest bloggers each month and to share new voices and perspectives. This month, therapist and business founder Sara-Louise Ackrill shares her thoughts on the benefits to us all when we live our truth instead of trying to hide our difference.
As an autistic woman I mask all the time. I define this broadly as ‘doing what it takes to fit in’ and people on the neurodiversity spectrum make ninja-level chameleons. We live in a state of next-level confusion that can only be described as “smart casual”(?!)
Often it’s easier to crack on and copy other people; the exact point where the meltdown egg-timer starts is where I say to myself “come on it’s only… (insert change in routine that I haven’t thought through or prepared for)”. But being ourselves is in fact so much riskier that it doesn’t often feel like an option.
People of all neurotypes mask to a greater or lesser extent. None of us ‘gets the memo’ for every single social occasion. None of us have the socially expected response ready in our bones for every eventuality. Knowing how to mask has its advantages: sometimes you might not be in the mood for fancy dress but at least you don’t have to iron a shirt.
But I for one don’t want to do it anymore…
Why do we mask?
As a therapist who has had a lot of therapy, I know we all do things for a reason and basically, we all hate being rejected. We all want people to like or admire or accept us. Or we want the promotion, the income, the kudos, (if not the fluffier bits).
We also don’t want to create obstacles to people loving us.
Sometimes we actually mask to protect the people we care about and that’s ironic because it’s generally the same people who then don’t believe we struggled in the first place (can we blame them though, if they couldn’t see anything?) But we don’t want to burden people with more than they already have to think about; to look like we don’t like being around them or to show the people we care about up.
In fact, whether we think about our ego or someone else’s, we are all heavily incentivised to ape the people we spend the most time around (or who we admire or depend on for love and care) and so we judge ourselves from within a framework of familiar external references and decide what we can or can’t ‘get away with’ in that circle. We also, over time, dislike ourselves for not just having the courage to show up as we are.
What happens when we stop masking
We are fairer to ourselves and to those around us. We like, trust and respect ourselves more.
We give people the opportunity to love us for who we are and other people the opportunity to move on (our lives are better for this). Our friends, loved ones, bosses… see what needs to be worked with or accommodated.
We are less resentful. We spend less time explaining and justifying ourselves. We meet the people who will do us good.
We have more energy to accomplish great things… and I am pretty sure we are here on Earth to do more than simply master the basics of learning how to be. There is so much more we can achieve.
We need to stop talking and awareness raising and start to live our own truth – be it our race, our disability, our age, our interests, our preferences etc. Or we at least need to match ‘talking’ with ‘being’.
Speaking about my difference publicly and privately non-stop for four years since my diagnosis at 38 has for me been a way of cloaking it in respectability.
But while it might sound brave to talk about being autistic on a podcast, actual bravery is taking a weighted lap pad to the pub.
I might feel empowered training and counselling others and my hard work and life experience have put me in that position. But real empowerment is wearing ear defenders walking through town, working and resting when it suits me without worshiping the constricting but holy grail of the 9-5; and FINALLY ditching supermarkets because they make me dissociate, not seeing them as my eternal nemesis!
(There is also a point here about not spending with companies that don’t meet our needs or represent us. Amazon is meeting mine fine thanks and it doesn’t tell me I’m only welcome on weekly autism hour!)
Creating the spaces to live our own truth
Lastly, we can all contribute to creating a space where people can live their difference in the way they want to. People are not going to learn to be authentic by learning to reject one tyrannical system of ‘fitting in’ only to be hoovered up by another school of thought that’s laying down the law on how best to ‘stand apart’.
Please do not tell people how to be gay or straight or married or childless or religious or feminist or male or deaf or mentally struggling or neurodivergent. Not everyone with a difference or protected characteristic is interested in the fact.
Please also be gentle when correcting people’s language around difference and assume their best intentions until you have reason to think otherwise.
My take on inclusion is that nobody was given the title of ‘unofficial nightclub bouncer on Earth’. So with that in mind, I want to say this:
There is space for us all, our name is down and we are all coming in.
Sara-Louise Ackrill is a therapist and Founder of Wired Differently, a social impact company creating products and services for neurodivergent people. Read her LinkedIn profile to find out more about her and the work that she does.