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Masking and Mirroring: ADHD Terms You Should Know

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Hi there! Your resident hyperfixater over here. Hyperfixater. Is that a word? A noun — someone who hyperfixates. Me. I hyperfixate a lot. And recently — on my very own self-diagnosis of ADHD and learning more about it.

And when I make notes and start discovering a new topic, there isn’t anything I love more than learning definitions that will act as building blocks to my knowledge. So, let’s just jump right into it!

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What is ADHD?

1. Masking

Masking, at its core, is presenting yourself to others in a way that makes it seem as though you are not living with this disorder. So, for ADHD masking, it would be presenting yourself to the world in such a way to make it seem as though you do not have ADHD.

2. Mirroring

This is based on my observation of you — the tone of voice, physical stance, facial expressions, sentence inflections, use of hand gestures… the list goes on. And in an effort to be more accepted and seem amicable, these moments are copied — mirrored — back to you.

Why This Matters

Masking and mirroring are two sides of the same coin. Whether done consciously or not, they are to hide your ADHD from the world. It is intricate and complicated and depending on who you’re around, shifts to meet the social need. And, you guessed it, it’s exhausting.

Now I don’t want you to think that this is deliberately trying to deceive the people who are around you. When you spend so long masking, you don’t realize you’re still doing it. And for me, it started off from the environments in which I’ve grown up (socially, at school, or at home). And also, you’ve guessed it, this is a misunderstanding and stigma around ADHD. It’s not just “being hyperactive.”

Depending on the environment (school, home, dinner at a fancy restaurant), I often internalize a lot of the ADHD hyperactivity and I mask all my symptoms to make others around me feel more comfortable. Masking, for me, has always been about “behaving appropriately.” Read: behave in a way that won’t get me in trouble.

Getting too excited? Calm down. Stop fidgeting. You’re talking too fast. Focus on one thing — why can’t you just finish one project before starting another? Stop getting distracted by all your side projects and finish your homework. You’re overreacting — why are you being so performative? Stop laughing so loud. No more pulling on your shirt. Maintain eye contact — why are you looking away and back so much? Stop leaving things to the last minute. You just started that hobby — why are you already wanting to try something new? Don’t you know that you need to stick with it to get good at it?

Can’t you just stop masking? Ah yes — the age-old useless advice, given along the same lines of “Why are you stressed? Stop stressing.” This is simply yet another case of “it is easier said than done.” Because we have done it for so long, the masking and mirroring have been ingrained into my brain and it is often subconscious at this point. This is why you’ll notice that I’m different depending on who I’m talking to — my partner, my parents, my boss, strangers in a coffee shop, or the nice folks over at Build-A-Bear. They all have different expectations of me and I act “accordingly,” in my Herculean effort to be liked by everybody I meet.

I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even have many answers, but for me, it always comes back to a few simple points:

  • I enjoy alone time because I don’t have to mask.
  • I have a hard time with my identity because I spend so much time playing all these roles that I’m not sure who I am without the expectations.
  • Help your friends with their masking by meeting them without judgment and letting them know that they are safe, loved, and supported.

Photo by Naganath Chiluveru on Unsplash

Originally published: November 11, 2021
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