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So masking? How can you tell the difference between the real you and the masked you?

I don't really see this is as some sort of performative art where I lose myself in a fictional personality.

Just a tiresome excercise where I have to constantly think "what's the way to behave that will allow me to navigate this situation in the most frictionless way possible?" while I mostly fail at it.
I thinking masking has some effect, as any experience in life does, but that ultimately the effects are temporary. Once you cease or lessen the masking I think you mostly return to your natural state. At least that is my guess and personnal experience with it.
I, personally, blame "masking" for two separate total breakdowns. The stress of constantly holding back my natural inclinations to act, think, express myself in a natural way in order to fit into a tiny, narrowly defined version of "normal" is soul crushing.

The constant calculations that I have to make, the reality that as soon as I "relax" enough to have fun my "true self" comes out and creeps others out...
Dude, totally
So I have a question about masking...
There's a book you might find useful, reviewed here:

In the UK the subtitle is "The power of embracing our hidden neurodiversity".
It can certainly affect one’s sense of identity, but even more important is the exhaustion that you have brought up.
Adapt to different social situations. But not to the level where everything inside is obscured, smothered, and ignored.

Both important points.

One of the things that's different between "NT masking" and "autistic masking" is the situations in which it is done. For example a lot of people feel they can't express their own individuality at work because they are in a professional role which requires it or the boss will be annoyed if you don't or whatever. But then everyone goes down the pub for a pint after work and that's when they relax, they feel they can be a bit more chilled out because there are no clients and or bosses to please. For me it was kinda non-stop. I mask at work for the same reasons as everyone else, AND at the pub for different reasons, so there's very little chance to relax or express myself.

A parallel would be a gay guy, in 1950, being obligated to "fake straight" for survival (yes, literally, to survive) works. There is nothing wrong or creepy in being gay, but the zeitghiest of the time required "masking" for survival, just as the current zeitghiest requires me to keep my hands still, and glue an artificial "cheese face" on my head so people won't constantly ask "are you ok?"
"cheese face" :D

What's a mask and what's really me...?
I sorta think masking is a conscious thing so surely I should know. But after a lot of years the edges get all fuzzy. For example, I used to play the clown a lot because when I did something that was the real me and it looked bizarre, people would think I was just playing around for comic effect. Or they'd look at me funny and I'd realise I'd done something odd, so I'd turn it into a joke as if I meant to do it for a laugh. I found that people liked a laugh so this went down well and helped me to make friends. It also meant that people didn't think I was "funny weird, don't hang around with that guy" they thought I was "funny haha, invite him to the party he livens the place up". But that act is exhausting and I resent feeling like I have to do it.

However, it then kinda morphed into something that is definitely the real me, something that I feel very strongly about, which is subverting dogma and tradition. This is why I ended up very interested in the role of the clown in history - the court jester, the harlequin, and commedia dell'arte. It's important to ridicule the ridiculous. It's closely linked to critical thinking and holding authority to account. So for these reasons I actually embraced playing the fool in some situations - this "act" is not so exhausting and I feel it expresses something genuine about me.
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I call my mask a 'social script', like computer programming or a screenplay.

In almost all social situations, I prefer to observe. I prefer to listen, and only respond when spoken to. I enjoy people's presence without the need to interact with them. But that's not how people usually socialize when they meet up with friends / coworkers / etc.

For my script, there are certain regular experiences that happen which I have 'pre-recorded' responses for in my brain. My responses are quite automatic now, but I wouldn't say they are 'me'. Small talk comes easier to me now, but I hate it, so on a low energy day I won't mask up to do something I hate. My preference would be to be silent.

For my programming (more for behaviour I guess), it is again a sort of script. Much like my preference to be silent, I need some sort of input, environmental stimulant, to then garner a response from me. It doesn't come easy to me because things like smiling, I only naturally do when I actually feel joy inside me, and I am a fairly low emotion person. I find it pointless to smile when you don't have that feeling. My preference, or natural state, is to keep my face the way it is, unless I am communicating an internal emotion. Facial expressions and vocal tone for social situations are conscious efforts on my part and I spend a lot of energy to pick the right ones, according to my script.

Over time I have been judged and criticized daily for these small 'weird' mannerisms to the point that I have 'fixed' them to avoid making a situation uncomfortable for other people, so now I just suffer in silence. Trying to undo all that now.

I think if your behaviour is a burden to maintain, and causes burnout over time, then it qualifies as a mask. But to nitpick and figure out if every little thing you do is mask or you, is a waste of time. There is a gray area to this, between mask and you, that you don't need to question (as others have said, since everyone, ND or not, does this to some degree). But if you want to figure it out, I think the most obvious / burdensome ones are really the only ones to concern yourself with.
AS someone who had so many different masks when I was young that they were more like acting roles that I had perfected for different occasions. Some of this winds up as a form of training and those on the spectrum go through a similar sort of learning curve. What stays with you and solidifies stops being a mask.

I was able to find what was truest within all those masks when I finally started exploring alcohol and a bit of THC in my very late twenties and early thirties. When you are a bit tipsy, your defense screens fall away and you start to express your truest self. This can be good or bad but that is yours to deal with and interpret and I am certainly not advocating drug taking in any form. That is a personal choice and it does not always carry beneficial results. Who you are with yourself, alone, is the true marker. Anything you suppress to fit in better is a mask. The trick is finding a way to be you and still be accepted without trying to be something you feel uncomfortable with it.

That is how you tell. If you are comfortable with it and do it without thinking to much about it, then it is you. Anything else is acting.
I find masking quite exhausting lately. To me it's like gears in a cars transmission. "Extrovert" is first gear. But that doesn't mean it comes particularly naturally to me. I can use first gear for a short burst, but often in social situations, I have to maintain it for hours. Pedal to the metal. The engine overheats, spinning at 7000 RPM, the fuel gets used up, and then it stalls.

I tend to view masking as anything I "can do" but would rather not if I have the option.
I really enjoyed conversing with paint supplier reps even about subjects beyond business, they liked my company
told them issues with their product, honest opinions no silly games or politics. I was a rep. for the chemical supplier at an assembly plant The paint supplier supervising rep told me I was the best rep. he had ever worked with.
I do think that all people "mask" to a greater or lesser extent. I think it's also extremely common at a younger age - and in my perception especially in this current era where personal brand means so much. Young people seem to be encouraged to "discover themselves" and learn some sort of profound truth about who they are, so often feel obliged to churn through personas to find the "real me". That, to me, is an act of masking where you intentionally dress up in character. So if you're fairly young, there's a fair chance this is the turmoil of youth. And spoiler: you won't ever figure it out, you'll just find more pressing things to do than ponder who you really are.

I think the difference with ASD is that we are aware of what we feel is a deficit or disability. It can be almost self protective or just cynical pragmatism to curate your outward appearance to avoid confrontation or rejection, or just to get by and get what you deserve. I've been accused of being manipulative in the past, and to an extent that fair. Because I need to be to get my and my families needs met. I must calculate what comes naturally to others, because that is the system in which I live. I'd prefer not to, but when you get jobs and benefits based on small talk and handshakes, what can you do? Don't hate the player.
I still do not really know what masking I've is always been myself. I never wondered who I was when younger just starting find myself now via this site.
My masking self is shy I guess. My real self is overly chatty and hyperactive. I think shyness is the most common form of masking for any people.
It is hard to avoid masking at times so you can only do the best you can
Like it is hard, you may like people but it does not mean you can be yourself
Masking is not really healthy so it is not easy.
If being a extravert is and suppressing my natural extravertism is masking that all I can think of, seems a bit of a stretch keeping my mouth shut is not difficult.

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