Yesterday I watched a video about viral video start, and how it changed their lives. One of those stars was Tay Zonday. This was on a Yes Theory video on YouTube, a channel I have really fallen in love with over recent months. Whilst talking about his experience since going viral, he reflected on how he is expected to behave by the public. A certain persona is required, expectations of how he should conduct himself etc. He went on to explain that he is autistic, and in the circles of autism, this behaviour is known as "masking".
Ref this video, time stamp around 20.20
Bells rang out loud in my head, this is an expression I have used for a long time now when discussing how I feel I should conduct myself around strangers, or people who have preconceived perceptions of who I am.
Before I go on, quick disclaimer. If you have met me, and we have spent a bit of time somewhere, at an event, or in a large gathering, you probably don't know ME. If I have spent a larger amount of time with you, engaging in relaxed conversation, openly expressing myself, and being relaxed, then you probably know me better than most. There are just a small handful of people who know ME.
Tay makes reference to his two personas, his government named, and his public identity known as Tay. The side he chooses to share on his YouTube channel. This is something I am very familiar with, and can probably best explain it by going back in time a little.
Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was part of a team that ran a popular internet forum (of its day). On the forum, and website I was known as "Snazy", yup, the same name as this blog. Obvious play on my surname, doesn't take much explaining really. As part of this community I would say I was well known, and would be recognised at meet ups, and other social events. When events were arranged, the "popular" people were regularly encouraged to attend, just to help boost the attendance. This is not an attempt at a humble brag that I was any kind of minor celeb, or better than anyone else. I was just a name at the forefront of an online community.
Regularly before going to any sort of gathering, I would get anxious, talk myself out of going, and find excuses not to go. Only to be talked around, and end up going. Always happy and chipper to people I engaged with, regardless of if I knew them personally, or it was an introduction to someone who used the site that I had never met before. So it slowly became my "Snazy persona". The appearance and behaviour of the person people thought they knew. I never really questioned it, or put much thought into the whole situation. Just sucked it up, and put my game face on when the time came.
Towards the end of the forums popularity, I started to realise I was actually miserable, and quite unhappy with the whole situation. Sinking deeper and deeper into depression at the time, I started to question why I even behaved this way. Just to meet the expectations of people I had never met before, and probably would not ever again? Just to be popular, although this was not something I thrived in either way. One night, while chatting to a friend, I said I didn't feel anyone knew ME. Sure Snazy was popular, but what about me, who even knew me. Told I was being silly, I threw down the gauntlet, and said "ask 10 people we both know, what my real name is".
Back then MSN Messenger was the IM platform of choice (told you I was going back!!), so the only thing people could see was your screen name, and your email address. At the time my screen name was always "Snazy The Daddy" with a series of emojis after it, determined by how I felt at the time. My email address was also Snazy related. Off she went, and started asking, and time after time, no one could tell her my actual name. I think out of the 10, one got it, and that was only my first name. She was shocked, I was unsurprised but at the same time mortified.
So that is my first realisation of "masking". Becoming a person people expect you to be, or displaying a persona which seems comfortable, and fit in with the surroundings of a social environment. Whilst just under the skin feeling terrified, exhausted and completely overwhelmed.
As life has gone on, I am able to look back and identify event after event in which I have put on a mask, just to get through whatever the situation was. This is not to be confused with putting on a brave face to deal with a sudden and unexpected situation. This is something I am sure we are all accustomed to, a devastating family event, a serious accident, or anything else that requires us to remain composed to get through it. We have all been there, and it is something we as humans generally excel at.
But masking is different. Putting on a mask just to be in a certain everyday setting, be it a busy commute, a work place, or a social gathering. Projecting confidence is the best way to get through situations which make you uncomfortable. Less questions, less stress, on the surface at least. The problem with wearing a mask, is it is exhausting, mentally! In a short space of time, I can go from being fully charged and ready for a day, to exhausted and ready to sleep for the rest of the day. The amount of energy anxiety, and masking it takes out of you is impossible to comprehend unless you have felt it first hand.
There have been times when I have agreed to engage in some sort of event, and it has taken literally days to get my energy back. Not only does the draining of the energy knock you for six physically, it also has a deep and profound mental cost too. Causing you to want to withdraw from society for a bit, to get yourself back together. Leaving you questioning your decisions, and reluctant to do something like that again. Personally for me, just being in an unfamiliar place, and not needing to really engage with anyone, can really tire me out fast. A plane journey for example. Lots of eye contact, checkpoints, and reasons to speak to people briefly. The requirement to be polite and approachable really takes its toll.
In conversations over the past 10 or more years, I have referred to wearing a mask, to be a person people think I am, or just as a game face to get through a situation. It is a concept I am familiar with, but hearing Tay speak of it just validated everything I have ever said about it before. It is a relief to know that it is something others identify with, and also sadly battle too.
Most recently, with the pandemic, and working remotely. Being able to isolate myself from unnecessary, and unwanted interactions, I have been MUCH better. Feeling more in control of my mind, bouncing back with plenty of mental energy, and feeling more positive about the engagements I choose to participate in. This is just one small area of my life obviously, and there have of course been other times when I have been less able to control things. And at those points, it is even more obvious to me how detrimental avoidable encounters are to my mental and physical state.
I am sure for those who know me, there are those who are now nodding, as it all makes perfect sense to them. Then there are some who are confused and a little bewildered to have not realised all this was going on behind the scenes for all this time. And of course there will be those crying "attention seeker", or other blinkered and selfish comments. There are a few I can guarantee for sure will be saying that!
Either way, I will wrap this up by asking you to take five mins out of your day, and asking yourself, how many of your friends and social circles know YOU? I don't mean every little thing about you, just have an understanding of you as a person, and know what makes you tick. How many of the closest people around you could for example plan a multi event and location day out with you, and get it right? I bet it is less than you think.
Fact is, within the groups of people who surround us, we have things in common that bind us as a group. Outside of that common ground, people very rarely take the time to find out anything else about you, but instead create a social construct they think you fit into. In reality, one thing in common, could be countered by a whole host of different beliefs, morals, and life preferences. I am not saying this is a terrible thing, it's just human nature, to pretend to feel we know someone, without taking the time to actually try to.
But, and this is the big bit... Give a little consideration to how much energy goes into being the person you think they are. For some of us, it is simply unsustainable.
Thanks to Yes Theory, Tay Zonday, and everyone in my life who has taken the time to try to get to know Michael Snasdell, and not just Snazy, the guy they think they know. If you know Snazy, you DON'T know me!
PS, Tay, I know this is not exactly the road you were going down with "masking", but it energised me enough to offer my take on it.