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The Hidden Costs of Masking Your Authentic Self at Work

For many neurodivergent people, LGBTQIA+ folx, and trauma survivors, "masking" or camouflaging one's authentic self is a familiar survival strategy. Whether it's suppressing certain "unusual" behaviors, hiding your true pronouns, or pretending to be unaffected by triggers, masking can feel necessary to avoid discrimination, judgment, or even harassment in the workplace.


But while masking may help you blend in and protect yourself in the short-term, it comes with hefty long-term costs—to your mental health, your relationships, and your career satisfaction.


Let's unpack some of the hidden tolls of constantly hiding your true self at work.


The Mental Health Costs of Masking at Work


Imagine expending a significant chunk of your cognitive and emotional energy every day on monitoring your behavior, analyzing your interactions, and adjusting your self-presentation to fit in. That's the reality for many marginalized professionals who feel unsafe or unsupported in bringing their whole selves to work.


This constant self-policing and second-guessing is exhausting. It can lead to chronic stress, anxiety, and even depression. You may find yourself ruminating on social interactions, criticizing your own performance, and dreading work events. Over time, the strain of maintaining the facade can result in burnout—a state of utter mental and emotional exhaustion.


Moreover, masking often requires suppressing or invalidating your own needs, emotions, and experiences. You may minimize your sensory sensitivities, push through your capacity limits, or tolerate microaggressions to avoid rocking the boat. This self-denial erodes your sense of self-worth and self-trust. Ultimately, you start to feel like an imposter in your own life.


The Relationship Costs


Humans are wired for authentic connection. When you're constantly masking, you miss out on the vulnerability and intimacy that build trust and rapport with colleagues. You may find your work relationships feel superficial and/or transactional, lacking the depth and care that come from being truly seen and accepted.


Masking can also make it harder to advocate for your needs or access support from your team. If you're hiding your struggles, your colleagues may not know how to accommodate or assist you. They may make incorrect assumptions about your abilities, preferences, or goals, leading to misunderstandings and missed opportunities.


Moreover, the resentment and isolation that can come from constantly contorting yourself to fit others' expectations can leak out in your personal life. You may find yourself withdrawing from social events, snapping at loved ones, or numbing out with unhealthy coping mechanisms.


The Career Costs


When you're expending so much energy on masking, you have less bandwidth for the core functions of your job. Creativity, problem-solving, and productivity can suffer when your mental resources are diverted to self-monitoring and self-criticism. You may find it harder to take risks, think outside the box, or advocate for your ideas.


Masking can also make it harder to build the visibility and credibility needed for advancement. If you're minimizing your contributions, downplaying your strengths, or avoiding the spotlight, you may get passed over for opportunities. The very behaviors meant to protect you can hinder your ability to thrive and advance professionally.


Moreover, the chronic stress and burnout that comes from masking may lead you to leave roles or industries prematurely, interrupting your career trajectory. You may settle for unfulfilling or underpaid work because the costs of masking in other environments feel too high. The toll on your long-term earning potential and career satisfaction can be significant.


Unmasking at Work


While the costs of masking are high, unmasking in an unsupportive environment can also carry risks. It's important to assess your workplace culture, your legal protections, and your support system before making any major changes.


Should you determine that the potential benefits of unmasking outweigh the risks, start by finding small, low-stakes ways to show up more authentically. Maybe it's wearing a Pride pin, sharing a sensory sensitivity with a trusted colleague, or proposing more inclusive meeting guidelines. Build your capacity for vulnerability gradually, celebrating your courage along the way.


At the same time, work on building your resilience and self-advocacy skills. Seek out affirming communities, educate yourself on your rights, and practice setting boundaries. The more secure you feel in your own worth, the easier it becomes to show up unapologetically.


Remember, you deserve to thrive as your full self, not just survive behind a mask. While the journey to authentic self-expression at work can be slow and bumpy, the destination is nearly always worth it.


 


Photo of Kelly Judd, life coach for women, a white woman with dark hair and large tortoiseshell glasses, slightly smiling at the camera

Hi, I'm Kelly. 👋 I help you make hard decisions and do hard things. Like you, I spent decades putting others' needs before my own. After almost 20 years of leadership roles and a lifetime’s worth of plot twists in my personal life, I made the empowering decision to seek greater meaning and purpose in my work, helping others to reconnect with their authentic selves and discover the joy, peace, and clarity that comes with finally identifying and prioritizing your own needs.

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