For almost the first 22 years of my life, I never knew I was autistic. I’m 25 right now.. and after over 3 years of self-identifying as autistic, I got my official diagnosis last year.
After someone I was dating at the time told me about Autism and suggested I was autistic, it all finally clicked. My whole life, I’d felt so different, but I’d never known why. Now, I felt like I was finally getting these much needed answers.
But the more I learned about Autism, the more apparent some other things became to me: I didn’t know myself and I didn’t know how to love myself.
See, I realized that I’d learned to subconsciously mask my autistic traits so that I could fit in and appear ‘normal’ to my peers. In the Autism community, this is known as masking, and it’s why so many autistics don’t realize they’re autistic until sometime in adulthood.
We learn to force uncomfortable eye contact, have ‘quiet hands’, perform social greetings, sit up straight, and not ramble on about our special interests. While this mask can definitely makes the world more convenient and manageable for us, wearing it doesn’t come without significant costs.
The mask that I wore brought me deeply out of touch with myself. At my core, I wore it because I believed that I was broken. Because, I was always looking to other people for the answers that I couldn’t figure out on my own.
Since recognizing this mask I wore (and still wear sometimes, but in a much healthier way now), I’ve been learning a lot about loving myself. At first, it felt super hard (and some days, it still is). But I’m infinitely better at it now than I was three years ago – and I’m proud of the progress I’ve made so far.
Here are four ways that I’ve been learning to love myself since beginning my unmasking journey:
I’ve stopped judging myself for the little things
Before I knew I was autistic, I constantly judged myself for so many things. Not making eye contact and smiling at everyone who walked passed me, and feeling so cold and wrong for not doing it. I used to constantly beat myself up over all my awkward moments and social blunders.. and I’d often replay them again in mind. Sometimes, even things that happened years ago!
When autistics mask (especially when it’s done subconsciously), we aren’t usually aware of all the little ways we judge ourselves for not measuring up to neurotypical standards. Speaking from my own experience, these little judgments all add up, and they’re really heavy to carry.
Learning about Autism and social masking has helped me become aware of all these judgments I carried about myself for years. It’s what first helped me unmask to myself before I found the courage to unmask to anyone else.
Once I saw my judgmental, self-critical thoughts for what they were, a huge weight that I wasn’t even aware of finally begun lifting off of me. It’s like, I finally realized that I didn’t need to carry these things, and that I could let go of them.
It wasn’t that simple, but it’s definitely been a process. It’s taken a lot of self-compassion, patience, and discipline to to resist those judgments, but it’s been absolutely worth it. Sometimes, I still catch myself in a few self-judgments – and as soon as I do, I let them go.
I’m learning to stand up for myself more and set healthy boundaries.
Being highly masked and motivated to fit in resulted in me being a huge people pleaser who didn’t know how to say ‘no’. In fact, I had no concept of it at all until a few years ago!
I used to be so motivated by other people’s approval that I couldn’t bare the thought of disappointing them. So, I avoided it at all costs. I used to be the girl who responded to every single message on dating apps and social media.. and who kept replying to every message, because ignoring them felt ‘mean’.
I went on dates with men who I told myself I might really end up liking. In reality, I was only bullshitting myself because I didn’t know how to tell them ‘no’. Anytime my friends asked me to hang out, I automatically dropped everything I was doing to hang out with them, without a second thought. Regardless of whether I felt like it, or how busy I was already.
As I learned more about masking, I saw how much people pleasing was a part of the mask I wore. I realized that my boundaries were nonexistent, and I was suffering a lot because of it. I knew that needed to change, and that I was the only one who could make that happen.
Today, I’m not going to say that I’m perfect at setting boundaries. But after years of failing horribly at them, I think I’ve gotten pretty damn good.
I’ve learned how to respectfully turn men down when they express interest in me. Now, I know it’s okay (and actually very healthy) that I don’t respond to every message, or continually reply to every single message.
When my friends ask me to hang out, I wait for a second and see how I feel. If I truly feel that hanging out isn’t in my best interest for whatever reason, I know that they’ll give me the same grace and understanding that I’d give to them.
I’m learning to acknowledge my thoughts, feelings, and experiences instead of dismissing them.
The mask I wore subconsciously made me invalidate my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Because I learned to pick up on things like social cues and body language by observing them in others, I learned to believe that other people were always right, and I was always wrong.
Looking back, I see how much I used to place other people on pedestals. I only knew how to see what was right about them and what was wrong about me. This led to me constantly dismissing my thoughts and feelings.
For years, I never knew how to truly own my thoughts, feelings, and experiences. A huge part of my unmasking journey has been learning how to give myself space for all of that.
Now, if I’m feeling hurt, I admit that to myself. I acknowledge that the pain I feel is real to me. I don’t tell myself I’m too sensitive anymore.
Before, I could rarely finish even the smallest of creative projects, because I could only see everything I thought that was ‘wrong’ about them. In the last year, I’ve finished more blog posts, art journal pages, vintage Putz houses, drawings, and other DIY projects than ever before.
These things might sound small. But after years of being intensely self-critical and feeling so broken, they’re everything to me. I appreciate every moment that I allow myself to experience my feelings and thoughts while holding space for them. For the first time in my life, I can finally see other people’s flaws, as well as my own strengths.. and now I know that my thoughts and feelings are just as valid as theirs’ are.
I started owning my weird and finding beauty in being different.
Before I knew that I’m autistic, I thought I was okay with being different. I’d already accepted that I was super introverted, and I thought that explained a lot of why I felt so different. Since my teens, I’ve been super comfortable with wearing whatever kind of crazy vintage and thrifted clothing I felt like. I took pride in calling myself ‘the weird one’.
I guess I always wanted to be okay with being different. But deep down, I didn’t know how to actually do it.. Because, there were so many little parts of me that I couldn’t understand, that I now recognize as my autistic traits.
Like, why eye contact felt so painful and forced for me. Why I’m sometimes really awkward, why I’ve never enjoyed hugs, and why reciprocating affection to others feels so hard for me at times.
As much I wanted to be different, I still subconsciously struggled to accept these things about myself.
Now that I know I’m autistic, I finally see and understand myself for all of my differences. I know that it’s not wrong that I don’t really care for eye contact and hugs anymore, because I’ve accepted that those quirks are simply a different way of being.
Since fully embracing my autistic identity, I’ve been learning to ‘own my weird’. This is an ongoing process, and it’s such a beautiful one. For me, owning my weird means embracing all of the little things I’ve been learning not to judge myself for. Like, how I stim, how long it takes me to do most things, and how I sometimes struggle to verbalize my thoughts.
It also means giving myself grace and acceptance for all my awkward moments and social blunders around other people. Remembering that it’s okay to stumble and let them see my struggle.. and that doing so is actually really vulnerable and beautiful.
Wherever you are in your unmasking journey today, I hope this post has been an encouragement for you. Unmasking can feel a little scary, and it’s a lot of work – but it’s absolutely worth it all.
Finding self-love through unmasking takes time. It’s definitely not an overnight process, so don’t beat yourself up if it’s taking you a while. Trust the process you’re in, and enjoy it.. and know that as you continually unmask, you’ll only experience deeper levels of self-love.
I wanted to thank Katie for writing such a wonderful insightful post which I know will support and guide so many. You can follow Katie on social media @weirdsensitivecreatures!