Impostor syndrome, masking, social belonging, and inadequacy – that’s a lot of things crammed into one title! The comments on a post I did a while back (Do You Experience Impostor Syndrome?) got me wondering where the lines are between impostor syndrome and some of the things that it overlaps with. I don’t have answers, but I thought I’d write about the questions that came up for me.
Masking is something that a lot of us with mental illness, autism, or other assorted conditions do sometimes to try to keep our condition under wraps and pass as “normal.” (“Normal” is in scare quotes because there’s no really such thing as normal.)
I see overlap between masking and impostor syndrome, in that they both involve an element of fakeness and worrying that people will judge us. However, I see them as distinct in terms of what we’re intending with our behaviour and how we’re likely to respond to feedback.
When I’m masking, I’m deliberately trying to be fake. Eye contact sucks the energy right out of me, so I prefer to avoid it; if I was trying to mask, though, I would make a conscious effort to do it deliberately. If I’m feeling like an impostor as a writer, I’m trying to be a writer, but I don’t feel like I’m good enough to actually be one.
In terms of feedback, if I’m masking and someone behaves as though I’m normal, I’m likely to interpret that as an indicator that my masking is working, at least for now. If I have impostor syndrome and get feedback that I’ve done something well, I would discount that feedback and probably feel lousy about my performance.
Inadequacy and our good-enough’s
Having some self-doubt is normal, and self-doubt and good self-esteem are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps what differentiates normal self-doubt from a sense of inadequacy and the (not) good-enough’s that we carry through life with us is what it is we’re doubting. Kind of like guilt is “I did something bad” and shame is “I am bad”, perhaps healthy self-doubt is “maybe I’m not good at doing this activity” and a sense of inadequacy is “maybe I’m not good enough as a person.” And sure, there’s not necessarily a clear boundary there, but I think there is a difference.
So, how does this tie into impostor syndrome? The impostor cycle described by Pauline Rose Clance involves an element of fearing exposure as a fraud. I feel like that’s an extra step that’s not necessarily present just because someone has self-doubt about particular abilities or a broader sense of inadequacy. It’s that fraudulence step that I have a harder time wrapping my head around, whereas I think most of us can probably identify, at least to some extent, with a sense of self-doubt and inadequacy.
Social belonging (or lack thereof)
Then there’s social belonging, and I’m really not sure if feeling like one doesn’t belong socially in a group is the same as impostor syndrome. I’m inclined to think they’re at least somewhat different, as the impostor cycle is quite task-oriented, including procrastinating or over-preparing to try to manage task-related anxiety. Social belonging is more relational, and while it can show up in behavioural interactions, the procrastination/over-preparation piece isn’t necessarily there, or at least not in the same way.
To go back to the writer example, I might feel like an actual writer but feel socially excluded from a writing community for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, I might feel like an impostor as a writer but feel like I’m socially a part of a community that includes other writers.
How we evaluate ourselves
I don’t think masking necessarily involves a negative self-evaluation, although it certainly can. While we may internalize negative attitudes towards mental illness as self-stigma, public stigma exists as an outside force, and masking can be a way to minimize the impact of that outside force. I may be totally fine with myself but not want to have to deal with other people’s ignorant BS.
Self-doubt about abilities can probably range from uncertainty to outright negative self-evaluations, but a focus on abilities is narrower in scope than a more global negative self-evaluation of inadequacy as a person. Impostor syndrome seems like it would be more likely to come up when there’s a combination of task-focused self-doubts and global negative self-evaluation.
Lacking a sense of social belonging seems like it would often go along with a negative self-evaluation, but not necessarily. Perhaps what makes the difference there is how much one wants to belong to that particular social group. It seems like one could feel like an impostor in their professional role without necessarily wanting a strong sense of social belonging.
That’s a lot of perhaps’s and maybe’s, because I’m really just throwing out ideas. Maybe I’m trying to pick apart something that really is all one thing. And I still feel like I don’t fully grasp what impostor syndrome is. Do you see a difference between impostor syndrome, masking, feelings of inadequacy, and lack of social belonging, or do you think they’re all/mostly part of the same beast?