Impostor Syndrome, Masking, Inadequacy, & Social Belonging

Impostor syndrome, masking, inadequacy, and a lack of social belonging - image of a carnaval mask

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?

33 thoughts on “Impostor Syndrome, Masking, Inadequacy, & Social Belonging”

  1. I think there is an element of similarity between all of these ideas. But, I will also say… deep down I don’t want to connect with jerks. So, masking is more for the moment in certain social situations.

  2. Great information. You made an interesting point about masking and eye contact. I’m the same way. If I’m not really me, I don’t like to meet people’s faces.

  3. I am inclined to think they are all similar, although this impostor syndrome is huge lately, its been all over the media here, on talk shows on our local radio etc.

  4. I’ve noticed there’s a lot of overlap when it comes to psychological phenomena. Like how adhd, autism, ocd, trauma, bipolar and more affect the same area of the brain, it’s all too easy for even experts to misdiagnose one for another.

    I once had the chance to read this extremely handy presentation from a psychiatrist which detailed all the little things that separate certain disorders. For example, adhd and bipolar will both experience heavy levels of mood swings. However, the difference is that bipolar mood swings are internal and more intense. Although adhd mood swings tend to be less intense than bipolar, they’re more frequent because it’s often influenced by the external environment.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that, although the different phenomena might have similar foundations, I’d agree that each one seems to have subtle differences, leading to certain implications worth noting. For someone with imposter syndrome, recognising their worth might mean finding acceptance in where they are right now, but it might mean to be more assertive with their beliefs to someone who often masks themselves.

  5. I love the comparisons made. I believe that Imposter Syndrome is simply a more updated or newer way that describes and incorporates everything that you’ve listed. Additionally, don’t we have imposter syndrome at some point or another? I think so.

    1. I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever feared being exposed as a fraud. There have been times when I’ve felt like I suck at things, but that fraudulence piece doesn’t resonate with me at all.

  6. What I find challenging is…how do I explain?…Well, there are certain parts of this world economic system that I do not want to fit in with. I look down on politics and commerce. I look down on so much about them. But when you are stuck trying to make a living but doing a part-time job for a commercial organization which has a bunch of ridiculous markers by which they define “success” it really challenges me. I am so aware of the way I swim against the current at times. I am just so glad to work part-time, because if I worked full-time for an organization who deep down I scorn, I think I would lose my marbles. So I often feel as if I have to put on an act, but I have my limits, I am only going to do what is conscionable. I say “no” to anything that does not feel right.

  7. I see all of them as there being a lack of self-confidence; I thought imposter syndrome was mainly uncertain feelings about professional achievements and ability, e.g. you feel less competent than your colleagues and fear task-related failure; and social belonging/masking are about social anxiety and people-skills-related failure. e.g. laughing at the wrong thing in a work setting. I think ‘inadequacy’ can be about either and there can be overlap.

  8. Like these thoughts and I feel like I connect with lots of this. I mask because I never want someone to know what is going on for me unless I am specifically telling them what is going on for me. So I tend to always worry that people are seeing me and thinking that I’m an idiot or a fool. For me, masking protects me from that because people aren’t really seeing ME just my mask.

    I think this is connected to imposter syndrome, just broader! I actually have imposter syndrome about being disabled (not disabled enough) and chronically I’ll, which I don’t think is that uncommon!

  9. Great food for thought as I deal w/new roommate, who happens to be my mother-in-law. Do I mask what’s really going on with my chronic illness and disability or do I let it all hang out? I first feel inclined to put a mask on w/her because I know it will be disconcerting for her & she’s judgmental. Oh well, she’s here for a looong time & it’s my house, so I’m going to be genuinely who I am in front of her, reactions be damned. Also, if I did mask, she’d probably think I’m faking my conditions. This definitely helped clarify my thinking. Thanks!

  10. The energy to mask is stressful and hard to come by. We have worried about being exposed our whole life, mostly due to shame at being sexually abused as a child. We feel gross and dirty and tainted and worried about judgment. We just avoid people almost entirely 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.”
    That describes us

    We don’t belong and don’t really want to belong but we want to find people who belong with us. That is, people who don’t want to judge and want safety and love and calm. We still judge but we don’t want to

  11. Thanks as always for the post. Not sure I understand all the nuances completely. To me, the Imposter Syndrome is something we experience when we feel we don’t belong for some reason or another. To me, masking may be a response to feeling like an imposter particularly if there is a strong need to feel “normal.” I experience Imposter Syndrome as a Mom and formerly as a worker in the workplace. Both scenarios are because I do not feel that I belong — that my experiences are so far gone that no one can relate to me at all as a Mom or as a Worker. The response? In the past I have “masked up” and only let a few people know I experience life as an imposter or a person with severe mental illness. This is actually seen on my blog here. I don’t disclose my full name here because I am masking potential backlash from identifying myself fully. The fact that I do not list my full name to me means I am still masking on some level. So there you have it. 🙂

  12. I used to mask up daily just to get through the day, l wasn’t pretending to be anyone else directly, usually l masked to hide emotions, although with a mask it’s not that l could be abother person, but l could be a better persona of my ‘this’ person. I never knew it was autism until my Aspergers diagnosis in 2007, then it made sense.

    These days l don’t wear any masks, l am just me, l am not perfect or imperfect, right or wrong, just me, and if people like me – great and if not – great. I prefer to be honest, not that l was ever disghnonest but l always felt dishonest when l maskup even though l wasn’t lying about anything – which is why just being me is free and suits me today, tomorrow and blah blah 🙂

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