Impostor Syndrome: masking and problematic connections

Katherine Self Portrait

By Katherine Valdoria

I have always had a hard time “owning” labels. You know when you’re taking a class or participating in a workshop and they sit you in a circle and ask you to say your name and “something interesting” about yourself, to break the ice?

I hate that.

I get overwhelmed with the idea that whatever that “something interesting” is will be the thing that identifies me for the duration. I have an almost pathological need for people to know I’m sincere, such that if I take up a label, I find myself poised defensively around it. I cultivate a rich vocabulary in an effort to protect its legitimacy.

Not only does this process require a lot of mental energy, but it sometimes has the contradictory effect of seeming insincere or “trying too hard.”

Half of the time, I think I’m being succinct, but the other party quirks at my turn of phrase, or glazes over because I’ve actually said too much. The other half of the time, I become overwhelmed by the pressure of trying to read the party to whom I am trying to convey these myriad thoughts; my brain decides to disconnect, somehow, from my mouth.

My husband once confused me by casually mentioning to a passing acquaintance that I was an artist. In the moment, I was inexplicably mortified. Over a decade ago, I earned a degree in Interdisciplinary Computing in the Arts with an emphasis on Visual Art, but I’m still challenged with owning the “artist” label on my website. Instead, I announce, “I make things.”

The label “artist” is too charged for me, even now. Rationally, I understand that, as someone who makes art, I fit the dictionary definition of the word, but I still feel the phrase “I make things” is a more sincere and accurate description. I have not quite yet earned “artist,” in my own eyes, but I am trying to better align myself with that label.

It is strange for me, then, to be making this post on an autism blog, when I can’t in good conscience fully claim the label “autistic.” Please allow me to explain.

An incredibly smart, talented, and quirky friend of mine was diagnosed several years ago, and began posting on social media a lot about autism from a female perspective. I found much, if not all, highly relatable. A lot had to do with different sensitivities, strange obsessions, finding it challenging to communicate effectively, being perplexed at the incomprehensible logic that some other humans operate on, feeling alien. She shared that it was a long and arduous journey to her diagnosis, especially since the research on autism is skewed towards the symptoms of caucasian males and is viewed heavily through the lens of pathology. Women tend to have more of a pronounced desire for friendship and are better at masking, which is why so many cases go undiagnosed.

This friend said she thought I had qualities that fit with “the tribe.” This sat dormantly with me, for years. If I am autistic, what would an official diagnosis mean for me? I have successfully, if haltingly, navigated to the present without the label. Although these things resonate with me, would it be worth expending the psychic energy trying to make this case with professionals? I tire easily enough just contemplating my everyday interactions. Nevertheless, the question buzzes in my mind.

I took a number of online quizzes and consistently received results suggesting I am likely on the spectrum. I printed out Samantha Craft’s Unofficial Checklist for Females with Aspergers to highlight the line items I relate to, only to realize it might have been faster to highlight the few line items I did not relate to. I once talked at length about it to a near acquaintance who happens to be a mental health professional. While he casually observed I have some “spectrummy” traits, I could hardly expect a couple hours over pastries and bubble tea to be more revealing than that. I did formally start seeing a therapist shortly thereafter, and I’ve spent many, many more hours unwinding the tangle of thoughts in my mind with her and feeling only marginally closer to any kind of conclusion.

My autistic friend invited me to join a Facebook group for autistic women, last December, but it felt disingenuous to me: joining without knowing. Membership does not require a formal diagnosis, due to the difficulty of obtaining one. Shortly after lying at the bottom of a recent depressive episode that reached its nadir in March and only started to subside near the end of April, I applied and was accepted in May. I have never felt so validated or understood, reading about and responding to these other women’s experiences with autism. Of course they vary, and sometimes one’s tics manifest in ways I find strange, but the frankness with which they all speak to me and one another is refreshing and comforting.

I know these are not diagnoses. I can’t comfortably call myself “autistic” without a diagnosis, but I am certain I am not “neurotypical.” I will allow myself the label “neurodivergent.” It feels broad enough to me.

I am a sensitive person and a deep thinker, sometimes such that my thinking gets convoluted and frustrates people I’m talking to. I have a hard time letting go of some thoughts, so I have always songified things on impulse because it’s cathartic. Songwriting is a distillation of thoughts to something manageable, pure, relatable. There’s a comfort in the repetition; there’s a comfort in taking a problematic thought and making it fit a pattern.

I almost always find myself writing about the tenuous and problematic nature of human connection.

Recently, I wrote a song titled “Impostor Syndrome.” I think I’ve experienced impostor syndrome, to some degree, for a great deal of my life.

I was labeled a “gifted” kid in school, a talented writer, but I would get caught up in particular ideas or projects and aim for the sort of unattainable perfection that I would let the other things going on in my life fall apart. I was afraid someone would notice and call attention to my failings. “Gifted” children aren’t supposed to fail.

As an adult, I often feel dissociated from my successes. Taking ownership is very difficult for me. While I am pleased when my work is praised, I tend not to feel internally that my work is worthy of praise. I don’t think of myself as being uniquely skilled. This has presented challenges throughout my spotty career. It troubles me.

I observe the way others fit themselves to the greater world, and even though I’ve been in existence for nearly 37 years, even though I’m married to a wonderful, loving, supportive man, even though I have some friends who demonstrably care about me, I’m still uncertain. I don’t think I am alone in having these kinds of thoughts, though it feels lonely.

“Impostor Syndrome” deals with that uncertainty. Lately, I’ve been preoccupied by these ideas of how I am different. I do have strange obsessions. I do have compulsions that feel out of sync with people around me. I’ve recently been put in a new environment where I struggle with the idea of presenting my most authentic self. On the one hand, it is blissfully freeing to be able to get weird and feel accepted for that. On the other, there is the persistent fear of rejection, of not being able to maintain a connection. I wonder, constantly, if I am Human-ing correctly. The dance of social propriety is tiresome. There is constant calculation.

It is a song about masking. Since I was young, I’ve written songs that talk about putting on metaphorical masks, but not until recently have I examined the idea through the lens of being neurodivergent. I’ve observed that most people mask, and the idea was always tiresome to me, but evidently a part of the human experience.

It is a song about the tension between those masks and the power of one’s true nature. These are the lyrics:

Three in the morning but the city never sleeps

My bones are aching for the dawn

Lavender, gold across the sky: the sun sweeps slow… a waking song

Untying threads and tying threads of brilliance

To little scraps of vague ideas

Slicing my fingers on the shards of yesterday’s broken mirror

I put on the mask but it’s cutting my face

I’m only flesh and bone

I can’t compete with the thought of something beautiful

I’m only here for a mystery year

But ideas are enduring

Passing my thoughts on to you like a bad game of telephone

Half understood, half obscured with thoughts of your own

I think I should light a match and just

Watch it blow

Would igniting be so enlightening

Or just illuminate ideas that are frightening?

I can’t remember the last time I felt I knew what I was doing

But some bureaus gave me license for a modicum of competence

Insightful or just inciting

A hidden violence that’s secretly exciting

I can’t remember the last time I felt somebody understood

When I unearth a grain of truth that feels so bad that it feels good

Bury it down, down, down

Bury it down

But you should know something will grow

Watered with sentimental tears

Unfurling wildly, clawing right through the ash of my destruction

It’s only a thought, but it crushes my mind

The way it’s overgrown

Tear off the mask to reveal something miserable

I’m only here for a mystery year

But ideas, they endure

Climbing the walls, growing green, busting out all the fragile blooms

Break through the cracks ‘til they choke out the empty rooms

No turning back from this, now

There’s only one thing left to do:

Keep moving

Keep moving

Keep moving

Three in the afternoon, it’s hard to hold my head

Aloft amidst the earthly noise

I’m ambling, I’m scrambling to keep myself facing off the void

Lavender, gold across the sky: the sun draws down a dusky curtain of twilight

I shut my eyes but all my thoughts go echoing

Deep into the night

I scream at the walls and I claw at my face

I’m only flesh and bone

I don’t believe when you tell me I’m not alone

I’m full of fear and I only stay here

‘cause your fondness is endearing

Trying to explain it to you is like a bad game of telephone

Tried to relate but I still wind up feeling low

I guess I’ll take up the mask and just

Go on with the show

“Impostor Syndrome” is currently entered in a charity songwriting competition (https://musicforthecause.secure-platform.com/a/gallery/rounds/5/details/589). Ten finalists are chosen on merit, three on public votes. Open voting runs through May 16th. Please listen to it on the contest website! If this song has resonated with you, please take a moment to vote for it. Thank you.

Visit Katherine Valdoria’s website here.

Header image Katherine Valdoria “Self-Portrait”

1 Comment

  • If you believe that we are infinite spirits having a human experience on Earth, and that we’re eager to experience every possible aspect of human life, ie: the good, the bad, and the boring, as part of our spiritual growth, then masks seem to facilitate that process. They provide us with a visual disguise, that allows us to be someone else for a short time, in order to experience radically different emotions or situations. [Like acting in a play or theatre.]
    When the masks we create seem to take on a life of their own, (like the movie) we need to take ownership again, and remember that they are constructs, merely parts of our wardrobe, which can be mistaken for our core self.

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