- Samantha Nuttall
Feel the fear and do it anyway - Neurodivergent Imposter Syndrome at work!
Until recently, I did not realise that Imposter Syndrome has a strong link to being Neurodivergent, but it turns out I was wrong!
If you have constant feelings of anxiety about work or school, even when you are actually doing ok, you may be experiencing Imposter Syndrome AND, not only that, you may be unknowingly contributing to it!
Lets unpack this!
What is Imposter Syndrome and how is it linked to being Neurodivergent?
The term Imposter Syndrome was adopted by psychologists back in the 1970s and is used to describe high-achieving people who struggle to recognize their accomplishments and consistently feel like they don't deserve success.
If you live with imposter syndrome, you'll recognise the constant nagging feeling of low level fear and high anxiety levels that permeate life even when you are successful and things are going well.
Its likely that no matter how successful you are, you focus on the things that you find challenging rather than the things you are good at. The biggest fear that Imposter Syndrome brings is the fear of others finding out that you are in some way a fraud. That you haven't succeeded 'properly' in some way.
Of course, you aren’t a fraud.
If you experience success, your success will be, at least partly (if not mostly) a direct result of the hard work and effort you put into something, EVEN if you experienced challenges along the way.
Many, many Neurodivergent people feel like they are Imposters at work. I have lived with crippling Imposter Syndrome in some stages of my career, particularly before I received my ADHD diagnosis. The worst times for me were generally being around some kind of promotion or big change and particularly when a role demanded too much of my executive functioning. I literally remember spending 6 months with constant insomnia from fear of mistakes when I took on a role where my undiagnosed ADHD challenges were causing a big (but secret, even to me!) issue. Even when I managed to keep all the plates spinning I was sick with worry.
One of the big reasons that Neurodivergent people experience Imposter Syndrome at higher levels than others is the high degree of masking we do at Work or in Education
As I am a very openly Neurodivergent person in the workplace *and pretty much everywhere!) now, my worst Imposter Syndrome experiences were before I was diagnosed. I wasn't consciously masking but I had absolutely internalised the pressure of the neurotypical world to do things in the 'gold standard' neurotypical way.
For example let me tell you about me and Studying:
I absolutely learn best at the last minute and under pressure.
When I described the experience of last minute study to my diagnosing psychiatrist, I could see him literally tick the ADHD box as I spoke.
I told him I can literally feel the dopamine flowing.
It feels joyful - such a good feeling.
I hyper focus for 2-3 days on a topic, smash out an exam or essay and love every minute of it.
Yet all through school and in both of my university degrees, I was told that I must learn things differently. I must learn over a period of time. Make a revision schedule that stretches over 8 weeks, write up your notes as you go, start the essay with plenty of time etc etc.
Its not a way of learning that works for me.
I would try and try to do things the neurotypical way and always fail.
I would feel terrible about not being able to work the way I was 'supposed' to.
Yet, I learn best in an intense way, when it's meaningful, when I can make connections between the information because I am immersed in it and there is a level of time pressure.
Last minute revision was my sweet spot. and it got me High Distinctions.
Left to my own devices, I tend to do pretty well.
The worst thing is that, when you are constantly told that there is one 'best' way of doing things, you absolutely doubt that your way is even valid.
Even when you are successful at work or in education it feels like some kind of fluke..
You feel like you were successful in spite of yourself, not because of the hard work you did and not because you succeeded by doing things the the way you work best."
So I would always make jokes like 'yeah, I did well but by the skin of my teeth'. Downplay that my way of working was just as valid as the way that works for others.
I would feel like I hadn't learnt 'properly' or earnt those good grades..
Multiply that by 20 years of working and being told/encouraged to do things the way that works for others, not yourself.
Hello Imposter Syndrome!
So, what can we do about it?
I believe it is so important that we find ways of working that work WITH our Neurology, not against it.
Neurodivergent people nearly always have significant 'splinter' skills; that is we are REALLY good at the things we are good at, and we are really rubbish at the things we are rubbish at. There is not much in-between. And the things we are rubbish at...well, we tend to stay being rubbish at them.
We get the best results when we do things in ways that work for us. We may meet deadlines by pulling all-nighters or working 3 days straight because that is how and when we do our best work. We may make silly mistakes but we are also great at rectifying them and finding solutions that no-one else can. We have creative ideas and innovate far more often than others.
BUT...when we are in an environment where we feel we need to keep challenges secret... Or if we are held to a 'gold (neurotypical) standard of professional' without being able to say, "Hey that doesn't work for me...these situations causes huge feelings of shame and guilt. That shame and guilt directly create the feelings of Imposter Syndrome.
Even when our strategy of masking (conscious or not!) works, we still believe we are frauds and undeserving.
Signs of Imposter Syndrome
Do any of these sound familiar?
You don’t believe success you have is connected to your hard work, intelligence, or creativity. Instead, you believe it s due to luck, a fluke, or in spite of yourself.
You don’t really celebrate success. Instead, you look at the next thing that needs to be done. You spend little time basking in the glory of a job well done.
You spend lots of time and energy thinking about what didn’t go well, even if it was only a really small thing. You tend to ruminate on the negative, and you far less time thinking about your successes.
You minimise your accomplishments or the praise you receive for them. You don’t believe you deserve it or feel that you should have done better. You might make jokes when you receive praise to deflect it.
You regularly compare yourself to others, and it is generally unfavourable. You might think, "They didn’t have to work through the night to prepare the presentation; they made more time to prepare"
Can you overcome Imposter Syndrome?
Well...I believe you can lessen it.
Do I think you can completely eradicate it?
Ha - I'll let you know!
I certainly experience it less since I was diagnosed and decided to be openly and authentically me at work. I'm not sure it will ever go away but nowadays, I feel the fear and do it anyway and I figure if you think the neurotypical gold standard is the most important thing in a working relationship, you can find it elsewhere.
Here are some suggestions to help you overcome Imposter Syndrome:
1. Banish the Shame - you are awesome!
Addressing shame is very helpful. Remember ADHD is a neurological difference in the structure, functioning and chemicals in your brain. This difference has benefits and it has negatives and that’s ok. The challenges you have are probably not a result of not working hard enough, or not being smart enough or of not caring enough. Its ok to be different. The neurotypical 'gold standard' is a social construct - don't believe the hype.
2. Notice your negative thinking patterns
Our thoughts feel like they reflect reality but they are just a version of events filtered through the lens of our beliefs and past experiences. So basically, they are not always to be trusted without question.
Once you learn to notice your negative thought patterns, you can learn to pause and consider the pieces of the picture you are missing. Know that our minds are primed to look for evidence of the things we already believe. When you focus on the challenges you had along the way to your successes, or measure your success but how badly you met other people's expectations, that's all you will see. You need to look for different evidence.
3. Look for different evidence
To change a thinking pattern you need to notice different things. Start to track the actions you take towards success instead of focusing on the things that were difficult. For example, if you are working on a project at work, track the effort you put in, the hyper focus research you did, the unexpected problems you solved the things you learnt and all of the smaller successes. Look for how your hard work and amazing brain resulted in a completed project.
When you track your actions, it becomes easier to see what role you played in your success. This, in turn, makes it easier to own and celebrate it.
4. Be a solutions focused problem solver
Whilst making a mistake is never optimal, remember every mistake is an opportunity to learn, to gain knowledge and solidify experience. If you are anything like me, nothing beats experiential learning anyway! Instead of beating yourself up and feeling like challenges and mistakes mean you aren't god at your job, shift your focus to ensuring mistakes are always learning opportunities.
Cultivate a culture of 'mistakes are expected and ok' in your team and instead of burying them, ‘fess up’ when you make mistakes or have challenges. focus on how you have or will develop a solution, involving others if necessary. Not only will you feel less like a fraud, I bet those around you will find your authentic approach refreshing...
Missed a deadline because it was verbally confirmed and you forgot? Ensure deadline are always communicated to you in writing and diarised. Made a mistake because you have to track information across 3 different places? Ensure the whole team collaborates on a new, streamlined way of tracking information.
5. Remember - everyone has their own struggles!
its easy to think others have it all sorted.
If you are constantly comparing yourself to others you believe to find success easy, surprise surprise, this will drive your feelings of inadequacy.
The reality is that you have no idea what is going on behind the scenes for anyone else. Very few people are effortlessly successful even when they appear so.
I remember when I worked in professional services and saw the CEO of the firm practicing a speech I had assumed was just ad-libbed. I had assumed giving rousing speeches was easy for him, not something he would need to practice.
Instead of thinking about how you compare to someone else, focus on learning from other people's experiences and doing your best. Just like your parents probably said, that really is the most important thing!
Newsflash: You are Neurodivergent.
You are going to find some things in life challenging if you hold yourself to a Neurotypical gold standard – that’s why you have that diagnosis!
Don’t let fear of making mistakes stop you from doing and being the things you want to be in your career or stop you from feeling proud of the things you achieve.
Don't believe that if you do things differently than others that the end result is somehow less.
Your successes belong to you and are always well deserved.