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  • Writer's pictureJackson McMahan

How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome as a Neurodivergent Person

By guest writer Jackson McMahan


Do you ever fear being exposed as a “fraud” despite your accomplishments and external evidence to the contrary? Do you believe that despite the good work you have done, your accomplishments are inferior to what others have done? If the answer to either of these is yes, then you may have experienced a case of imposter syndrome. This is what happens when someone views themselves as a “fake” despite what their objective successes may suggest, and they live in fear of being “found out.” This feeling is unfortunately common within the neurodivergent community.

woman turning away from sad mirror reflection

Neurodivergent people may be particularly prone to imposter syndrome because they spend their lives living in a world that isn't structured to accommodate their unique neural wiring. Despite their inherent strengths, the focus from the outside is often what they can’t do rather than what they can, which can lead to neurodivergent people questioning their worth and abilities. This in turn can cause them to develop imposter syndrome when they do experience success.


To understand how neurodivergent people can mitigate imposter syndrome, it's crucial to grasp the broader concept of imposter syndrome and how it can develop, so let’s dive in!


An Overview of Imposter Syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a psychological pattern where people doubt their accomplishments and become afraid of being exposed as a "fraud." It was first identified in a 1978 study by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes that observed the phenomenon in high-achieving women; the idea here being that many successful women negatively frame their achievements and fear being outed as an imposter.

man with two blurry faces in black and white

In the years since that study was published, subsequent research has shown that this can affect anyone across various fields and life stages. For example, one study found that approximately 70 percent of people will experience at least one episode of imposter syndrome in their lifetime. However, it's important to understand that imposter syndrome is not a fleeting moment of self-doubt. Imposter syndrome is instead a persistent, nagging feeling of inadequacy that interferes with your ability to appreciate your own skills and accomplishments.


Imposter syndrome can significantly impact someone's mental health and performance. For example, it can lead to increased anxiety, decreased self-confidence, a fear of failure, and even depression. Regarding performance, it often causes overworking, perfectionism, or procrastination. All of these effects are negative for anyone experiencing imposter syndrome, but for neurodivergent people specifically, these effects can combine with a neurodivergent person’s other struggles to amplify their impact.


The Interconnection Between Neurodivergence and Imposter Syndrome

Neurodivergent people live in a world that’s not always designed to accommodate their unique neurological framework. In many cases, they can find themselves out of sync with the neurotypical majority. These experiences lead to neurodivergent people wanting to fit in and mask their inherent differences. Those desires to fit in and mask combine with other factors to cause neurodivergent people to become susceptible to imposter syndrome.


Societal Expectations

Neurodivergent people often spend a great deal of effort trying to “mask” their neurodivergent traits to fit into a neurotypical world. This masking, while it can be effective in helping them fit in socially, can also contribute to feelings of being a “fraud” or “imposter,” as they might feel they are constantly pretending to be someone they are not. This makes it easier to discount their successes or competence when they are successful.


Struggling in Certain Areas

stressed woman massaging her temples

Neurodivergent individuals often have uneven skill profiles, excelling in some areas while struggling significantly in others. Negative stereotypes, stigmas, and misconceptions about neurodivergence can lead to self-doubt. Despite their abilities and achievements, they might internalize these negative attitudes, leading to a skewed perception of their self-worth and abilities. Then when they achieve success in their areas of strength, they erroneously discount their success and feel like if they can’t be successful in all areas where they are trying to succeed, their successes are not “real,” which can lead to feeling like an imposter.


Accommodations

Using accommodations or assistive tools might lead some neurodivergent individuals to feel that their successes aren't truly their own but are instead the result of special treatment. They think that if they can’t do something the way neurotypical people do it, such as needing a text-to-speech reader or taking more time to do something than someone else might need, whatever they accomplished this way is not as great because they didn’t do it the “right” way.


The Role of Environment

The environments where we find ourselves—whether educational, professional, or social—play an important role in shaping our experiences and self-perceptions. For neurodivergent people, these settings can often be structured in ways that are disadvantageous for them and contribute to imposter syndrome.


Educational Environments

four young adults siting at a table in a classroom with one teacher

In educational environments, the traditional curriculum and teaching methods are usually designed for the way the majority of students learn. This can cause neurodivergent students to struggle to keep up because they don’t learn in the same manner. It makes them feel inadequate because they can’t keep pace with their neurotypical peers.


For example, despite their intelligence, a student with dyslexia may struggle with reading assignments, while a student with ADHD might have a hard time staying focused during lectures. These struggles can result in the student questioning their intelligence or abilities, which plants the seeds for imposter syndrome.


Professional Environments

Workplaces often value specific ways of thinking and working. These norms may not always align with how neurodivergent people think or work. Neurodivergent people can then find themselves feeling out of place if their unique processing styles are not recognized or valued.


For example, neurodivergent people may tend to focus more on the details of a task or make connections between disparate data points that can lead to breakthroughs or want to produce work that is more “perfect” than their employer values. They may receive consistent messages that they are not doing things “right,” so even when they make adjustments and excel in their roles, a neurodivergent person might attribute their success to luck or deception instead of their skills and abilities.


Social Environments

neurodivergent woman socializing with two men

Neurodivergent people, particularly those on the autism spectrum, may find it difficult to navigate social situations and understand unspoken social cues. They may particularly struggle to understand office politics. This can lead to feelings of being a social "imposter" that results in self-doubt and isolation.


How Neurodivergent People Can Mitigate Imposter Syndrome

Addressing imposter syndrome among neurodivergent people is a multifaceted task. It requires personal strategies, supportive environments, and, when necessary, professional help.


Understand and Accept Your Neurodivergence

When our life coaches work with clients, we try to take them on a journey of first understanding and then accepting their unique neurodivergence. These are the critical first steps in combating imposter syndrome. The goal is to acknowledge that their brain functions differently from other people and that's not only okay, but there are probably things they do better than those whose brains are wired more typically. Embracing this concept can help reduce feelings of being an “imposter” and encourage self-acceptance.


Use Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques

sitting man strategizing and planning his tasks in a book

Strategies for overcoming imposter syndrome can be tailored for neurodivergent people. These may include cognitive-behavioral techniques such as challenging negative thought patterns, practicing self-compassion, and celebrating successes no matter how small. It can also be helpful to look for successful, openly neurodivergent role models. Knowing a fellow neurodivergent person who has been successful can help combat your own anxieties about being a “fraud,” because your chosen role model has shown that it is possible to be successful while having a brain that thinks differently.


Leverage Supportive Environments to Your Advantage

Schools, workplaces, and social circles can greatly reduce the pressures that lead to imposter syndrome by creating understanding, inclusivity, and acceptance of neurodivergent people. This might involve implementing more inclusive educational strategies, providing accommodations at work, or simply encouraging open conversations about neurodivergence.


The world is making progress on this, but unfortunately, there is still a long way to go. While it is not a neurodivergent person’s “job” to educate the world, the reality is that the onus may be largely on you to educate those around you about how your brain works and what you need to be successful. Having to do this type of self-advocacy can feed right into the cycle of imposter syndrome, so it’s critical to have a solid level of self-understanding and self-acceptance first. If you’re struggling to get there…


Look into Therapy and Other Help

smiling man talking to a therapist opposite him

Finally, therapy and professional help can be invaluable in addressing imposter syndrome. Neurodiversity-informed therapists and life coaches like those at our organization can provide tools and techniques to help manage feelings of being an imposter.


Support groups can offer a sense of community, belonging, and understanding. If you’re struggling with imposter syndrome at work, connecting with other neurodivergent people at your company can be life-altering. They will be struggling with many of the same challenges and can offer tips for how they succeeded, provide role models, and act as a cheering squad to validate your successes.


Remember, overcoming imposter syndrome takes time, patience, and practice. The goal is not to eliminate all self-doubt but to instead recognize it when it occurs and manage it effectively so you can fully own and celebrate your successes.


Conclusion

The connection between neurodivergence and imposter syndrome is complex, multifaceted, and deeply rooted in the unique experiences and challenges of neurodivergent people. As we've discussed, these feelings of being an “imposter" are fueled by various factors from societal expectations and other environmental influences.


It's important to remember that self-doubt and imposter syndrome can rob you of the joy of success, so it’s worthwhile to work toward eliminating it. Overcoming it is a journey that involves understanding and accepting your neurodivergence, challenging negative thought patterns, and harnessing supportive environments. Yet, this journey also involves patience, self-compassion, and, most importantly, recognizing and celebrating your achievements, big or small!


The world is slowly moving toward a greater understanding and acceptance of neurodivergence. While we continue to advocate for this change, we must also work on fostering self-acceptance and seeking out supportive communities. Through a series of small successes where you thoroughly enjoy and own your success along the way, you can begin to see your successes for what they truly are: results of your own hard work, creativity, and unique strengths.


Over time, you will find that the voice whispering that you're an imposter becomes quieter and less frequent, replaced by a newfound confidence in your abilities and a profound appreciation for your unique way of experiencing the world.


Remember, it's okay to ask for help along the way, whether that comes from neurodiversity-informed professionals, supportive friends and family, or understanding communities. You're not alone on this journey, and with each step forward, you're challenging the stigmas and stereotypes that contribute to imposter syndrome.


In the end, remember that being neurodivergent is simply a different way of experiencing the world, a unique perspective that brings diverse thoughts, insights, and ideas to the table. When imposter syndrome threatens to overshadow your achievements, remember your journey, your perseverance, and the unique value you bring to every endeavor. You're not an imposter; you're an individual navigating a world that's not always designed for you—and doing a remarkable job at it.


Finally, remember that you are not alone. You are part of a community of unique, diverse, and resilient individuals who are also navigating these challenges. They can be your source of support, understanding, and encouragement. They can be your inspiration and motivation, reminding you that neurodivergence is not a barrier to success but rather a unique attribute that can foster success. Be kind to yourself, celebrate your victories, and keep pushing forward on your journey toward self-acceptance and success.


Remember, you're not an imposter. Despite what you’ve been told, you're an achiever, and you have every right to own and celebrate your achievements. The world is richer because of your unique contribution. Celebrate your neurodivergence; it is a part of you, but it does not define you. You define you.

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