As a neurodivergent person, the idea of disclosing your neurodivergent identity can be nerve-wracking. In the next edition of my "Career Hacks" column, here are two questions that you can ask yourself if you are ready to disclose whether you are neurodivergent to a current or prospective employer.
These questions are:
How is acceptance achieved?; and
What do you want to trade?
Let's go through them one by one.
1. How is acceptance achieved?
Research shows that acceptance at work determines work and life satisfaction and performance. Most people want to feel accepted and welcomed into the workplace, in education and in the community.
Here are two ways that neurodivergent people, in my experience, approach acceptance of their personal identity. Acceptance is either:
fitting in, being liked and keeping your neurodivergence secret. Mask your differences, hide your challenges and avoid risk; or
being authentic about your differences and finding adjustments to our work environments to perform at your best. Masking at work is unacceptable because it encourages cognitive dissonance.
In reality, most neurodivergent people have a mixture of these two mindsets. Mindsets are not permanent. Our experiences and environment are the product of adaptive behaviour.
When asking yourself this question, only you can judge where you are with your understanding of what acceptance means to you.. There is no right and wrong answer applied to everyone. It’s about what is right for you.
2. What do you want to trade-off?
There is always a trade-off when you are different. The world is not 100% onboard with neurodiversity yet. Discrimination and stigma is still rife.
If you think that either option is a safe one with no downside, that’s just not how the world works.
The first mindset is attractive for all sorts of reasons. You can ‘fly under the radar’ and not have to confront discrimination directly. You may get the job, or the promotion you want, based on the mask.
You may win the client or the opportunity on the project, based on the mask. You may feel safe that no-one knows and you don’t have to explain. But the trade-off is poor mental health and reduced performance.
It creates a form of cognitive dissonance where you believe that you will only be accepted if you are not yourself. You are only successful if you use the mask and believe this is only because you were not yourself.
Hello negative reinforcement!
In order to continue with the mask, you strive to keep up appearances and never let the mask slip. It’s hard work, and you become unstuck when responsibilities and stressors mount.
You’re afraid of being “found out” - a surefire recipe for anxiety and depression. But when we think we have no other choice, we shrink ourselves to stay safe.
Adopting the second mindset means risking not getting the job, the promotion or the opportunity as yourself. By not shrinking, you take a gamble that this workplace is a safe and supportive environment. You require that those in the workplace seek to understand neurodiversity and want to enable neurodivergents to contribute and flourish.
It's absolutely possible that you may be wrong.
You may have to experience that feeling of being rejected for who you are, and it sucks. We are programmed to avoid that rejection on a deep level so avoiding this makes sense.
But the upside is that we might take that gamble and we win. And when we win, we win big. We won’t shrink. We might be accepted for exactly who we are.
We will be valued for our neurodivergent strengths, our neurodivergent wisdom and take up the space that we were born to occupy.
We might experience the deep joy of authentic connection and belonging that all humans are programmed to seek. We may avoid the negative impacts of cognitive dissonance. And if we do achieve this, we might show others that they don’t have to shrink either.
I don’t have the definitive answer for you, in your world, with your mindset.
But for me, the right decision is not to shrink. It is to take up the space that is mine in the world, no matter the risks. The consequences for me have been 99% positive in all elements of my life.
I’ve learnt to spot the signs of the environments that I want to be in. I know how to share the information about my neurodivergence in a way which enables neurotypicals to see its value to the workplace.
And I know to ask for the adjustments I need to be successful.
Samantha Nuttall is the founder of "The Neurodivergent Coach", a careers advisory service that empowers neurodivergent people to design careers built upon their unique strengths, abilities and interests.
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