How I cope with imposter syndrome while having learning disabilities

By Collin Diedrich, PhD

I’m a scientist with . I’ve also struggled with imposter syndrome my entire life. To me, imposter syndrome is the feeling that I don’t belong or deserve my success, and that everyone around me will think I’m a fraud. Having learning disabilities has made coping with imposter syndrome not just a challenge for me — but a battle.

I thought when I received my college degree I’d no longer feel like an imposter. I was wrong. Then I thought when I got my PhD in molecular virology and microbiology, I’d leave imposter syndrome behind. I didn’t. I was convinced that the closer I got to my dream of becoming a scientist, the more I’d feel at home with my success. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, my learning differences only made me feel more out of place.

I read in the bottom 15th percentile (between a sixth- and ninth-grade level). But as a research scientist, I need to read advanced papers that are full of technical terms.

My processing speed is in the bottom 14th percentile, but I have to learn new information as fast as my colleagues. In fact, I learn information so slowly and forget what I’ve learned so quickly that I constantly need to look up facts I just learned.

The battle with imposter syndrome has been lifelong. When I was growing up, my learning differences made me feel like success was impossible. I dismissed minor wins, like when I got a good grade on an assignment in school or a compliment from a teacher. I convinced myself that I didn’t deserve it.

Somewhere inside, I still feel like the little boy who was terrified to read out loud in class because I was scared of what other kids would think of me. If you have a child with learning or thinking differences who doesn’t feel good enough, I know how your child feels. Because that was me.

Although I constantly battle imposter syndrome, I’ve learned to cope in ways that make me feel like I’m winning the war. I use several techniques. I hope some of these are useful to you or your child, if either of you ever face these feelings.

1. Plan for it!

I know for a fact that I deserve the successes in my life. I also know that the feeling that I don’t belong or deserve success will pop up from time to time. I don’t ignore or deny that feeling. I try to confront it.

I keep with me a written list of the things I’ve worked very hard to accomplish. Successes like getting my college degree, writing and publishing papers, and completing innovative experiments. On days when I don’t feel like I belong, I pull out my list and think of all those things, and it grounds me.

2. Remind yourself it’s not luck.

I regularly tell myself that I didn’t just get lucky. In my head (and out loud when I need to), I repeat to myself: “I didn’t get lucky.” “I deserve this success.” “I belong here.” It’s tragic when people with learning and thinking differences believe they don’t deserve success in their lives and dismiss their accomplishments. When we work hard and are rewarded, we have to tell ourselves that we deserve it as much as anyone.

3. Ask questions.

My imposter syndrome rears its ugly head when I think people are looking down on me. For years, this prevented me from asking questions in class. And that prevented me from understanding assignments and tests. I learned that I had to force myself to ask questions — in class, during presentations and at work. This helped me get comfortable in front of my classmates, peers, and co-workers. What’s amazing is that I found that many times, another person in the room had the same question and was also nervous about speaking up!

4. Self-advocate.

Self-advocacy is the most important thing I learned to help me combat imposter syndrome. When I was in middle school, with my parents’ encouragement, I started attending IEP meetings. I didn’t always understand the details of what was happening, but I knew a lot of adults were trying to help me learn better. As I sat there, I discovered it’s OK to speak up for myself. This translated into me speaking up in class and letting my teachers know which I needed. I slowly started to value myself more, and to feel — rightfully so — that I deserved the extra help.

5. Know you’re not alone.

Imposter syndrome comes in many forms. It can be a crippling and immobilizing fear or just a brief questioning of one’s ability. I have felt it across this entire spectrum. Something that’s helped me is simply understanding that feeling like an imposter is extremely common. It happens to all kinds of people throughout their lives. Through these five techniques, I learned how to control my imposter syndrome — at least most of the time. What about you or your child? Is imposter syndrome part of your life? What techniques do you or your child use to conquer it? Please share in the comments below.


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    About the author

    About the author

    Collin Diedrich, PhD is a research scientist with learning disabilities. He advocates for students who learn and think differently.