The 2002 movie Catch Me If You Can is the story of Frank Abagnale, a man with a troubled childhood who ran away from home as a teen and began to support himself as a con man. Watching this movie reminded me of dealing with dyslexia anxiety in the workplace.
Frank was intelligent, brash, and bold, passing himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor, and a lawyer, among other things. He cashed fraudulent checks worth millions of dollars. He was basically a pretender.
While on the surface Frank’s life seemed full of luxury and excitement, there was a dark side. Out of necessity, Frank had to live on full alert, always desperately anxious that he might be exposed. He knew that if his frauds were ever discovered, his life would come crashing down. And he knew it was only a matter of time.
What does any of this have to do with being dyslexic? More than you might think!
Types of Dyslexia Anxiety in the Workplace
There are many adult dyslexics who were never diagnosed and/or accommodated and supported as a child. While most of us are not running around committing illegal acts like Frank, many of us do experience anxiety due to living in constant fear of exposure.
How so? Many undiagnosed or unaccommodated adult dyslexics live in fear that their dyslexia will come to light in the workplace. They may fear numerous possibilities:
- They will lose the respect of their peers.
- They will be reprimanded by their employers.
- They will miss out on promotions.
- They will receive pay cuts.
- They will lose their job.
- They will be shamed for being different or for performing tasks in unconventional ways.
In most cases, many of these fears are irrational, but they can still become a tremendous source of anxiety.
Another source of dyslexia-related anxiety may be performance anxiety. Performance anxiety might take the form of an email with an attached 300-page report and instructions from the boss to “skim through this by 2:00 pm and send me your thoughts on the plan.”
Or the boss might say, “I need you to document your team’s approach to this crisis and I need it before you go home today.” Whenever a dyslexic is required to read or write material quickly on a deadline, it’s a huge anxiety trigger—it’s happened to me often!
Anxiety can also occur when a boss or team requires a dyslexic employee to “show their work,” for example, how they arrived at a mathematical solution or design idea. Many dyslexics solve problems with out-of-the-box thinking and solutions. Sometimes it’s difficult for them to explain how they arrived at a (correct) conclusion.
Dyslexia can also contribute to generalized anxiety. This may show up as an existential dread of getting up every morning to go to a place where we will have who-knows-what demands thrown at us, despite the fact that we probably don’t have the bandwidth to deal with it.
The Root of Dyslexia Anxiety in the Workplace
At the root of all this anxiety is the fact that most dyslexics feel like a fraud. From the first time we perceived our differences in childhood, noticed that our brain worked differently than others’ brains, or saw that our working processes differed from the norm, we were made to feel like our work didn’t count. This could take many forms:
- If a test was timed and you couldn’t finish on time, none of your work would count.
- If you couldn’t show your work on the math problem, the fact that you got the right answer didn’t count.
- If you could only tie your shoes the “wrong way,” it didn’t count.
- If you couldn’t process left/right/up/down quickly enough for sports and PE, you weren’t welcome on the team. You were viewed as a screw-up.
- If you couldn’t read or write like your fellow students, you didn’t count.
In short, if you didn’t learn, work, and perform just like everybody else, nothing you did would matter. (That’s how you eventually come to feel about yourself.) None of your tasks counted because you had to do them differently from what was expected, and it probably took you extra time as well.
When these early childhood beliefs about ourselves go unchallenged, they have a profound effect on our work life. And for an adult, the stakes are higher:
- Getting a paycheck is at stake, not just a big red F on a spelling test or report card.
- Taking care of your needs and those of your family are at stake. Your very survival is on the line.
In the previously mentioned workplace examples, dyslexics usually feels they are left with one option: bluff their way through. Do whatever they can manage in the allotted time, and then wing it the rest of the way.
And that makes a person feel like a fraud.
It feels (and is) inauthentic. Existential fear snowballs day after day—what will happen if I’m found out? And when is that going to happen? And how can I survive when it does?
This is no way to live. It is not sustainable.
How to Manage Dyslexia Anxiety in the Workplace
I would like to offer for your consideration four steps you can take to coexist with your dyslexia in a way that doesn’t involve feeling like a fraud and doesn’t produce the subsequent fear of exposure.
Step one: If you know you have dyslexia, you’ve already completed step one. If you wonder if you might have dyslexia but aren’t sure, get tested. A person has to know what they’re dealing with.
Step two: Learn all you can about dyslexia, especially the aspects of dyslexia that you personally experience. Everyone’s dyslexia manifests differently. Do you also have dysgraphia (trouble writing)? How about dyscalculia (trouble with math, numbers, and sequential tasks)? Auditory dyslexia (trouble processing spoken information or instructions)? Dysphonia (trouble speaking your thoughts and ideas)?
Any and all of these need to be explored so that you can understand what you’ve been experiencing. Only after you understand your own unique dyslexia can you develop coping mechanisms and get support.
Step three: Develop compassion for yourself. If you’re like most of us, there’s been a very harsh, critical voice inside your head talking smack to you about yourself for years.
That voice literally adds insult to injury.
It’s time to learn to look back over your past and show yourself some compassion and respect for struggling for so many years without understanding what you were dealing with, and for showing up every day to work harder than most folks ever have to work, and for surviving.
With time and proper support, we can learn to be more aware of this harsh voice and replace it with kinder words that acknowledge how hard you are working.
Step four: This step takes time and effort but it’s the key.
Learn to ask for what you need. This is a biggie. It takes a lot of courage. But once you have educated yourself about how your brain works best, you can educate others.
Reducing dyslexia anxiety in the workplace starts at home. Start by building a support system within the safe zone of family and close friends. Share with them what you are learning about yourself and help them to understand dyslexia. Maybe they can watch some dyslexia documentaries with you. As you learn about the way you personally experience dyslexia, you can communicate differently.
For example, if you have a less-than-ideal short-term memory, you could request that your spouse or roommate text or email you the grocery list instead of just giving it to you verbally.
Or maybe the people in your home often offer verbal information in passing, such as telling you about an upcoming social event while you are focused on something else. Later, they are surprised (or worse) when you aren’t prepared the evening of the event. If this is a common event for you, you can teach the people in your household about the fact that dyslexics have a smaller “buffer” in their brain’s processing center. This means that if you are engaged in another activity, or even simply have a lot on your mind, they may need to make sure they have your full attention before discussing plans or leave a note or an email as a backup system. Even implementing a household calendar that you can refer to frequently will help prevent this kind of stress in the family.
In addition, remembering several items in sequence can be a struggle for some dyslexics. Situations like this might show up during a home project that has several steps. It will reduce stress for everyone involved if you discuss and tackle one step at a time.
Over time, as family and friends begin to understand you better, you will become more comfortable talking about your dyslexia and asking for what you need. Then you will gradually become ready to have conversations in your professional environment. This will take time and courage.
Become Your Own Advocate
A good place to start is the Human Resources department at your place of employment. If there is someone on staff in Human Resources, you can ask them directly what specific procedures are in place to make accommodations.
If there is no dedicated HR department, most jobs have an employee handbook that lists company policies, including those that handle requests for accommodation.
In some places of employment, the only path to accommodation is through conversation with a direct supervisor or boss.
According to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, you only have to let your employer know that you need an adjustment or change at work for a reason related to a medical condition. You do not need to disclose the medical condition if you don’t want to.
The Learning Disability Association of America offers a helpful checklist to take care of before having a conversation with your employer:
- Have a clear understanding of your areas of strengths and challenges.
- Know which accommodations and strategies will work best for you.
- Know how to effectively communicate information about your dyslexia as it pertains to your job, including your strengths and needed accommodations.
- Documentation of your dyslexia can sometimes be required.
What is the most important information your employer needs to know?
- How your dyslexia impacts your ability to do your work
- What accommodations, supports, and services you will need to excel at your job, and how those accommodations have helped you in past situations
What if you’re at a loss as to what accommodations to ask for? The Job Accommodation Network has qualified staff to help you know which accommodations could make the most difference for you. Be prepared with a clear description of your dyslexia.
Their website is https://askjan.org/ and their toll-free number is 1-800-526-7234.
Dealing with dyslexia anxiety in the workplace and in life is difficult. I encourage all of you, please don’t give up. Your work counts. You count. With enough information and courage, every dyslexic can get the accommodation they need and deserve so that they can do their best work, feel great about themselves, live their best life, and never again feel like a fraud!
You will find helpful information in my book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know.
In addition to full explanations of each aspect of dyslexia that a person can have, some of the most useful information (for an adult) will be in the sample conversations between parent and child. As I mentioned earlier, our own inner dialogue as an adult dyslexic is often quite harsh and hopeless. The sample conversations will give you ideas not just for communicating with your child, but also will help inform your inner dialogue so that your inner life as a dyslexic is less abusive and more compassionate.
Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.