Neurodiversity, Anxiety and Integration to the Workplace: my Story and Perspective

How can our ways of working foster people’s development and self-acceptance? My reflection on the practices I experienced during my professional internship at Percolab Coop, all of which inspired me to join the organization.

Each person has their journey, challenges and needs

There are things that make us who we are, that follow us in our professional life, and that should be celebrated, or at least welcomed, by organizations. We should lean towards this if we want to offer young people and everyone a professional life that inspires us and gives us joy.

In my case, here is the luggage I arrived with in my internship at Percolab Coop. Growing up in Paris in a social environment, neighbourhood and schools of relatively low means, I received the message, often implicit, that I shouldn’t “aim too high,” be too ambitious, that I probably didn’t have the resources needed to make my dreams come true, or that I would be better off settling with something that was in reach.

Illustration of a mountain with a path surrounded by road signs signalling danger and clouds obstructing the view

 

With the lack of confidence that these messages infused, but a strong will to prove that all of that wasn’t necessarily true, I left home at 18 to do a gap year in Ireland as an au pair – a childhood dream of mine. Feeling at home straight away and appreciating the opportunity to develop a second language, I decided to stay for four more years to study business, political science, economics and sociology at Trinity College Dublin, while working as a barista at a café to fund it. I felt that it would be hard on my very first day when a professor, whom I had asked about changing my timetable to accommodate my work hours, told me: “College is a full-time job. If you work part-time, you’ll never make it”. It shocked me a bit – I didn’t have a choice, like many students! He was partly right, though, and it was often challenging, but I completed my first year, then my second, proud of my resilience. From the end of my third year, when the pandemic hit, I had to finish my studies online. Those circumstances were terrible for many students, but I have to say that, in my situation, the overall balance was very positive. Back in Paris, in the apartment I grew up in, I discovered what it was like to be a full-timestudent, freed from hours of work every week and financial worries. It also gave me the nudge I needed to start going to therapy.

Finally, after graduating, and taking a break and a step back for a few months, I landed in Montreal in the middle of winter to start a 5-months professional internship at Percolab Coop.. My role, measuring the social impact of the cooperative and its projects, gave me a view of the organization that was both broad and deep and enabled many transformative experiences.

The challenge of accepting ourselves and being accepted

Starting my internship, I arrived with challenges that seemed to me almost impossible to overcome, stemming from my anxiety, my lack of self-confidence, high sensitivity, and thinking patterns referred to as “giftedness” (this relatively blurry concept is often misunderstood – this article sums up quite well what I have experienced).

Illustration of a brain made of tangled strings and two hands trying to detangle them

Before I could put words to this (thanks to therapy), all of this made me feel, all my life, that I didn’t belong. I was almost “normal”, but not quite. An example of this, relevant to the topic of this article, is that I get very intensely excited and passionate about a huge variety of things, and I was never able to focus on one thing or two, but tens of them, that are seemingly unrelated. I felt from a very young age, especially in grown-ups’ eyes, that this was not a valued behaviour. Because of that, throughout my childhood, it was always a source of worry for me, especially when I realized that it was preferable, and even expected, that I chose one or two passions or topics of interest and, later, a profession.. It’s a challenge for many people. For some, including me, it can be a constant source of torment, of questioning oneself and feeling guilty and frustrated.

Today, I’m at the beginning of my professional life and still haven’t chosen a profession, in the ses that I haven’t selected one thing to specialize in. But it has become liberating instead of being stressful or making me feel bad about myself! I have learned to appreciate this aspect of my personality that pushes me to learn various things. This recent surge of self-acceptance, supported by a year and a half of therapy, gave me what I needed to gear up for the work world. However, at the end of my studies, I was aware that to integrate it, meaning, in my case, feeling accepted and included in my entirety, with my challenges and needs, it would not be possible in any organization or sector (a reality for many people, that I would love to see change in the coming years).

Intention, need, hope

Before starting my internship, even though I knew Percolab Coop would be a caring environment, I feared that I would not be good enough, that I would not succeed at overcoming my challenges, discovering my full potential and generating the impact I wanted to have. However, I was able to anchor myself in the clarity that I had around my my intention for this internship, my needs and my hopes.. My intention was to discover how I could value and amplify my strengths and overcome my challenges to be able to contribute to the organization, and society, in a way that would reflect who I am. To accomplish this, I needed to be in an environment that would take care, with me, of my well-being, my mental health and my development. The hope that I had was simply to experience this kind of environment that recognizes, celebrates and supports each individual with their journey, traumas, challenges, needs, strengths… Today, having finished the internship, I can say that this is exactly what I had the chance to experience, and even more, and that the anxious student I was not so long ago would be really relieved!

What does an organization that takes care of its members look like?

As I was looking for an environment that would nurture my development, I understood very early on, stepping into the culture and practices at Percolab, that it would be the overarching theme throughout my internship. For five months, I was constantly discovering things and reflecting on what development means in all its colours: skills, well-being, mental health, etc…, and at every level: me, others, the business and society as a whole.

A lot of what my colleagues do for well-being, mental health and inner development in the coop, they do it naturally, without necessarily realizing it, because it’s anchored in them and the management and collaboration practices of the organization, ways of working and doing things. These horizontal practices, which are deeply healthy and human, form the bases of relationships and experiences that foster well-being by being inclusive of people’s ways of being and thinking in all their diversity. There are the more formal practices that are made an explicit part of the organizational life, principles and intention of Percolab Coop (like check-insandcheck-outs, participatory meetings, circle practice,… – see the bookGoing Horizontal – and various tools, like those from the Conflict Café (La Chicanerie)). And there are also the many powerful micro-practices that naturally flow from them. They are brought forward with intention, yet more informally, showing up in the ways people talk with one another, and see, encourage and appreciate each other. Some of these practices particularly marked me because, as small as these practices seem at first glance, they deeply impacted my well-being and my mental health. They shaped my experience and what I was able to develop inside and outside of myself.

“Draw your comfort zone”

 

Illustration of a person at the feet of a mountain struggling to see the top

On the second day of my internship, I was invited to a meeting about a consultation project. At the end of the meeting, as a check-outmy colleague asked us to draw our comfort zones for taking part in facilitating the event. Hesitant at first, I ended up drawing a mountain and explained that it represented what I had to overcome, especially my anxiety, to be able to contribute wholeheartedly. Attentive to this, my colleagues told me they would take care of my mountain.They did it by asking me questions here and there, throughout the project: if I was comfortable contributing in this or that way, how Iwas feeling During that first meeting, I experienced a very high level of anxiety. Overtime, it progressively died down enough for me to connect to joy and be in a learning zone. Thanks to the space that my colleague created for this initial conversation, I came out of the project peacefully, with the satisfaction of having done something new, with less anxiety than I would usually have had. Check-ins, giving space to sharing out our needs and wishes, and debriefing the project with an appreciative method of feedback: these practices, which I experienced as soon as I arrived, had a structuring and reassuring impact on me and gave me the psychological safety I needed to embark wholeheartedly in my learning and development with more joy, peace and self-empathy.

“What do you need?”

After a little over a month into my internship, when I mustered the courage to say out loud, for the first time, that I hoped to explore a future at Percolab Coop after my internship, a colleague told me: “It’s pretty simple. What do you need in order to stay? ». Although it seems trivial at first glance, this question was fundamental for what followed.

First of all, because it did not require an answer. After having spent a few weeks at Percolab, I had begun to understand the practice of living in questions –it helps to move away from the pressure to perform, which builds capacity for dealing with complex situations. So, having always felt the pressure to give the right answer, for the first time in my life I knew I did not have to say anything. I could keep it and live in it for the rest of my internship.

Illustration of a pair of glasses showing two different ways of envisioning the future Second off, because of that question, the fear I had was unlocked as I dove into a concrete reflection about my immediate future. It had been a source of anxiety and procrastination because I demanded good and clear answers from myself before I even gave myself the space to connect to my questions and what I actually needed.. I do not know whether my colleague actually realized it, but it was a true act of kindness that gave me the energy to start a personal reflection on my needs, but also my desires and aspirations. Today, my needs are clearer, and continue to clarify. I still ask myself regularly what my needs are, and I try to offer more questions to others.

“Do you want to try it?”

TheListen For… Game, and my work to study its impact, have been very intertwined with my development. In all contexts, this game creates an environment that positively influences the mental health, well-being and inner development of people who experience it. It holds a special place for me, not only because I spent a significant amount of my internship working on it but also because it helped me a lot personally. It was during the monthly public games that I took on a larger facilitation role for the first time. Of all that I intended to try in order to expand my comfort zone during my internship, facilitating was, by far, what challenged me the most, mainly because of my social anxiety. But during these two first experiences, because of my colleague’s invitations and compassionate support, I managed to speak up in front of strangers while feeling a very tolerable level of anxiety – without a painful knot in my stomach, without thinking about it hours after, searching for what I might have said or done wrong. It was new to me, and it gave me a lot of hope.

Another invitation marked me: to join the team during a congress that Percolab was facilitating. I received several invitations inside that initial one, but the one that stays with me the most is that of two colleagues, ahead of the event, to co-facilitate one of the activities. Thanks to their invitation, through which they showed their confidence in me, and the words they had before and during the congress, I managed to do what I never thought I would be capable of, even weeks before: taking a microphone and speaking in front of a hundred people.

Illustration of a person smiling and giving a microphone to someone with a tense expression on their face

I felt some stress, of course, but I would call it a positive kind of stress, as I did not feel overwhelmed or panicked, but anchored. I felt very proud, too, because this was meant to be my big mountain to climb, and suddenly I had come halfway. Inviting someone who lacks self-confidence and has little experience to contribute to a project is not always easy – and yet it is transformative. I found my power during this event, thanks to the team. They showed me how powerful working in co-creation, emergence, and flexibility could be and gave me a reflection of myself that was much kinder than my own. Since this experience, the road that is ahead of me in the years to come seems much more accessible to me, and most importantly, I am finally able to appreciate and even savor it.

After having experienced Percolab Coop’s practices – the ones I mentioned, and many more – shared leadership and caring collaborative practices stand out to me as the most beautiful gift that people who contribute to defining the work world, could offer to all individuals, and particularly to those who live with an anxiety disorder, or ways of being and thinking that do not fit exactly into the norm and who long to be integrated fully, and with joy, to an organization and to work in general.

Illustration of a person at work joyfully jumping in the air

Well-being, mental health and individual development are also a collective matter

The power of sharing our feelings, reflections and experiences

All my life, I saw a lot of my singularities (stemming from a neurodivergence, which I found out in therapy only recently) as shortcomings or weaknesses, obstacles that were going to keep me from generating, through my work, a contribution that would meet my expectations and that of others These inner quirks made me feel insecure: insecure of still not having been able to resolve themof being too young, not having enough experience, enough talent, enough skills (or having skills that were really varied, but not one that was really goodof not being good enough. Through therapy, what became clear to me was that the reason I never felt good enough was that I was constantly placing the bar too high. Without being conscious of it most of the time, because it is ingrained in my mental pathways, I have the reflex, for everything I do, to visualize what would be the perfect or ideal outcomeand take that as my objective or benchmark. And until recently, everything I did which did not match this resulted in a feeling of failure. Years of involuntarily imposing that belief system onto myself had secured a nearly permanent feeling of failure, and anxiety, where I never fully celebrated the small victories, because anything I did not do perfectly, or above people’s expectations was not enough.

What started a massive shift for me was when I realized, because of their openness on the topic, that my colleagues who are 5, 15 or 25 years older than me also have a ton of things to develop and amplify. I was not late, I was in the norm, because the norm was no longer perfection, which is a static, unrealistic and cruel concept.Instead, the norm became continuous, caring, tolerant and appreciative development. Things are put in place explicitly and implicitly at Percolab, in the culture and the practices, which anchor that. In particular, approaching work with an iterative and continuous improvement approach, inviting us to prototype instead of trying to create something perfectly the first time around, and even to celebrate imperfection, which opens possibilities and gives us space to be in co-creation, emergence and the inclusion of each person’s strengths and perspectives. Also, the appreciative posture, which shows up everywhere at the cooperative, taught me that every experience has beauty and potential. These approaches to work freed me from the hold that permanent dissatisfaction had over me, and they now help me progressively come out of my freezeand procrastination reactions to difficulty and get into action through small steps.

Illustration of someone moving forward with growing enthusiasm thanks to supportive conversationsFrom this experience, I see the potential for radically transforming our ways of contemplating our futures by pooling together our reflections on well-being, mental health and development. A year ago, I thought I had to overcome a huge mountain to be capable to hope, one day maybe, that I would accomplish beautiful and significant things. Today, I know that I will accomplish beautiful and significant things while joyfully exploring that mountain and without focusing on the top. I came to understand the power of talking about our doubts, our fears, our anxiety, and our blind spots… to people who often experience or have experienced the same thing. If our stories get shared, they empower us in our development. What I observed and experienced at Percolab Coop is a horizontal, shared yet autonomous, natural and living way of approaching personal development.

The power of embracing and helping one another

The internal project on well-being at work that two colleagues and I experimented with was the source of a lot of learning. It resonated with a need that was very present in me to host and participate in conversations that answered my strong need to talk about well-being and mental health. I discovered this powerful desire to externalize my reflections on inner development, hearing about others’, and making it transparent so that everyone could benefit from everyone’s stories, to be able to appreciate this journey collectively and avoid, as is the case for many, living with feelings of not being good enough, or not being where would like to be. Moving from depreciative filters to appreciative ones is essential for each of us to find the energy to keep working.

Once they get to work, people do not stop being themselves – they have lived through trauma, and challenges, have their comfort zones, their blind spots… My experience showed me how powerful it is to try and be authentic and vulnerable with the people we work with by not attempting to put on a certain face or appear stronger than we are. In a caring environment, bringing to the collective what we have a hard time getting out of us, what makes us freeze, procrastinate, stress out…, enables us to help each other, while respecting each other’s needs. In doing that, we can develop together and reach towards the best we can be, without interfering, despite what we might think, with the work that needs to be done. My experience at Percolab Coop showed me that an organization can be both productive andcentered around individuals and relationships, entrepreneurial andgenerous, ambitiousand valuing small steps, collective and caring of each individual.

Illustration of a spiral representing the sharing of various people’s experiencesWe can accomplish tremendous things for ourselves when we put our strengths together, when we talk about them and when we find the strength to go into authenticity and radical openness. It has become a core objective in my development. In a more challenging situation, when I manage to say to a colleague: “here is what’s happening inside of me right now, here is what I need orhere is where I lack clarity”, the potential anxiety generated by the situation gets transformed. I move from a feeling of insurmountable discomfort and a reaction of freezefreeze to a situation where, since I am not the only one who knows it and carries it on my shoulders, all of a sudden, a world of possibilities, solutions and learning opens up to me.

From my professional first steps at Percolab, and from all these reflections, here are 3 questions that emerged that I continue to live in:

  • If we think of mutual support as natural human behaviour, how to apply it to the development of people in organizations?
  • What can each person put in place in their organization – big or small, tangible or intangible – so that the conditions support the development of people and the collective?
  • How do we ensure that people who have struggled throughout their life to feel accepted or “normal” feel that they belong at work?

For me, well-being is a collective responsibility. Mental health is a collective responsibility. And people’s development is a collective responsibility. I feel great hope when I see that, all around, people are taking action to make organizations of all shapes and sizes become more human, more inclusive and better able to foster an environment where each person is fully accepted and appreciated for who they are. I am immensely grateful to the whole Percolab Coop team, who offered me exactly that.

Illustration of a person in front of big sun, smiling

As I’m about to publish this article, months after writing the bulk of it, I could not help but add an addendum:

Perfectionism and procrastination are two sides of the same coin and they are symptoms of anxiety. Having written a deeply personal article, I had difficulty letting it go and putting it out there. I am proud to have finally finished it (I tend to start a lot of things, but finishing is not my strong suit!).

Now an auxiliary member at Percolab for the past 10 months, I have not stopped making discoveries, whether it is about the world, the organization, my colleagues, myself and relationships. Reading today what I wrote during and at the end of my internship with a fresh perspective, I just feel happy to have actually put into words what I have meant to say for a long time and to share my story with others. Our stories are a great resource; I hope this one inspired you in some way.