Why ADHD Masking Is a Form of Self-Sabotage
Do you squander your precious time and energy trying to “act normal” at the expense of your mental health? That’s ADHD masking, which may include suppressing symptoms, trying to hide your ADHD in public settings, or denying the real effect ADHD has on your life. Here, learn the signs and features of masking, and how it can sabotage your social skills, prevent accurate diagnosis, reduce self-esteem, and lead to burnout.
What Is ADHD Masking?
“I appear very organized to the outside world, but only because I spend an immense amount of time and energy putting everything together.”
“My house is an embarrassing cluttered mess. I don’t let people come over. All of the pictures I take inside my home are carefully constructed and cropped to hide the clutter.”
“I hate being late, and I struggle mightily to get to events on time. If I see that I won’t be on time, I sometimes cancel going to an event altogether to avoid comments about my tardiness.”**
This is ADHD masking, and a few examples of the painstaking efforts that ADDitude readers put forth to camouflage their symptoms and conceal how the condition impairs functioning. In this sense, ADHD masking is about conforming to neurotypical standards to avoid the shame and stigma that continue to plague the condition. It may start off as a useful coping strategy but, over time, it often becomes tough to maintain, prevents people from sharing who they really are, and proves a much less effective tool in social or work situations.
ADHD Masking: Camouflaging to Reduce Shame, Stigma
Masking is a common ADHD coping mechanism. (Masking, to be clear, isn’t exclusive to ADHD; it is closely related to neurodivergence, and most often thought of in connection to autism.1) As one reader who grew up with undiagnosed ADHD said: “Pretending to be ‘normal’ seemed the only way to survive.” This pretense actually interrupts thriving with ADHD and co-existing conditions.
[Read: “I’m Not Hiding My ADHD Anymore”]
Research offers some insight into ADHD masking and its motivations.
- Individuals with ADHD, with self-protection in mind, may under-report symptoms and challenges – a problem that impairs diagnostic evaluations.2 3
- Girls and women with ADHD are more likely than boys and men to develop compensatory behaviors that mask ADHD, which helps to explain why males are more likely than females to receive a diagnosis.4 5 6
What Does ADHD Masking Look Like?
From constructing highly structured environments to obsessively avoiding specific situations and people, here are the actions ADDitude readers say they take to give the impression that everything is OK.
“I try to keep my arms folded in front of me to avoid fidgeting. (I’m always changing body positions.) The inside of my car is always a mess, so I try to park where there are few chances of someone seeing into the car windows. I avoid carpooling for the same reason.” – An ADDitude Reader
[Read: ADHD and the Epidemic of Shame]
“I’m talkative, loud, and have a habit of oversharing. I am always trying to fix this part of me. I have set alarms on my phone prior to heading into social settings just to remind myself to tone it down. I especially avoid people who make me nervous because the more nervous I am, the more I’ll keep going. And after every friend date I usually send a text apologizing for talking so much.” – Amy, Canada
“Because my career is so demanding, I sometimes zone out in conversations and meetings as I think about other things I have to do. I mask this by pretending to take notes, by nodding, or giving some other empty signal of affirmation.” – An ADDitude Reader
“I can’t sit through a full movie. Can’t remember them, either. When people ask me if I have seen a movie and I have (but not really), I avoid talking about it.” – Karyn, Florida
“I rely a lot on guesswork to avoid having others repeat themselves. If I’m house sitting and can’t remember my friend’s instructions about which of her plants to water or how, I’ll think, ‘She probably said to..’ and do what seems reasonable.” – An ADDitude Reader
The Consequences of ADHD Masking
ADHD masking, as we know, may delay or sabotage diagnosis, especially in girls and women. Internalized conditions, including anxiety or depression, might develop as a consequence of undiagnosed, untreated, and hidden ADHD.7 It also interferes with a person’s ability to accept the brain they have, take pride in their strengths, and do more of what works.
Worry, Stress, and Burnout Tied to ADHD
Masking ADHD takes lots of energy. Diagnosed individuals who knowingly mask their symptoms worry profusely about others catching on to the “scheme.” They often live with significant social anxiety. As Amy, a reader based in Australia, wrote:
“I feel I have to work 10 times harder than others to complete simple tasks. Not only that, but I have to do it in a way that isn’t noticeable, because I don’t want others to see me struggle and think that I am incapable. I know that I am capable and that I do a damn good job, but there is always the fear that someone will learn my not-so-secret secret.”
Imposter Syndrome and Low Self-Esteem
ADHD masking is often tied to feelings of inadequacy. Many individuals who mask are the same ones who magnify their challenges and dismiss their victories. One reader’s experience with going above and beyond in the workplace to mask ADHD captures this tension:
“I’m often unable to set reasonable expectations of what I can deliver to my clients. So I frequently overpromise and end up doing a lot of extra work. On some level, I hope the extras please them so they don’t see how incompetent I really am.”
It’s all too common for these unrealistic expectations to join with low self-worth and create imposter syndrome in individuals with ADHD. Imposter syndrome not only increases daily levels of anxiety, but it also prevents individuals from enjoying their successes because they attribute them to ‘good luck’ rather than their hard-earned efforts.
Perfectionism Tied to ADHD
Masking is also linked to perfectionistic behaviors. Overly sensitive to their own perceived faults, people who mask may also be hyper aware of those traits in others and even develop an intolerance for them. Perfectionism, combined with imposter syndrome, can also intensify rejection sensitivity dysphoria. If something isn’t perfect, then it can be seen as another failure, adding to a sense of personal worthlessness. Sometimes people can project their need for perfection on others, judging them harshly for mistakes.
“I’m obsessed with punctuality,” a reader said. “I have to be early for everything and build in time for unknowns because I spent so many of my early years being late to everything. You would think I’d be empathetic toward the chronically late, but tardiness has become something I now have little to no patience for in others. Someone else’s lateness feels like a personal attack on me.”
Distorted Sense of Self Tied to ADHD
Years of intention or unintentional masking can muddy one’s sense of self. Undiagnosed individuals may try to cover up what’s really going on for them or be disconnected from a cohesive sense of self. Those with a diagnosis may spend so much energy trying to blend in that they come to question their identity. They feel cut off from who they are under the mask.
“I got diagnosed at 34 and I have been subconsciously masking for so long that I’m still struggling to find out who I really am, years after my diagnosis,” a reader said. “The hardest part about masking is not being able to acknowledge all the things I really need help with, down to the absolute basics of life: keeping myself clean, feeding myself, even getting out of bed.”
What to Do About ADHD Masking
If you recognize that your ADHD masking is tied to debilitating shame and low self-esteem, talk to a medical professional. Therapy can help you break out of negative thinking patterns, explore issues of deficiency that lead to masking, and improve your ability to be authentic with others.
Unhealthy ADHD masking develops as a coping strategy to relieve uncomfortable feelings and may well be deeply embedded in how a person functions in their daily life. Learning to unmask and share your genuine self with others can take some time, but it’s a worthwhile process that can improve the quality of your work, your social interactions, and your relationships. “I gave up masking in front of my friends and family,” one reader told us. “I find that I’m much happier, sleep better, and don’t feel as anxious.”
Here are four steps to begin the unmasking process.
1. Consider all the ways you mask your ADHD and why. Awareness is key. What parts of yourself do you actively work to shield from view? Which of these would make you anxious if brought into the light? How do you try to keep up appearances? Many people overcompensate because their current strategies are not as helpful as they would like. Do you do this? Consider the ways that masking differs from healthy strategies you have in place to manage ADHD symptoms.
2. Think of healthier habits. If you weren’t masking, what else would you be doing? What obstacles or fears interfere with making different, genuine choices about your behaviors or responses? Would it be helpful for you to speak with someone to explore the habit of masking, brainstorm alternatives, and practice using them? Do you need to rethink your personal expectations or set boundaries at work or at home? Your needs – and potential solutions – will become apparent as you consider these questions, identify the ways you mask your ADHD, and break down the purpose of your masking.
3. Surround yourself with people who love and support you. Talk to your loved ones about ADHD, your specific needs, and how you like to be supported. Being yourself will come naturally when you’re around people who accept you for who you are. ADHD support groups are great places to share experiences and receive encouragement. As you start to unmask, be prepared for potentially negative reactions from others in your life who are not accustomed to the real you. Don’t let their reactions bring you down. Follow your own path to living fully with ADHD. This is where you will find your self-esteem and joy.
4. Practice self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. As ADHD coach Linda Roggli, PCC, notes: “Your masks have protected you in the past but release them with love.” Recite a few positive affirmations when negative thoughts come up. Or, talk back to that negative voice and treat it as you would a third grader with a skinned knee. That voice developed to keep you safe, but now you need to build a new strategy. Bring in your sense of humor, like Kami, a reader from North Carolina who said she used to mask her difficulty remembering people’s names. “It was really hard for me to ask someone to repeat their name,” she wrote. “I do my best to be courageous and, of course, blame my ADHD brain and laugh it off.” Learning to laugh with ourselves, with our challenges, and with our successes will help reduce masking and increase self-esteem.
**reader responses edited for brevity and clarity.
ADHD Masking: Next Steps
- Free Download: The Anti-Shame Game for Adults with ADHD
- Read: Coping with the Stigma of ADHD
- Read: The Big Heart Approach to ADHD Acceptance & Self-Love
- Read: “I’m Way Too Hard on Myself”
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View Article Sources
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2 Diener, M. B., & Milich, R. (1997). Effects of positive feedback on the social interactions of boys with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A test of the self-protective hypothesis. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 26(3), 256–265. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15374424jccp2603_4
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4 Young, S., Adamo, N., Ásgeirsdóttir, B. B., Branney, P., et al (2020). Females with ADHD: An expert consensus statement taking a lifespan approach providing guidance for the identification and treatment of attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder in girls and women. BMC Psychiatry, 20(1), 404. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-020-02707-9
5 Quinn, P. O., & Madhoo, M. (2014). A review of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in women and girls: uncovering this hidden diagnosis. The Primary care Companion for CNS disorders, 16(3), PCC.13r01596. https://doi.org/10.4088/PCC.13r01596
6 Hinshaw, S. P., Nguyen, P. T., O’Grady, S. M., & Rosenthal, E. A. (2022). Annual Research Review: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in girls and women: underrepresentation, longitudinal processes, and key directions. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 63(4), 484–496. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13480
7 Katzman, M. A., Bilkey, T. S., Chokka, P. R., Fallu, A., & Klassen, L. J. (2017). Adult ADHD and comorbid disorders: clinical implications of a dimensional approach. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 302. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1463-3