“I’m Smart, So I Should Be Able to Overpower ADHD. Right?”
High-IQ adults with ADHD seem to function well, but it comes at a high emotional cost. They feel burdened and exhausted, blaming their struggles on themselves, not on their ADHD. Here is a game plan for healing and hope.
ADHD is distributed across individuals of all intellectual levels, and some of those individuals have high IQs. There is significant overlap of characteristics among people with ADHD, high IQ, and creativity — like curiosity, impatience, high energy, low tolerance for boredom, charisma, nonconformity, risk-taking, and resistance to authority.
High-IQ people with attention deficit often excel at tasks requiring divergent thinking, which is spontaneous and non-linear — “out of the box” thinking. They are usually less successful at tasks requiring convergent thinking, which requires accuracy, logic, and speed — the math-SAT thinking.
Many high-IQ adults who struggle with ADHD symptoms wonder why their condition is considered to be less than credible. Lori, 43, a TV producer, said, “I just saw the second doctor who told me I couldn’t have ADHD — I’m too smart, I did well in school, I don’t have behavioral problems, I’m a high-functioning professional. Looks are deceiving; it’s a hot mess inside my head.”
Intelligence and IQ Do Not Counteract ADHD
Many assume that a high IQ makes everything in life easier, including the management of ADHD. However, research tells us that a high IQ does not protect anyone from the executive dysfunction or emotional dysregulation typical of ADHD.
Despite their strengths and talents, high-IQ adults with ADHD demonstrate more cognitive difficulties, functional impairments, and comorbidities than do high-IQ adults without ADHD.
In fact, the severity of their executive function impairments, especially in working memory and processing speed, does not differ from that in average-IQ adults with ADHD. What these intriguing individuals do have is a unique set of challenges.
Unique Challenges That Accompany High Functioning ADHD
Those who grow up celebrated as “smart” internalize their intellect as a foundation of their identities and a source of self-esteem. They know that they carry the expectation of success. Thriving in school with little effort, they have been told that success will be theirs.
But here’s where the path begins to diverge for those with ADHD: Due to the developmental delays that characterize ADHD, children with the condition tend to lag three to five years behind their chronological peers in social/emotional functioning. At the same time, very bright children with the condition often function three to five years beyond their peers intellectually.
Such extreme discrepancies in functioning are baffling to those living with them, as well as to those observing them. Rob, 31, a cyber-security technician, recalls the awkwardness he felt in middle school: “I got 100 on everything, but was seriously geeky and never had friends in my grade. I was more comfortable with younger kids or adults. Being smart with ADHD is a mixed bag.”
“Potential” Becomes a Four-Letter Word
Intellectual prowess falters in those with ADHD as academic demands grow in speed and complexity. Confused by their inconsistent achievement, they find themselves unable to realize their potential. Parents and teachers usually attribute their underachievement to boredom, carelessness, laziness, or lack of caring, and these bright, demoralized teens have no better explanations.
A consistent refrain I hear is, “How could I have been so stupid?” Even after diagnosis, they deny the impact that ADHD has on their performance. Rather than acknowledge the complexity that ADHD adds to any task, they attribute their struggles to their flaws.
The High Functioning ADHD Identity Crisis
Academic achievement is highly susceptible to impairment by ADHD. Studies show that 42 percent of high-IQ ADHD adults have dropped out of college at least once. Nonetheless, they still believe that their intellect should enable them to triumph over their impairments.
Mark’s story is typical: A stellar student back in the day — debate team captain, accepted at two Ivy League schools — he can’t relate to that earlier self. Now a 38-year-old advertising executive, he zoned out in his last business meeting, and worried that he missed something relevant. After finishing his PowerPoint at 2:30 a.m., he overslept the next day and left home without coffee. He says, “Whoever I was, I’m not that guy anymore. Doesn’t seem to matter how much I know. When I have to perform, I freeze up and feel incompetent.”
A high IQ can make it easier to compensate for ADHD symptoms. High-IQ adults with ADHD appear to function well, but this comes at a high emotional cost. Investing much time and energy to present a flawless public persona, they rely on obsessive behaviors to guarantee organization and structure. However successfully they manage their cycles of procrastination and hyperfocus, they inevitably feel burdened and exhausted. Determined to keep anxiety, frustration, shame, and disappointment internalized, they relentlessly self-monitor. They are hypervigilant about hiding anything that might expose their internal chaos.
Susan, 51, a magazine editor, explains how perfectionism works for her: “It doesn’t matter what I have to do, as long as I come across as smart and in control. I know I can get a little rigid, but, if the managing editors are impressed, it’s all good. It’s just that I’m always so anxious, dreading the day they find out I’m a fraud.”
The Secret Struggle of High IQ Adults with ADHD
High-IQ adults with ADHD feel most successful when their performance doesn’t reflect the challenges over which they triumph each day. If they are not overtly suffering, nor appear to be in need, it is unlikely that they will get the support they need. The combination of pride and shame deters them from revealing their inner experience, and, as a result, they are isolated with their burdens.
Without the history of difficulties required for diagnosis, and given their high functioning, they present with a form of ADHD unfamiliar to most clinicians. If they are ever diagnosed, their diagnoses will likely be delayed until comorbid issues complicate their difficulties. The result of coping well is that the struggle remains secret, but no less damaging.
Having High IQ Doesn’t Mean You Feel Smart
The fall from grace, when it comes, often involves revisiting the glowing recognition earned in the past. They judge themselves harshly — ashamed that they can’t process faster, remember more, follow through better, be less emotionally reactive. It is painful to accept that they’re working twice as hard, for twice as long, to achieve half as much.
What makes this more demoralizing is that, like Mark, they feel compelled to redefine their identities. Isolated by her secret life, Lori grieves for her lost confidence: “Who am I kidding? If I were really smart, I could crush this.” These despairing individuals face a shame-based identity crisis, in addition to the impact of a neurobiological disorder.
What’s Ahead After Getting Help with High Achieving ADHD
Lori was finally diagnosed after finding the right clinician, and began to recognize how her job as a producer was a good fit for her because she works in a highly stimulating, fast-moving, ADHD-friendly environment. Rather than trying to stifle her constant stream of ideas, she took the risk and found that they were well-received, even if she occasionally interrupted.
Rob began to accept that the way his brain worked was an advantage in his job, and that the other techs were similarly wired. No longer viewing himself as a social pariah, he went out to lunch with a colleague for the first time. Mark began to use his artistic creativity to make his ad campaigns funnier, edgier, and more colorful; he felt proud when his colleagues said that he was walking around smiling too much.
Susan began to relax her perfectionist instincts and see that the details she obsessed about were apparently not as critical as she thought. She loved feeling less vigilant and anxious.
Those who dwell at that random intersection of the genes for high IQ and ADHD have abilities that, properly channeled, define our entrepreneurs and our leaders. There is no shortage of successful people with ADHD! What makes the difference is the lens through which you view yourself relative to the rest of your world. The good news is that you can reframe the ways in which you label yourself, once you recognize that you applied those labels in the first place—and only you can peel them off.
Six Steps to Accepting Yourself: ADHD, IQ, and All
Having someone bear witness to your experience is the first step toward self-acceptance. You can’t change your brain wiring, but there are many ways to feel worthier in your own skin.
- Learn everything you can about your ADHD brain. Read, watch webinars, join online groups, so you can understand why you can’t always control your responses, regardless of how smart you are. There is relief in discovering that many share the journey that feels like yours alone.
- Strip away labels. You are not your symptoms nor your diagnosis nor your IQ. Separate the essence of who you are from the labels that might limit you. As you rid yourself of those labels, you can begin to redefine your identity with more realistic aspects of who you are, not who you “should” be.
- Break out of the prison of isolation. Take the risk—with a therapist, a best friend, a partner, or a support group. Imagine feeling safe enough to take off your mask without fear of rejection.
- Remind yourself that most people juggle issues that make the world less predictable. None of us has that coveted sense of control all the time.
- Optimize your functioning through better self-care: diet, sleep, exercise, stress management, hobbies, and relaxation. Investing in yourself sends the message that you are worth it.
- Celebrate your gifts. You may feel that your capabilities don’t exist because you can’t reliably access them. We don’t expect artists to create masterpieces every day; show the same compassion for yourself and don’t hold yourself to unrealistically high standards. Nothing can steal your brilliant solutions from you; rather than lament that they don’t occur often enough, celebrate them when they do.