ADHD Myths & Facts

“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.

[Get this Free Resource: Yes! There Are People Like You]

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.

[Written for You: An Open Letter from a Smart Kid With ADHD]

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

[Read This Next: “What If My Intense Drive Is Because of — Not in Spite of — My ADHD?”]

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9 Comments & Reviews

  1. This author nailed it. I was a successful high functioning adult only because if rigid structure and self monitoring. When I retired at age 72 I lost the focus of my structure and developed symptoms that, I thought, indicated progressive dementia. I saw a psychologist who did appropriate tests. What a shock to realize that my brain was different but still ok. With the help of CHADD, books and online resources, like ADDitude magazine I am back to functioning well with much needed compassion for myself and others who struggle as I did.

  2. I’m yet to be diagnosed (thanks Coronavirus 😒 for the psych cancelling all new appointments) but I’m glad I’ve discovered ADHD. It explains so much! But at the same time I think of the ways I could’ve done/been better if only I’d known. Of how it wouldn’t have taken me 6 extra years to finish my Intensive care medicine training due to procrastinating my fellowship exam and my research project. About how studying might have been easier. About how I wouldn’t be nearly 40 and still struggling to maintain a home and unable to do things like my tax or work out what people owe me for various things. Or why I’m always incapable of paying bills on time unless they’re set as auto payments. And why now that I have a job with non clinical duties I’m struggling. Looking after patients is easy and I’ve got my processes well in place to make sure I don’t miss the mundane and repetitive bits but now I’m expected to write guidelines, go to meetings and do “boring” things. These I really struggle with/just cannot do as there’s no fixed deadlines to hit. I’m worried my boss with eventually find this out. But in 6 months on my job I don’t feel I’ve achieved much at all. Partic in comparison to my office mate who has the same job who’s got all these projects on the go.

  3. I can definitely identify with this. I always did well in school (struggled more when it got more complex, but managed). But I struggle constantly at work.

  4. This article really resonated with me. When I was younger I did really well in school. I got straight A’s in high school without even applying myself. I was always told by my mother how smart I was and how successful I would be. Things started to become more difficult for me at University. I did end up with a Bachelor of Science, but my marks weren’t high enough for Medical School. I couldn’t seem to manage as well as my peers. I was always feeling inadequate. After University I was really depressed and struggled deeply with feelings of failure and shame. I felt I had potential and I knew I was smart, but I just couldn’t seem to do what other people could do. I struggled most of my adult life with depression. I took antidepressants, saw psychiatrists and psychologists for years, trying to treat this nagging depression and figure myself out. There always seemed to be something missing. I thought that a person shouldn’t have to work so hard just to feel ok. Finally, at 47 years old, my psychologist whom I’d been seeing for 4 years suggested we do testing for ADHD. I thought she was crazy. I ran a busy household with 4 children, I couldn’t possibly have ADHD! After hours of testing I was Diagnosed with ADHD and Giftedness. I was absolutely floored. My psychologist felt that my ADHD and Giftedness interacted reciprocally, essentially hiding one another. Growing up I felt like I was constantly underachieving. I always felt that I was inherently flawed. This diagnosis was the missing puzzle piece. I started taking Vyvanse and the difference is unbelievable!! Now I’m in the process of learning how my brain works and it’s so fascinating!

  5. To Doc.Jill

    I’m so happy for you- that you discovered a huge piece to your life-puzzle! Congrats on making it so far under such difficult circumstances. It is heartbreaking AND inspiring to know you- and many others- were suffering and yet courageously functioning and moving ahead despite not understanding the impact of ADHD on your everyday life, year after year. It takes such courage and endurance.

    There are few words that describe the feeling one gets when little by little, the “lights come on” and understanding and empathy replace confusion, bewilderment, frustration and shame. Even now, years later, I still tear up when I read articles like this one as they remind me of my own journey of discovery. It’s nice to be reminded that there is a community that is on that journey together, and there is hope, and there is help.

    Thank you for sharing your story.
    Thank you for this article, And
    Thank you ADDitude Mag for bringing us together… There is no greater ‘calling’ than improving and saving lives!

  6. Great article, my husband calls me the smartest most illogical person he’s ever met. He refers to my hyperfocus especially when I’m writing an academic paper but also the superb procrastination skills and feeling of guilt.

    Spot-on in terms of lagging emotionally and socially – I have also always been more comfortable with younger kids or adults. I was an A student at school and uni but always felt as an imposter and would compensate by obsessing over every detail over and over again to feel in control.

    My 7-year-old daughter has ADHD too and really struggles with her emotional regulation so we often talk about her special brain and how to use it and love it rather than despise it (as I often did). Definitely knowing how your brain functions is really important. I have a full-time job, kids and a master’s degree and I try making a start on my assignments well in advance (although I can easily identify my procrastination tendencies).

  7. This article was difficult for me to read, it really hit a lot if thing very close. But beginning to understand the how and why of my brain and nervous system is such a relief.

  8. This is exactly me. Straight A’s all through school and 4 years of college, mostly effortlessly, but always with extreme procrastination, last-minute studying and all-nighters. Nobody ever suggested there was anything different about me except that I was gifted and capable. Expectations were very high. But I had serious performance anxiety and self-doubt that grew with life’s increasing complexity. I struggled as an adult ad executive VP – my own very successful company made it possible to hide a lot of my “flaws”, but anxiety and depression ensued for decades.

    My partner (spouse and boss – yikes) was always angry and frustrated with my moments of brilliance being overshadowed by constantly interrupting, talking over people, and disrupting meetings, yet I’d be sullen, argumentative, overly-emotional, angry, defensive, reactionary and distracted, and neither of us understood why. My worst behaviors always came at the most stressful times – like every time we had to prepare a big pitch to win a lucrative account or present new creative campaigns to a client. I’d be both ill-prepared and belligerent about it, and ablsolutely unable to accept criticism (or what I interpreted to be criticism). But this was only known to the two of us – not my employees, not my clients. I was very good at appearing to be in control and in charge, and I always pulled it off in the wee hours, just like in college.

    Multiple therapists prescribed talk and anti-depressants which never helped. Several said I was too smart to have ADHD, I’d never lost my car keys or acted hyper… and that I should just get out of my “difficult” relationship with a man that was clearly unreasonable in his expectations of me. But in truth, my husband was supportive, and spent an inordinate amount of his time worrying about my next explosion and covering for my issues. He grew more and more resentful, because obviously, I’m smart and capable of doing the work, but he felt like he had to be boss, leader, husband and parent all at once, all the time. I wasn’t the partner he needed. I felt like I was living my entire life running to catch up to him, failing at life and business, and that I must be an awful person to keep screwing up like this. Why couldn’t I just act right?

    When I was 48, my husband was the one who figured out what was really going on. after observing me at my work for a couple of weeks, he suggested I get tested for ADHD, and so many things began to make sense. Like when I was in the 8th grade, and my teacher told my mom that I was the smartest girl in the class, but that I had “an 8-track mind”…I’d be carrying on a conversation with the kid in behind me, the one on my left and the one on my right, doodling and writing notes, all while doing my French homework under my desk and still keeping up with the class I was in. She would try to catch me not paying attention, but I’d get the answer right or be able to read the next paragraph out loud without skipping a beat. I’d get my whole desk dragged out into the hallway as punishment for talking in class and distracting the other kids who weren’t able to operate at that level. Truth is, I was bored, but I kept myself busy. LOL.

    I also started remembering things like how panicked I’d get about writing a High School term paper…with notes and quotes and citations on little pieces of paper all over my floor – wall to wall disorganization and stress. I just couldn’t start writing it for weeks. Then, a couple of days before the deadline, I’d start writing and go for 23 hours straight and produce an A+ dissertation. Looking back, I see it so clearly, but nobody thought to get me help for my anxiety, because I aced everything and I made friends. I just didn’t do it in a neurotypical way.

    So the school and work stuff came easy, albeit circuitously. But emotionally, I was crippled by fear of being found out, or doing something wrong. My perfectionism robbed me entirely of a light-hearted childhood and also of participating in the fun stuff, like really getting into sports or drama or music, etc. I was terrified of not being able to do something well, so I didn’t try at all. And after holding all these fears and emotions inside for weeks and weeks, I’d throw an all out tantrum that would end in tears of frustration. I also have always been hypersensitive to the point of distraction with itchy clothing tags, wrinkled socks, and bright lights, which makes sense now.

    So sorry for the long (cathartic) comment. Ten years into diagnosis, I’ve figured a few things out. I still struggle seriously with impulsivity and interrupting, extreme sensitive dysphoria and anger issues. But now I recognize these things as my ADHD acting out, not a personality disorder. I’m learning to control it and to apologize when I don’t. And I can laugh at myself when I create a 50-page client website in 3 days of sheer mania. It’s a gift, after all. The vacuuming can wait.

  9. Hey uh does anybody know what a good adhd community is for a highschool age girl i just learned my mom was hiding it from me last year so im really trying to understand my self

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