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“Life on Mars: Why Peopling Is a Mystery to Me”

“When your interactions with other kids are severely lacking because other children run away from you on the playground, you never learn to fix your broken social skills. Like me, you walk through life baffled and wondering, ‘What did I do?’ or ‘Why did I say the wrong thing?’”

Alien on Earth
Photo by Michaël Meyer

I have ADHD, and I worry.

Like 25-40% of people with ADHD, I have an anxiety disorder. This isn’t a coincidence. People with ADHD are “consistently inconsistent,” and we never know when our symptoms will manifest. And so we worry. For some of us, that worry becomes a chronic condition. For others, that worry isn’t a disorder, but it surfaces regularly. For most of us, it seems, our worry is inextricably tied to social situations — and it’s been that way since childhood.

Peopling sucks. I am not good at peopling. Many of us with ADHD, even those who are labeled extroverts, are not good at peopling. We are good at pretending to people effectively, then coming home and collapsing with the mental effort of pretending to people effectively.

My anxiety disorder is probably (mostly) social. At some point in their lives, 12% of adults will experience social anxiety disorder. Symptoms of this include a fear of conversations with people other than your immediate family or very close social circle; trouble making and keeping friends (oh yeah); an intense fear that people are judging you (you are judging me right now); feeling very self-conscious around people and in front of them (I will not walk to the mailbox without eyeliner); and experiencing panic attacks triggered by social situations.

We’re always scared we’ll mess up socially. And, well, a lot of us do. Regularly.

[Read: ADHD and Social Isolation – Why Women with ADD Feel So Alone]

Social Executive Functions and ADHD

Real talk: people with ADHD already have difficulty with executive functioning. This difficulty hinders our emotional control. We have trouble with working memory and with metacognition, or self-awareness. All these things help smooth social interactions. They tell us when to start talking and when to shut up. They tell us how much a person is interested in something and when to change topics; they tell us when to stop sharing details about our personal lives. They tell us when someone actually likes us and when they really don’t. They tell us what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.

Maybe, like me, you find all these things a complete and total mystery, and you wonder if this is why you have very few real friends. Maybe, also like me, you find social interactions totally draining (even if people claim you’re an extrovert). And maybe sometimes you also suddenly find yourself talking — and no one’s listening. People look at you weird, but you have no idea why. If you could just put your finger on that why, it seems like you could solve everything.

That why, of course, is ADHD. Beyond that, everything gets murky.

Growing Up ADHD

A person doesn’t suddenly and magically develop ADHD. An adult with ADHD has always had ADHD. Their working memory has never been the same as a neurotypical person’s. They’ve always struggled with emotional control and metacognition. They’ve always been prone to impulsivity and maybe hyperactivity. The ingredients that make social interaction difficult have been around since childhood.

And children can be mean little goblins.

Many of us probably grew up as that kid, and you know exactly which kid I mean. You were the “spacey” kid who talked too much or the loud kid who wouldn’t stop getting into trouble. Throw in rejection sensitivity dysphoria — “the tendency to personalize ambiguous social interactions, interpret them negatively,” then find it impossible to regulate the ensuing emotions, which often leads to children with ADHD facing criticism for being “overly sensitive” — and you have a Perfect Storm for bullying. Of course, every kid with ADHD isn’t bullied. But we do face social ostracism more often than most other children, especially when we miss common social cues.

[Read: When Your Kid is “That Kid” – Social Exclusion & ADHD]

Guess when people learn the basics of proper social interaction — things like conversational turn-taking, oversharing, topic changing, and the proper way to answer someone who’s unhappy? They learn these things during childhood, and they usually learn them through interactions with other children. When your interactions with other kids are severely lacking because other children run away from you on the playground, you never learn to fix your broken social skills.

Like me, you walk through life baffled. You’re constantly wondering, “What did I do?” or “Why did I say the wrong thing?” I recently realized that when a neurotypical person tells you about something that happened to them, you should not reply with a bridge sentence like, “That’s so awesome!” then tell an anecdote about yourself that relates to their story in an attempt to connect. Neurotypical people think this is very rude. You should instead validate their story with words like, “Wow, that’s awesome! Tell me more!” A response that, to us, means, “I understand you, here’s how,” they read as “I am selfish and trying to take over this conversation.”

I don’t want to tell you how old I was when I learned that. Most children pick it up before high school.

Peopling Is Not Getting Easier

We were awkward children, and we grow into awkward adults. No wonder we have social anxiety. We are anxious about social situations because we are not good at social situations. They leave us confused and hurt. We start talking and people talk over us. We don’t know when to talk. We don’t know how much to talk. It’s mentally exhausting and even if we manage it, we want to collapse into a gooey puddle afterward. I come home and hide in my enormous Vans hoodie, watch David Bowie videos, and pretend I don’t have to leave the house ever again.

I’m not handing out a magic solution. Believe me, if I had it, I would. But if you’re that adult with ADHD who can’t people properly, you’re not alone. I know how much it hurts. I know it has hurt for a very, very long time, and you’ve never known what, exactly, you were doing wrong. Reading some essays about it can help — though some of these relate to autism, they can still cue you in to neurotypical social behavior. I finally looked my therapist in the eye and said, “My ADHD hurts my interactions with other people, and I’m sick of it. Can you help teach me how people expect me to act?”

I don’t want to be neurotypical. I like myself the way I am, thanks. But in some social situations? Faking neurotypical would save me a lot of stress, exhaustion, and anxiety. And maybe, after parties, I wouldn’t curl up in a giant hoodie and watch “Starman” ‘til I fall asleep.

Social Anxiety and ADHD: Next Steps

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3 Comments & Reviews

  1. From another point of view- peopling in a neurotypical world is exhausting when we care about what they think. I know it’s hard to “live for you”, it’s hard to shut off the RSD feels when you’re trying to do what’s in your best interest while out and about. Even when you know -how- to behave and what they expect, sometimes (very often for me bc of pain) i simply do not have the energy to spare on people i do not have a vested interest in. I barely have enough energy for myself and spending that energy on interactions with strangers is simply not worth it.
    My wish to be better able to manage my RSD feels so living for me doesn’t leave me feeling so drained by the perceived expectations and real of others.

  2. I hear people say all the time how we shouldn’t care what other people think and I’ve only recently realized they’re talking about something else entirely. When *I* care about what people think I am overwhelmed and disabled by that feeling. It can ruin me emotionally and mentally. I call it an affliction because that’s what it feels like!

  3. Oh man, this hits home 100%.

    I remembered that my parents gave me my old grade school report cards. All of it is there.

    I was bullied (or ignored/avoided) through most of middle school onward). 5th grade was particularly bad. Teacher reported crying in school weekly and other issues that I can now recognize as a little kid dealing with rejection sensitive dysphoria.

    I grew out of some things but the whole thing about ‘faking neurotypical’ resonates strongly. It’s fun to go to parties, but not so much to hear about others, but as a chance to be a stage actor for a day and be proud of myself for successfully doing neurotypical social things. Then I go home and collapse.

    Was recently diagnosed at age 53. 53!
    Getting help for it now. Knowing is half the battle.

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