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5 Things You Never Knew About ADHD Masking

In a world that often demands conformity, many individuals navigate their lives with an extraordinary ability to mask the challenges posed by ADHD.
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5 Things You Never Knew About ADHD Masking

07/01/2024
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In a world that often demands conformity, many individuals navigate their lives with an extraordinary ability to mask the challenges posed by ADHD.

ADHD masking involves concealing symptoms, adapting to societal expectations, and projecting an image that aligns with neurotypical norms. It can take many forms, but all ADHD masking behaviours have one thing in common: they act as a coping mechanism, camouflaging real struggles below the surface. For instance:

  • Alex, an adult with ADHD, works in a bustling corporate environment. On the surface, he appears organised, punctual, and engaged in meetings. However, inside, Alex channels tremendous energy into suppressing impulsivity and hyperactivity, often exhausting himself by the day’s end.
  • Then there’s university student Emma. She excels academically; but everyday she stresses over juggling assignments, social interactions, and extracurricular activities, hiding the constant toll on her well-being, and all while projecting an image of ease and confidence.
  • Jake is a bright and creative 10-year-old child with ADHD who, despite some struggles with schoolwork, manages to charm his teachers and peers. He’s learned to deploy humour to deflect attention from his difficulties with focus and impulsivity, and his bubbly personality becomes a smokescreen.

If any of these behaviours sound familiar, consider seeking a private ADHD assessment with The ADHD Centre. Or, if you’d like to learn more about ADHD masking, read on as we explore it in more depth.

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What Exactly is ADHD Masking?

Masking is itself not exclusive to ADHD. It is a nuanced phenomenon, wherein individuals consciously or unconsciously suppress or alter their true behaviours and symptoms to fit into social norms.

It’s a coping strategy developed in response to societal expectations, which often favour neurotypical behaviour.

At its core, ADHD masking is a survival strategy, allowing individuals to navigate diverse environments without drawing attention to their neurodivergent traits. This involves the concealment of traits associated with ADHD, such as impulsivity, hyperactivity, distractibility, and difficulty with organisation.

Individuals may adopt coping mechanisms to blend in, displaying a level of focus, organisation, or restraint that veils their true cognitive processes. This phenomenon extends beyond adulthood, affecting children and students who, consciously or unconsciously, adapt their behaviour to meet expectations imposed by their surroundings.

Some Typical ADHD Masking Behaviours

  • Imitating the behaviour of others in social groups / situations
  • Perfectionism
  • Holding back emotions, even intense ones, instinctually
  • Maintaining an appearance of coolness while your mind races
  • Repeatedly checking your bag to make sure you didn’t forget something
  • Reacting in a way you think people expect you to
  • An inability to relax before an appointment, even with plenty of time
  • Feigning illness to avoid certain people / places / situations
  • Suppressing a restless leg
  • Feeling the need to always appear in control
  • Berating yourself at the onset of boredom or tiredness
  • Taking great pains to listen to everything someone says
  • Acting ‘fine’ and not acknowledging a problem in a relationship
  • Constantly biting your tongue to avoid over-talking or interrupting
  • Obsessive cleaning
  • Creating complex systems (eg., with paperwork) to make sure you can always find something
  • Overcompensating for your own ‘shortfalls’

The Role of Anxiety & Depression

While anxiety and depression are themselves not strictly masking behaviours, they can often conceal ADHD symptoms in a similar way.

The relationship between ADHD and depression and/or anxiety is complex and often intertwined. Individuals with ADHD may be more susceptible to developing comorbid conditions such as depression and anxiety due to the challenges and frustrations associated with managing ADHD symptoms. Here are some things to remember:

  • ADHD, depression, and anxiety share certain neurobiological factors, such as imbalances in neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. This can contribute to both ADHD and mood disorders.
  • ADHD-related struggles at school, work, or in relationships can contribute to feelings of frustration and low self-esteem, which may elevate or exacerbate the risk of depression and anxiety.
  • Executive function deficits (difficulties planning, organising, and regulating emotions), a hallmark of ADHD, may contribute to challenges in coping with stressors, potentially triggering symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Emotional dysregulation, commonly observed in ADHD, involves intense and often impulsive emotional responses. This emotional variability can contribute to mood disorders.
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5 Things You Never Knew About ADHD Masking

…as one reader who grew up with undiagnosed ADHD said: ‘Pretending to be ‘normal’ seemed the only way to survive.’ This pretence actually interrupts thriving with ADHD and co-existing conditions.

ADDitude

Research into the nature of masking, both from an ADHD and a wider neurodivergent perspective, is ongoing. Often, specific behaviours and presentations are unique to the individual, making it difficult to draw any sweeping conclusions.

With that said, new findings do reveal some tendencies and correlations in ADHD masking

1. It Can Increase the Risk of Substance Abuse

The challenges associated with ADHD, such as impulsivity, inattention, and emotional dysregulation, can lead individuals to seek ways to cope with these difficulties. Some may turn to substances like alcohol or drugs as a form of self-medication to alleviate struggles.

For instance, stimulant substances might provide a short-term boost in focus or energy, creating an illusion of improved attention. This masking effect can make it challenging to recognise and address underlying ADHD.

Or substances may be employed as a way to navigate certain interactions more comfortably, providing a temporary escape from social challenges.

2. It Can Lead to Dissociation, Or a Confused Sense of Self

ADHD masking not only conceals the condition’s core symptoms but can also contribute to dissociation and a distorted sense of self.

Individuals engaged in ADHD masking often find themselves in a perpetual state of adaptation, constantly adjusting their behaviours to conform to societal expectations. This ongoing effort to fit in can lead to a fragmented sense of identity, where the true self becomes obscured by the various personas adopted for different situations.

Similarly, dissociation – a coping mechanism in which individuals detach from their authentic emotions or experiences – allows individuals to navigate social expectations and challenges without fully confronting underlying struggles.

Individuals may internalise the idea that their ‘real’ self is unacceptable or flawed, fostering a sense of disconnection from their true identity. This internal conflict can lead to feelings of confusion, low self-esteem, and a constant search for validation.

3. Girls & Women Are More Likely to Mask ADHD

ADHD masking exhibits notable gender disparities, research shows, with girls and women more likely to employ these coping mechanisms.

Females are frequently socialised to prioritise conformity, politeness, and the avoidance of disruptive behaviours. As a result, girls with ADHD may internalise the need to mask their symptoms.

This less conspicuous presentation can lead to underdiagnosis and a heightened inclination to engage in masking behaviours, to cope with academic and social expectations.

Girls and women with ADHD often face an inflated fear of stigmatisation and judgement due to societal misconceptions surrounding the disorder. The desire to fit in and avoid potential criticism can contribute to the prevalence of masking behaviours among females with ADHD.

4. It Internalises Stress, Triggers Imposter Syndrome, & Can Lead To Burnout

Masking ADHD symptoms demands continuous effort and vigilance, often creating a chronic state of heightened stress. The need to navigate social expectations, academic demands, and workplace norms while concealing one’s true struggles, can lead to the internalisation of stress.

This internalised stress may manifest physically and emotionally, contributing to a range of health issues.

Individuals who engage in ADHD masking often grapple with imposter syndrome, a psychological phenomenon where individuals doubt their abilities and fear being exposed as frauds.

The persistent need to present a facade of neurotypicality can fuel imposter syndrome, as individuals question their authenticity and worry about being “found out.” This psychological burden further complicates their mental and emotional well-being.

Ultimately, this can all add up to ADHD burnout: emotional exhaustion, reduced performance, and a sense of detachment.

5. It Is Linked To Hyperawareness & a Need For Perfectionism

ADHD masking often intertwines with hyperawareness and a relentless pursuit of perfectionism, creating a challenging dynamic for individuals. Here’s a closer look at that connection:

Hyperawareness:

Individuals engaged in masking behaviours often develop hyperawareness of their surroundings, social cues, and their own actions. This heightened awareness stems from the constant effort to align with neurotypical expectations.

Unfortunately, this hyperawareness can lead to increased anxiety, as individuals become acutely attuned to potential deviations from social norms, intensifying the pressure to conform.

Need for Perfectionism:

Masking ADHD may also fuel a perfectionist mindset. The fear of being perceived as different or inadequate can drive individuals to set unattainable standards for themselves, as well as others around them.

Striving for perfection becomes a coping mechanism to navigate a world that may not fully understand or accommodate their neurodivergent experiences. However, the pursuit of perfection can be exhausting and contribute to elevated stress levels.

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How To Move Past ADHD Masking Behaviours

It’s a big step, and one that requires courage – but overcoming ADHD masking brings individuals towards more genuine social connections, understanding of oneself, and a mindset equipped to navigate the world authentically.

It starts with acknowledging and accepting your neurodivergent identity. Embrace your unique strengths and challenges associated with ADHD; understanding your neurodiversity is a powerful first step toward cultivating self-compassion.

From here, seek a holistic approach to ADHD management. A comprehensive treatment plan may include a combination of:

To get started on the journey, book your assessment today.

ADHD Masking FAQs

What is ADHD masking, and how does it differ from typical behaviour?

ADHD masking involves consciously or unconsciously concealing ADHD symptoms to fit into societal norms. Individuals may mirror neurotypical behaviours to navigate social situations, making it challenging to recognise underlying ADHD traits. Unlike intentional deception, masking often stems from a desire for acceptance and coping with neurodivergent challenges.

Can ADHD masking lead to mental health issues?

Yes, ADHD masking is associated with heightened risks of anxiety, depression, and burnout. Constantly adapting to neurotypical expectations can lead to stress, triggering mental health concerns. Addressing ADHD masking behaviours is crucial for preventing long-term emotional and psychological impact.

How does ADHD masking affect self-esteem and authenticity?

ADHD masking can erode self-esteem as individuals may feel compelled to hide their true selves, fostering a sense of inadequacy. Embracing authenticity involves breaking free from masking, promoting self-discovery, and fostering a positive self-image.

Are there specific ADHD masking behaviours more common in girls or women?

Research suggests that girls and women are more likely to engage in camouflaging or masking behaviours. This may include mimicking social cues, suppressing hyperactive behaviours, and internalising stress. Recognising these gender-specific aspects of ADHD masking is essential for accurate diagnosis and tailored interventions.

How can someone overcome ADHD masking?

Moving past ADHD masking involves self-acceptance, seeking a holistic treatment approach, connecting with supportive communities, and undergoing a professional ADHD assessment. Combining these strategies empowers individuals to embrace authenticity, navigate challenges, and build a more fulfilling life.

Is ADHD masking the same as intentionally hiding symptoms?

ADHD masking is distinct from intentional deception. It often arises from the internalised pressure to conform and navigate a neurotypical world successfully. Unlike intentional hiding, individuals engaging in ADHD masking may not always be aware of these behaviours.

Can ADHD masking impact relationships?

Yes, ADHD masking can impact relationships by creating a gap between the outward appearance and internal experience. Partners, family, and friends may not fully understand the challenges faced, leading to strained connections. Open communication, education, and mutual support are essential for fostering understanding and connection.

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