ADHD masking is a coping skill that people may use to minimize the effects of their attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Living with ADHD can be a challenge and masking can help one alleviate feelings of insecurity tied to their diagnosis. While this tactic may seem helpful, it could lead to unwanted outcomes.
What Is ADHD Masking?
ADHD masking, a term coined by Russell Barkley, is the process of behaving in certain ways to conceal the symptoms of ADHD. A person can actively and intentionally mask, or it can be a subconscious behavior.1,2 If someone has become adept at masking, those they surround themselves with may never notice or know that one has an ADHD diagnosis. While these methods may allow a person to better blend into society, masking symptoms for too long can impede one’s happiness and well-being. It could also lead to someone denying or ignoring symptoms that are negatively impacting their life.
Is ADHD Masking Learned in Childhood?
ADHD masking is often a learned response to a person’s environment and perception of mental health. Individuals who view their diagnosis as a part of their identity may not feel the need to engage in these behaviors. However, others may be taught early on that their condition is something to be ashamed of, thus resulting in the adoption of masking tactics in childhood.2
“ADHD masking can begin as early as pre-adolescents, as this is a time one attempts to navigate social customs, norms, and figure out their own daily routine. The reasoning as to why this may occur is that we as people want to feel accepted and ‘fit in’ to what we believe are acceptable behaviors,” says therapist Catherine Nonnemacher M.S., LPC.
Alternatively, ADHD masking may not emerge until later in life. Consider a person whose symptoms do not affect them much until they reach college or start a new job. The same could be true for a person who leaves a supportive environment for one that is more rigid or critical. Depending on the setting, someone with ADHD may feel more or less inclined to participate in masking.
Can High Intelligence “Mask” ADHD Symptoms?
A person who is skilled at an assigned task may be able to compensate for the effects of their ADHD more easily than others. For example, someone may not exhibit instances of inattention, because they do well on tests; or, their hyperactivity may be ignored, because the person can complete assigned tasks.2 In these cases, a person is more likely to be diagnosed with adult-onset ADHD, even though symptoms could have been present since childhood.
Do Females With ADHD Mask More Than Males?
Studies show males are up to 16 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than females.3 This difference could be due to a variety of factors. ADHD symptoms in women may not be presented as openly or obviously as those in men. Typically, girls exhibit heightened symptoms of inattentiveness, as compared to hyperactivity in boys, resulting in their behaviors being less disruptive or noticeable.4
Which ADHD Symptoms & Behaviors Do People Try to Mask?
Masking is an individualized process. A person could desire to mask any and all symptoms or only ones they perceive as negative. In short, how a person masks will depend on their current environment, surroundings, and personal preferences.
People with ADHD might mask behaviors and symptoms like:1,4
- Making careless mistakes
- Difficulty concentrating
- Not listening to others
- Losing items easily
- Being forgetful
- Excessively talking and/or interrupting others
- Struggling to relax, unwind, or engage in leisure activities
Examples of ADHD Masking
ADHD masking can occur anywhere at any time and by anyone. One may engage in certain behaviors or blame their surroundings to distract from their mistakes and actions. Sometimes, how a person chooses to mask is not only harmful for them, but also those around them.
Here are some examples of ADHD masking:
- A man at work who makes careless mistakes could begin blaming others for his issues. He may even accuse his boss or coworkers of being responsible for his error.
- A child at school who struggles to pay attention could mask their symptoms by claiming that the content is too boring or easy. They could say it is not compelling enough to keep them interested.
- Another child who has trouble listening to their mother could make many educated guesses about what she was talking about. He could guess that she wanted him to clean his room, because she often repeats that command.
- An adult woman who constantly loses items may blame her children for her actions. She could complain that they are always misplacing her keys, even though they never touch them.
- A child at school may explain their fidgety behavior by claiming that their chair is too uncomfortable or clothes are too itchy.
- Someone who persistently interrupts others may attempt to mask this symptom by appearing as an energetic, happy, and engaged person. Some may see the behavior as endearing, and others may view it as annoying.
- An adult male who struggles to relax could claim that his inability to sit still is due to his tremendous motivation.
Impact of ADHD Masking
Ideally, ADHD masking would allow someone to feel more confident and in control of their symptoms. However, this regulation strategy can result in adverse effects, as well. A person who consistently masks may unknowingly impede their own diagnosis and, potentially, lose their sense-of-self.
Masking Can Delay a Diagnosis
When a person engages in masking, healthcare professionals and family members may struggle to recognize their symptoms of ADHD. This can delay or prevent an accurate diagnosis, thus limiting someone’s access to beneficial treatment.
Masking Can Make Someone Exhausted
Masking the symptoms of ADHD requires a substantial amount of effort and dedication. These processes can leave you feeling extremely fatigued and take away energy you could be using for other areas of your life.
Masking Can Keep People from Really Knowing You
Masking ADHD can seem a lot like pretending to be someone else. When you conceal your identity, it can be hard for other people to get to know you. In the worst situations, it can be hard for you to know yourself.
As Nonnemacher said, “The impact of this can lead to difficulty with being authentic to ourselves. Someone who is masking may present what they feel is acceptable when in reality they feel completely opposite. This can lead to a dissonance to our true selves and who we believe we should be. The impact can also affect one’s attitude toward goals and aspirations. Attempting to fit in can create perfectionistic tendencies, which is not always a conducive or healthy mindset.”
Coping With ADHD Masking
Masking over an extended period of time can be damaging to both your physical and emotional health. Exploring alternative ways of coping with ADHD can help you better manage symptoms, without losing your sense-of-self.
Look at Your Patterns
The first step in working towards a life free from masking is to take an honest and thorough look at how your ADHD symptoms and coping skills are affecting you. Identify the circumstances, settings, and triggers that influence you to begin masking. This process may be uncomfortable, but it will be worth it.
Consider Getting a Diagnosis & Support
Sometimes, self-reflection can show you that your ADHD is impacting your life more than you had originally thought. If this is the case, consider consulting with your doctor to receive a diagnosis and find out more about what treatments are available. Therapy and medication can help you better manage and address your symptoms.
Know Where the Stigma Comes From
Societal stigma around mental health may influence you to view certain ADHD symptoms in a negative light. Therapy can help you overcome this bias and better understand yourself. Celebrating neurodiversity can allow you to fully embrace your identity and live a fulfilling life as your true self.
Celebrate ADHD Strengths
While there are certain circumstances in which ADHD symptoms can prove problematic, you should never think of your diagnosis as a setback or disadvantage. Find the people, places, and circumstances that allow your ADHD to shine, like coming up with new creative ideas. There, you can celebrate, rather than hide, who you really are.
Separate Unhealthy vs Healthy Masking
At times, masking your ADHD can be a healthy and positive coping skill. For instance, using masking as a means of better focusing on projects or deadlines can be beneficial. However, in other circumstances, masking to conceal your personality can create a sense of shame. Be sure to explore other coping strategies in order to avoid developing a negative self-perception.
Develop Emotional Regulation Skills
Learning emotional regulation skills can be difficult, but will help you better handle your impulsivity. Understanding how to maintain thoughtful responses, actions, and reactions in tough situations is an important part of ADHD regulation.
While ADHD masking may seem like a positive action, it can quickly turn into a long term problem. If you’re struggling to cope with your symptoms of ADHD, working with a therapist can help you address emotions that are keeping you from being yourself. Professional treatment could be the best option for balancing your ADHD in healthy ways, now and in the future.
For Further Reading
- Learn About Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) | CDC
- NIMH » Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder | ADHD – MedlinePlus
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Health
- Inflow ADHD App Review