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ADHD Masking: What is it? (Part 1)

Updated: Apr 11, 2023

This article is part 1 of a multi-part series that explores some common examples of ADHD masking behaviours. This isn’t an exhaustive list as ADHD masking will look and function differently for everyone. Everybody will use masking behaviours at some point in their lives, and masking is not unique to ADHD. If you recognise some signs of masking in yourself, please remember that you’re not alone and that support is out there.

What is masking?

Masking behaviours are strategies we all sometimes use to help blend into the situation by hiding a part of ourselves. They can come up when we want to fit in or say the right thing when we’re at work, with our friends, or with our family.

For example, we might put on a ‘mask’ and pretend that we’re really interested in a boring work presentation because our boss or an important client is there. We might sometimes act like we’re excited at a party or family gathering but deep down we would have preferred staying at home.

Everybody will ‘mask’ in certain situations, but for adults with ADHD or other types of neurodivergence, masking is often used as a coping mechanism to fit in and hide their symptoms on a daily basis.

What is ADHD masking and how does it affect us?

ADHD masking involves a mix of impression management and compensation strategies used as a way to cope with ADHD symptoms and to fit into the situation. It can involve ‘acting’ like we don’t have ADHD and overcompensating for symptoms because we’re worried we’ll be too annoying, too loud, be seen as lazy at work, or miss an appointment.

It can feel like we need to constantly be on, to put on a show, or to act like we are someone else so that we don’t get ‘found out’ and feel rejected.

ADHD masking often happens automatically and unintentionally, and we may not even realise when we are masking. But ADHD masking can take a lot of energy to keep up and it can leave us feeling really anxious, frustrated, drained, or overwhelmed.

When left unchecked, overuse of masking strategies can also leave us feeling quite isolated, misunderstood, and depressed. So it’s really important that we learn to recognise when we might be masking so that we can figure out if it’s working for us in the moment or if it’s taking us off course.

What does ADHD masking look like?

Masking will look different for everyone and can be helpful or unhelpful in different situations. For example, arriving 1 hour early to an important medical appointment could be very helpful if you tend to run late for things. But always arriving 1 hour early for every meeting or every catch up with your friends can start to become unhelpful.

I’ve put together a short list of common ADHD masking strategies that can come up at work, with friends, or at home. See if you recognise any of these examples and please let me know if there’s one we can add to this list:

At work or school, ADHD masking can look like:

  • Worrying about making mistakes or saying the wrong thing so you spend lot of time reading and re-reading your email or work.

  • Hiding excess energy or a feeling of inner restlessness by spending a lot of effort to present as calm and composed.

  • Taking on extra responsibilities so you’re not seen as lazy even though you feel overwhelmed by the workload.

  • Focusing really hard on a conversation to avoid distractions, jumping ahead, or missing info.

  • Obsessively organising your desk, your email inbox, or paperwork to try to focus and present as organised.

  • Writing down everything you hear in a meeting or class so that you don’t forget the details.

  • Hiding the fact that a 15-minute task took you 2 hours of panicked work because you don’t want to be seen as incompetent.

  • Staying quiet or avoiding asking questions because you’re worried someone might think you talk too much.

With friends or at home, ADHD masking can look like:

  • Trying to stay quiet or planning what you will say next when talking to other people so that you can avoid overtalking or interrupting others.

  • Checking that you have your phone, wallet, or keys on you over and over again because you’re worried you’ll lose them.

  • Worrying that you left the door unlocked or the stove on and feeling the urge to keep double-checking.

  • Telling people you’re ‘fine’ even though you know you’re struggling.

  • Worrying that people will see you as disorganised and messy, so you spend hours deep cleaning your place before someone comes over.

  • Stressing about missing an appointment so you arrive hours earlier and feel anxious all day leading up to the appointment.

  • Suppressing your reactions and minimising how you feel when with your friends.

  • Labouring over buying something online for weeks to compensate for the times you made an impulsive purchase.

  • Spending hours planning a trip or event down to the last detail and then double-checking you have everything.

  • Cancelling on plans because you’re worried about running late or how you might act.

  • Avoiding inviting people over because you’re worried your house is a mess and what they might think about you.

Wrapping up

Everybody will use masking behaviours at some point in their lives. But for people with ADHD, masking can feel like an overwhelming and constant drain on us. When used in moderation, some ADHD masking strategies can help us effectively navigate the world around us. But when we start to feel like we need to mask all the time, or when we don’t even realise we are using them, ADHD masking can start to really get in the way of leading the life you want to lead.

If you notice signs of ADHD masking, and it's starting to take a toll on you, please remember that you're not alone and that support is out there. Working with an ADHD Psychologist can help you notice when you might be masking and can also help you build coping skills that work for you.

Check out Part 2 of the series here which looks at the impact of ADHD masking in more detail.


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