We’re experts at camouflaging.
Certain behavioural norms are entrenched in society. Things like being still when someone speaks to you, looking directly at someone addressing you, being patient while waiting your turn, being polite, saying the right thing at the right time.
While this is especially true for childhood, when we mature, the expectation of behaving the ‘right’ way can be even more demanding: not being overly emotional, having an aptitude at organising and prioritising your actions, completing things by due dates, arriving on time, not blurting things out, being tactful. The list is significant.
Masking is a coping strategy used by many of us with ADHD to navigate the challenges that come with having a different ‘operating system’. It involves consciously and unconsciously compensating for traits, symptoms and challenges by hiding or suppressing certain behaviours in an attempt to fit into societal norms or avoid judgment.
ADHD traits/symptoms that people tend to hide
These are some common ADHD traits that adults try to conceal.
Difficulty recalling information, names of people, places, or events, when needed
A strong urge to move the body or parts of the body (this is where stimming comes in)
The compulsion to talk excessively (many people with ADHD are high ‘verbal processors’ - which means that talking is a way to organise their thoughts)
Frustration at the slow pace of certain activities or conversations, having to wait
Emotional intensity - feeling things much more ‘extra’ than the average person
Overwhelm in sensory-intense situations and environments.
Masking has a place
Masking can be useful in managing day-to-day responsibilities and maintaining relationships. It can help us navigate environments and meet societal norms. Presenting ourselves as neurotypical is an effort to gain acceptance and avoid shame and judgement. And there’s no shame in that. It can also be a way to manage symptoms.
What masking looks like
Masking is often not obvious to anyone else. However it’s palpable to the user. Some examples of masking are:
Pretending you’re okay in sensory-intense situations and environments when you’re actually struggling and feel overwhelmed
Holding back saying things for fear of being seen as oversharing, talking too much, interrupting, hogging the limelight
Pushing down big feelings in an effort to appear even keeled, controlled and ‘mature’
Pinching yourself so as not to zone out or miss information when listening to someone
Routinely extra-efforting as a way of overcompensating for your challenges that no one else sees (perfectionism)
Pretending you’ve understood or heard something so as not to appear incompetent or disinterested
Adopting characteristics of other people/team members in order to fit in
Saying yes to doing more and taking extra responsibilities in an effort to be liked and as a way to make up for your deficiencies
Cancelling plans or taking sick days to avoid unpleasant, boring, or difficult tasks, people or situations
While masking is useful - otherwise we wouldn’t do it - hiding and overcompensating has drawbacks. By constantly concealing our true selves, people with ADHD who mask may experience a sense of inauthenticity and internal conflict. This constant effort to appear "normal" can lead to feelings of exhaustion, burnout and imposter syndrome.
Moreover, relying heavily on masking as a coping mechanism may hinder personal growth and prevent us from seeking appropriate support or accommodations for our ADHD symptoms.
It’s important to find a balance between managing our differences through strategies like masking while also embracing our strengths and seeking understanding and willingness to accommodate our differences from others.