10 Signs of ADHD Masking in Adults and How to Stop

When you were growing up, did you hear any of the following?

List of common remarks aimed at ADHD children growing up.

Hearing comments like these can trigger shame, guilt, poor self-esteem, and may even cause trauma. Hearing comments like this over and over can cause a child to adapt their behaviour and hide their true selves. This is the beginning of masking.

What Is ADHD Masking?

In a nutshell, ADHD masking is when someone with ADHD hides their symptoms from the outside world. This could be done deliberately, or outside their conscious awareness.

Masking is presenting a different persona with different behaviours to what comes naturally to the person with ADHD. It’s putting on a mask for a performance to help blend in.

There could be multiple masks for different situations.
For example, a mask for work may look like hiding the anxiety of deadlines, resisting the urge to bounce your leg in meetings, or trying not to react to the multiple office noises that are making it difficult to concentrate.

You may have another mask for polite social situations, which may look like keeping a smile on your face to appear friendly, resisting the urge to interrupt, or working hard to focus on what the other person is saying and trying to not to get distracted.

Quote about masking ADHD by Connor DeWolfe from TikTok.

Why Do People With ADHD Mask?

There could be many reasons why someone masks their ADHD, but most will be linked back to shame. When you feel as though you stand out like a sore thumb and don’t belong, it can leave you feeling vulnerable, lonely, and isolated.
Some of the symptoms can be seen externally, such as fidgeting or struggling to stay seated, stimming, or interrupting. Some are internal but can still be noticeable, such as daydreaming, forgetfulness, or struggling to maintain attention.

If you’re told over and over certain behaviours aren’t acceptable, you may choose (consciously or unconsciously) to adapt and hide those behaviours, so you begin to mask them.

Depending on how your ADHD presents (inattentive, hyperactive-impulsive, or combined), you will have various symptoms clustering mostly in their subsets (combined will blend a mixture of inattentive and hyperactive).

Many inattentive types don’t have any “outward” symptoms and tend to internalise their symptoms, which makes them much more difficult to identify for diagnosis.
Children with ADHD are much more likely to be victims of bullying. Here is an example of masking:

Quote about masking to hide ADHD symptoms to avoid being bullied in school.

What Are the Signs of ADHD Masking?

List of signs of masking ADHD symptoms.

Is Masking Harmful?

For some, (especially women and AFAB individuals), many individuals aren’t diagnosed with ADHD until adulthood, because they mask so well.
This means they won’t receive treatment, or therapy for ADHD. It may also lead to additional comorbidities (having more than one disorder/disease/illness/medical condition at the same time) such as anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar, OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), and personality disorders such as EUPD (emotionally unstable personality disorder). Either they develop these additional disorders as a result of undiagnosed ADHD, or the ADHD is presenting as one or more of these disorders. This may lead to incorrect medication and treatment.

Masking how much you can handle may mean that others won’t be able to tell when you’re struggling, so you may end up taking on too much. This is especially dangerous if you struggle to be able to say no. this could lead to pushing yourself too far which will take a serious toll on your health and may also lead to ADHD burnout.

It uses a lot of energy to mask- maintaining different personas, rehearsing what to say before speaking, constantly monitoring your posture and expressions, working harder to try blocking out external stimuli in the middle of a conversation, – phew, it’s exhausting just thinking about all the different steps! This can lead to burnout, resentment and anger.
Your confidence and self-esteem may also be affected: “Why can’t people just accept me for who I am? Why am I not good enough?”

An example of what it’s like to mask consciously is by imagining how it feels to work in the customer service industry, or as a flight attendant. Their outward appearance down to their impeccably tidy uniform, their hair, their makeup, is all for the sake of looking professional. They are told to smile, make eye contact, be approachable and friendly to help make sales and enforce a positive look for the business they represent. If a customer is difficult, they work hard to keep the mask in place and remain professional. It’s tiring work as they have to keep it up the whole time they are on duty.

How Do I Stop Masking?

As mentioned earlier, it can be difficult after so many years of masking to work out who the real “you” may be.
Perhaps you’ve tried on multiple occasions to let the real you emerge, “minus the filter”. This may have popped out during nights out having a few drinks, leaving you wincing with remorse and shame the following day, vowing to not let your guard down again. The mask may also slip when we are exhausted, overwhelmed, or emotions are heightened, and while it’s okay to let your true self show through, it may leave you feeling exposed, vulnerable, and uncomfortable when it’s not by choice.

Where do you begin to start unmasking, and feel safe in doing so?

If you’ve only recently been diagnosed with ADHD, you may have only just discovered that you’ve been masking for all this time, so the first step is coming to terms with this new diagnosis.
If you haven’t been diagnosed yet but you suspect you have ADHD, start these steps anyway. Self-diagnosis is the first step in any path to diagnosis!

Questions to help explore feelings about receiving an ADHD diagnosis.

Take note of all the different thoughts that pop up surrounding your diagnosis, and the feelings associated with these thoughts.

Pay attention to yourself as you carry out your day to learn when you mask. Write down anything that arises (perhaps on your phone or make a voice note), such as when you felt angry in the shop because the Tannoy kept making announcements when you were trying to concentrate, or when you find yourself trying not to dance to a song you like in the queue in case people thought you were “weird”.

Once you notice your masking patterns, you can start to work out a) how to find a better way to cope with the situation rather than masking, and b) what situations make you feel as though you aren’t “good enough.”

Ask yourself who are these people around you, for example in the queue. What would happen if you did allow yourself to sway to the music?

Perhaps some people would give you funny looks, others may smile, or feel compelled to sway too.

Regardless of the outcome, in a few minutes, you’ll be out of the shop, with the moment being over. You’ll go on with your life, they will go on with theirs, and it will all be forgotten.

The Lead Character

You are the lead character in your own story, as other people are in theirs. The person behind you in the queue has a tiny, bit part which will have absolutely no relevance to your overall story arc. And the same can be said about you but reversed- they are the lead roles in their lives, and you are the person with the tiny part that perhaps caught their notice briefly.

Your close friends, partner, and family members have larger starring roles in your life, depending on how close you are with them. These are the people who matter, and will influence your life, and vice-versa.

How will the people you’re closest to feel if they found out you’d spent most of your life feeling unable to be your true self? Perhaps they already see the complete you (or varying degrees) without the mask.

If you need to stim in public to self-soothe or wear headphones and sunglasses in the supermarket to help you to feel comfortable, what’s stopping you?

Make Connections

It might help to find other people who have also been diagnosed to talk to, such as on forums, Facebook groups, or Reddit. Connecting with the ADHD community helps to normalise your experience- you aren’t alone in this! You may also learn various useful tips and coping strategies too.

If you want to take steps toward finding who you are behind the mask, you may want to consider working with a therapist.
The right therapist can help towards learning how to build confidence and self-esteem, replacing masking with healthier coping mechanisms, and exploring unmasking in a safe, judgement-free environment.

Finally, be gentle with yourself. I know this is not easy for many people, but self-compassion can be a very important step towards unmasking by learning to accept who you are without the mask.

I hope this blog post has helped shine a light on ADHD and masking, get in touch if you have any questions or comments!

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Other Links on the Topic:

How I Passed As Neurotypical For So Long (ADHD Surprise)

ADHD masking (because you feel like a fake adult) (Get In Flow)

ADHD Masking: 21 Symptoms & Strategies To Help (Ready Kids)

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