The Scoop on ADHD and Masking
THE SCOOP ON ADHD AND MASKING
Lately, it seems like whenever I’m scrolling IG or YouTube. I keep running into posts about ADHD and masking. I brought up masking recently in emails, but I want to do a full-on deep dive here. It is such a hot topic in the ADHD community, and I have the perfect story to get us started…
You know how sometimes you’ll look at something like a picture of a happy couple and think, aww, that’s so sweet, but when you look a little closer, it feels a little off?
Take this pic, for example:
It seems cute that he’s cuddling up to me with zero context, and I mean, that adorable face would melt anyone’s heart, right?
Well, that moment was definitely NOT cute. I was trying to work, and he kept alternating between turning off my computer and throwing things down the stairs. I had just finished fussing at him and sat back down to work when he came over with this innocent smile on his face, grabbed my arm, and proceeded to take a giant smelly poop.
In true ADHD fashion, this situation got me thinking about Masking and ADHD.
How we spend an enormous amount of energy pretending to be neurotypical so we can fit in. Yet things are always a bit “off,” and nothing is ever as simple as it looks from the outside. We seem like we have it all figured out, and we’re happy on the outside, but inside we feel like we’re that giant smelly s**t
WHAT IS MASKING AND ADHD?
You may be wondering, what the heck is masking? I don’t go around dressed for Halloween 365 days a year. Why is this even a conversation? Well, I believe the definition goes something like this:
When someone who is neurodivergent tries to cover their symptoms by copying other people's behaviors to avoid being bullied or excluded and conform to social expectations.
Ok yeah, that’s a mouthful. Simply put… Masking is a fancy word for hiding your ADHD symptoms so you can fit in.
It is a learned behavior, and it’s actually taught to us very early in life. Some of your earliest memories are likely the adults in your life telling you to sit still, use your inside voice, and don’t interrupt. Effectively telling you that your natural behavior is inappropriate.
We then internalize this message and start believing that being ourselves is not safe. Thus giving birth to our masks to protect ourselves. As time goes on, our mask changes and adapts to fit our roles in life and becomes so much a part of us we barely know where it ends, and we begin. This leads us to…
MASKING AND SELF-WORTH
On some level, I’ve always recognized it as a problem, even before finding out ADHD and masking were a thing. After I knew what it was, though, I was able to see how much destruction it caused in my life and in others who wore the mask long into adulthood.
I lived most of my life in fear that everyone would find out I was a fraud. Especially when I was in college and first starting out as a teacher. I had mini panic attacks every morning before school because I knew the “teacher” mask wasn’t sustainable.
My teacher mask looked like:
- Working later than everyone else to do paperwork and planning that everyone else did during our free period
- Smiling while accepting duties, even though I knew it meant coming in early or working all weekend
- Using strict suffocating routines to avoid “messing up.”
- Avoiding the teacher’s lounge during the day so I wouldn’t accidentally say the “wrong thing.”
- Mimicking other teacher’s tones and body language while in shared spaces
- Playing with the students at recess to get out my own excess energy and avoid “adulting” with my co-workers
It was miserable. I did the bare minimum to not look completely incompetent. During lunch, I cried in a dark classroom because I’d never “catch up,” and I’d always be one missed deadline away from being fired.
I tied my belief in my abilities, self-worth, and livelihood to maintaining this mask of a structured, high-functioning, high-achieving, neurotypical teacher. In truth, I was drowning in a way that was above and beyond the average beginner teacher.
Not because I wasn’t good at my job, lazy, or irresponsible, but because I had ADHD and was trying to do things in a way that actively worked against me.
It ended in a complete and utter mental and emotional breakdown. I walked in one day and just couldn’t stop crying. I walked out and never came back. I wish I could return to the old me and tell her that it was okay to admit her struggles. That her feelings were valid and she wasn’t a bad person for being frustrated and overwhelmed. I wish I had reached out because I could’ve found help sooner. And that’s…
THE PROBLEM WITH ADHD AND MASKING
The biggest problem with masking ADHD symptoms is the delay in treatment and, in many cases, diagnosis. My story is common as many parents, especially mothers, aren’t diagnosed until we’re forced to peek behind the mask as our child is diagnosed. We begin to question our own life and behavior as we see ourselves in our children.
Yet, even after discovering the truth of ADHD, many adults continue to mask for fear of repercussions at work or within their families. We don’t ask for help when we need it or seek out treatment.
We live with the story, “If anyone ever found out, I’d lose everything.”
Successful masking well into adulthood means you’ve fooled everyone into thinking you’re someone you’re not, and now if you drop it, you won’t know if they’ll still like you. Since your entire relationship is essentially built on a lie, even if an unintentional one.
This level of storytelling and secret-keeping is exhausting and leads to other mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and all-around stress. I can remember being a kid and trying so hard not to talk out of turn in class that I just didn’t talk at all.
I dreaded the inevitable secret sharing that came with close friendships. So much so that I avoided people altogether and told myself I just wasn’t a people person.
That's what ADHD and masking does... It isolates us from the people we care about. It prevents us from connecting with anyone because we're being "fake," and let's face it, we're terrible liars. We can't remember our own bs stories, much less anyone else’s, and definitely not who we told them to.
It's no wonder the mask causes anxiety and depression. You’re constantly afraid of being discovered as a phony and you’re left feeling lonely and sad. So, what can you do?
HOW TO DROP THE MASK
You don’t have to suffer in silence the way I did. Please, drop the mask and ask for help. Let people see that you are struggling so you can get the support you deserve.
I know that isn’t an easy feat. As I mentioned before, ADHD and masking becomes such a part of us that we don’t really know what it means to live without them. It’s also a safety issue. We can’t unmask until we feel safe to do so.
Working with a trained therapist and/or ADHD coach is the best and most successful route. It will take time and effort, but it is worth it to feel the release that comes from knowing who you are.
Since our masks are as diverse as we are, and their reasoning can be just as complicated, I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all solution to unmasking ADHD. However, here are a few universal truths to get you started in the right direction…
START SHIFTING YOUR WORTHINESS
You are so much more than your productivity. Your ability to perform in a world not designed for you is not what determines your worth and happiness. Lean into self-compassion and remind yourself that you can be a wonderful human being and still need a few extra days to turn in work. You can be exceptionally talented in your career and still require regular breaks from boring tasks, frequent time reminders, or any other accommodations that help you be your best self.
Let go of the shame and embrace all the quirky parts of yourself.
IDENTIFY THE HEALTHY AND UNHEALTHY BEHAVIORS
Not all masking behaviors are unhealthy. For instance, being able to plan effectively is often a masking behavior to compensate for a natural tendency to be disorganized. This is a valuable skill in almost all aspects of adult life. Yet, planning your life down to the minute to avoid mistakes is harmful. Take the time to journal or brain dump and look at what and how you’re masking. Ask yourself if some of these skills might benefit you if you used another way? What behaviors aren’t helpful at all?
FIND YOUR FUN
There’s a reason I have an entire lesson on your finding your fun in my group coaching program, Slay Your ADHD Day. Once we let the mask slip, we need to figure out who we really are. Take some time to think about things you’ve done, considered doing, or seen others do and get jealous. What would you do in a world with zero judgment or expectations? Then start small and try some things out.
FIND YOUR TRIBE
You’re not alone. There are people out there who will accept you as your authentic self. We can’t learn to feel safe until we start being ourselves around others. Find support groups and test out the Real YOU.
COMMUNITY SUPPORT FOR ADHD AND MASKING
Unmasking is one of the reasons I created the ADHD Mommy Community. It’s a place to be free, even for me. I don’t have to put on an act or censor myself when I’m around others like me. All I have to do is be Kami. In all my word vomiting, squirrel chasing, multi-passionate, loud, nerdy, awkwardness, I hope to show others it's okay to be themselves.
You won’t feel safe just because I tell you to. You won’t even feel safe just because you want to. You have to put yourself out there bit by bit, and acceptance by acceptance, you’ll chip away at the false front.
I ask you to take a minute today to look at the picture of your life without the neurotypical filter on. What incredible parts of you do you keep hidden, so no one will say you’re “too much?” How would it feel to drop the act and still be accepted?
And when you’re ready to let your beautiful light shine, I invite you to join our FB group ADHD Superheroes. We love every part of you 🤗 superpowers and struggles and everything in between 😍
I also want to take a moment to recognize that we might not be able to altogether drop our masks in every circumstance. The world is still not made for us, and unfortunately, being our naturally quirky selves may not be accepted in all spaces. This truth is another reason finding or creating a community is so important.
The more pockets we create that embrace diversity, the more it becomes normalized.
We can also make a conscious effort to raise awareness of these issues and speak out against discrimination of any kind when we see it. We may not see an end to ADHD and masking in our lifetimes, but our children or grandchildren might. And It all starts with us and what we do today. 🥰
Until next time….
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