What is ADHD Masking? Plus, Examples & Solutions

What does it mean to be masking your ADHD?

Masking is something that many of us with ADHD do to conceal our symptoms.

For example, we might:

  • Overwork to hide that it takes us longer to complete a task.
  • Imitate others’ actions, how they talk, and what they do, in hopes of blending in.
  • Hold in our emotions because we’re afraid they’d be “too much” if people saw how we really felt.
woman hiding face with mask

We slip into this behavior – either knowingly or unknowingly – with hopes of “fitting” within the neurotypical world.

And when you pause to think about it, this desire to blend in makes sense.

As humans, we want to feel accepted.

We want to belong.

And we do everything we can to avoid standing out from the crowd.

So when our ADHD shows, many of us reach for our familiar masks to cover it up.

But here’s what I’ve found to be true.

Masking our ADHD symptoms and covering up who we truly are is exhausting.

And what’s more, it’s not necessary. 

Because you’re busy being awesome exactly as you are. 

And in episode 161 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast, we talk all about the practice of masking.

More specifically, we explore:

  • Why ADHD brains feel the need to mask
  • How to identify when we do it
  • And how to gently remove that mask and embrace the authentic, incredible version of you.

You can listen to the episode above or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here:   

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

In Episode 161: What is ADHD Masking, You Will Discover:

  • What masking is
  • Why ADHD brains feel the need to mask
  • How to identify when we do it
  • How to gently remove that mask and embrace the authentic, incredible version of you.

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Episode #161: What is ADHD Masking? Plus, Examples & Solutions (Transcript) 

What is ADHD masking? Woman with mask on.

Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. How are things going?

Today I have a topic that someone from our busy-awesome community suggested a few weeks ago. (And as a reminder, I am always thrilled to hear what topics are front and center for you right now, so please keep these ideas and requests coming!)

This topic this person suggested is one that’s been on my mind quite a bit as it’s something I’ve done a lot of work on myself throughout my journey navigating an ADHD brain. The topic is often recognized as “masking,” or camouflaging – I often call it shape-shifting or chameleon-ing.

When I explain what this means specifically, I think these terms will make sense.

what is ADHD Masking?

When I say masking or chameleon-ing, what do I mean?

Essentially, masking is a behavior that many people with ADHD adopt – both knowingly and unknowingly – in order actively hide or overcompensate for their symptoms associated with ADHD.

In other words, it’s the process of trying to cover up who we are as a person with ADHD in order to fit in with the neurotypical world.

So, we put on the mask of neurotypical behavior, or we shapeshift or act as a chameleon to blend in and not stand out so much.

Now, I do want to make a few caveats here before we dive into what this is all about.

1. We’re Using Masking in Reference to ADHD

First, from the research I’ve done and my understanding of the concept, the term masking first came from the Autism community, and the ADHD community resonated deeply with the concept.

With that being said, some people prefer to keep the term specifically for the Autism community while others share how the behavior does impact both groups, even if they show up for different reasons or in slightly different ways.

I do think words matter a lot. And it’s always my goal to show up with respect and as much awareness and understanding as possible.

When I’m talking about masking today, I am talking about the masking behaviors typical of adults with ADHD.

The information and examples that I share come from my research, my direct experiences as someone with ADHD, and from working with hundreds of ADHD clients. 

I also want to recognize that both the ADHD and Autism communities have a lot of connections and correlations, and I’m always learning and growing and doing my best to expand my knowledge and understanding. So if any information or terminology changes, or if I should start using a different language, I’ll do my best to make those adjustments going forward.

2. ADHD Masking is Not The Same as Creating Tools To Support Yourself

Second, shape-shifting or chameleon-ing or masking to cover up your symptoms of ADHD is not the same as creating tools and scaffolding to support yourself with ADHD.

So whether you manage your ADHD with medications, therapy, working with a coach, or anything else you’ve put in place to support your brain, this is not the same as masking.

We’ll talk about this below, but supporting your ADHD from a place of acceptance and love is much different than hiding and hustling and covering up who you are because you’re ashamed or anxious about what others will think of your symptoms.

I offer this second point because I think it’s a useful way to help decipher whether you are masking or shape-shifting to blend in or hide, or if you’re putting supports into place because you have goals you want to reach or projects you want to complete and this scaffolding makes it less challenging for your brain.

One often feels draining and can lead to burnout while the other feels supportive and loving to establish. And again, we’ll talk about this more throughout the episode.

So with all of that said, let’s dive in.

Let’s talk about:

  • Why ADHD brains feel the need to mask or shapeshift in our day-to-day life
  • What it can look like and how to spot it
  • The impacts masking can have
  • How you can start removing that mask and stepping more fully into the incredible, authentic version of you if that’s something you’re wanting to do.

Image shows Woman working on a laptop. Text reads: How to Stay Focused with ADHD Free Training. Click here to sign me up!

Why do we feel the need to mask our ADHD?

Why do we feel this need to mask our ADHD or chameleon into acting like everyone else?

First, there is a deep need for belonging and acceptance in the human brain.

Belonging is a need, not a want.

Thousands of years ago when we needed to live in the harsh elements and hunt and gather our own food for survival, ensuring that we fit in the community was paramount for survival. So it absolutely makes sense that your brain is seeking to “fit in” still today.

Also, due to the way many of us have been socialized, we’ve grown up with the belief that being productive and staying busy is a sign of success, and if we didn’t follow the typical rules to make that success happen, it was frowned upon.

If you didn’t learn the same way, work through ideas the same way, and follow through on your plans and goals the same way, you may have learned either implicitly or explicitly that there was a problem.

Building on that, some of us find we wrap up our sense of self-worth in our productivity as well.

This is something I coach on all the time with my clients; for many of us, it’s challenging to unlearn the belief that our self-worth as a human and what we check off a to-do list, or how many goals we’ve reached, or how much money we make have absolutely nothing to do with one another.

So, if we step back and look at that set of belief systems and survival strategies that have shaped so many of us and our generations before, it makes sense that…

  • We’d be uncomfortable with standing out
  • We’d want to cover up anything that seemed “different.”

We might want to hide our restlessness, inability to relax, and the desire to fidget.

We may dread the idea of someone knowing we might easily forget information or misplace items.

We might try to cover up the tendency to be really chatty or interrupt others.

Or we may try to hide a challenge with focus and concentration.

When these behaviors aren’t necessarily the “typical” way of showing up in the world, and there’s a lack of understanding around ADHD and the way it presents itself, it makes perfect sense that we’d feel the need to cover them up.

In fact – in my situation and many others who had a later diagnosis – most of our lives were spent masking different parts of ourselves; we tried so hard to be a chameleon and blend in with everyone else.

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How and when do we learn to mask?

Masking our ADHD symptoms often begins way back in childhood; we are so perceptive when we’re young, and when we’re in school or other situations when we’re around other children, we start picking up on social cues.

We begin learning that some of our ways of behaving aren’t socially acceptable.

Just think of the number of times you were told…

  • Not to be so sensitive.
  • Quiet down for talking too much
  • Sit still, stop fidgeting, or to “look at me when I’m talking to you.” Pay attention
  • Stop staring out the window or doodling on your paper
  • Why is your desk such a mess?
  • You need to do a better job of tracking your assignments

And little by little that messaging sinks in. So, we learn to hide in plain sight.

Our ADHD masking became our safety net and helped create a sense of safety in what otherwise felt like a really unsafe environment.

As time goes by, masking our ADHD symptoms becomes the way we operate whenever we’re in a social situation or around unsafe people – physically or emotionally.

I can tell you from my personal experience anyway, that masking your ADHD is absolutely exhausting and can even lead to burnout.

What can ADHD masking in adults look like? Examples…

So what does this look like specifically?

How do we know if we’re masking or not?

I’m going to share a handful of ADHD masking examples, but please know the list is not exhaustive and you may also present a variation on the examples I give.

I encourage you to pause and think about these examples and see if any of them resonate with you. Doing this allows you to start recognizing the areas you may feel the pull to hide.

Then you can question whether you like these reasons. If not, you can start thinking about how you might apply some of the strategies we’ll talk about later to stop shape-shifting and instead truly step into the full version of you.

I’ve got to tell you, when you’re ready to take off that mask, it’s so empowering to start owning the brilliant, authentic version of you who’s waiting to be seen.

It can also take time, compassion, and sometimes the support of a coach or a therapist depending on the experiences you’ve had in the past that had you putting that mask on in the first place.

So again, be gentle. Take care of yourself and if you need support, reach out to someone who is safe in your circle as you begin the journey.

Before we talk about that, let’s explore what masking can look like. How do we know if we’re doing it?

And I have to say, even though I’ve been actively working to take off my different masks for the last several years and am well aware of these tendencies, it still felt like a gut punch as I gathered this list and put everything together.

So if anything comes up for you – if you feel any emotions arise or hear some strong thoughts in response, please know you’re in good company.

Here are some examples of ADHD Masking…

1. Blaming Others If You Make a Mistake

woman blaming

You might find yourself wanting to blame others if you make a mistake.

You’re horrified thinking that someone might find out you’ve messed up or didn’t do things perfectly, and you’re looking for a way to cover that up or shift the blame.

For example, let’s say I was working on a sales team and sent out an offer to a new potential client, but after sending it, I found updated numbers I should have sent to that client buried on page 3 of my unread emails.

Rather than owning I was behind on my emails and missed this information, I blame the person who sent the original information for not following up to ensure I got it.

2. Constantly Making Lists

Maybe you’re constantly making lists, and you have lists for your lists in hopes of hiding the fact that you’re sometimes forgetful.

Or to try and stay on top of the constant spinning in your mind and create a sense of control without asking for help or support.

3. Perfectionism Drives Your Actions

Maybe perfectionism drives most of your actions because you’re so worried about doing something “wrong” or that people will “find out” that you don’t have everything together.

So you constantly overwork and hustle – working much longer hours than your colleagues – in order to hide the fact that things take more time or are more challenging for an ADHD brain to complete.

This one encapsulates so much of my life.

4. You Show Up Extremely Early for Appointments

It could look like always showing up extremely early to your appointments or events because time blindness makes it really challenging to show up on time or 5-10 minutes early OR you’re afraid you’ll forget altogether.

5. You Obsessively Check Things

You might have an obsessive habit of always checking your things because you are afraid you may misplace something. Or you’re worried you’ll forget to do something.

6. You Hold In Your Feelings

Maybe you hold in or push down your emotions because you’re afraid they’ll be too big or inappropriate for the situation you’re in.

7. Your Mannerisms Don’t Match Your Feelings

Similarly, maybe your facial expressions and mannerisms don’t match your feelings at all.

So even though you’re feeling totally overwhelmed or stressed out or spinning in shame or doubt, your face is unreadable, or in my case in academia, it was always smiling.

8. You Mimic Others

In a perfect example of what I call “chameleon-ing,” maybe you mimic or imitate others’ actions, how they dress, how they talk, and what they do, in social settings so that you can fit in.  

Again, this is just a small list of examples, but hopefully, it gives you an idea of how this practice of masking might show up for the ADHD brain.

What are the impacts of masking ADHD?

woman exhausted

Now that we know what ADHD masking is and how it shows up, you might be asking – what’s the problem?

In fact, some of you may have resonated deeply with these actions – using them to help get more control over your ADHD symptoms – and never thought twice about them until I’m mentioning it now.

ADHD masking can absolutely help create a semblance of control, but at the same time, it’s quite clear that there are significant adverse effects as well.

Masking ADHD can be exhausting & Even Lead To Burnout

First of all, the practice of masking is exhausting.

When we live most of our lives masking our ADHD symptoms, it can eventually lead to burnout.

This was absolutely the case for me…

For my first 10 years of graduate and post-graduate work – I was undiagnosed. So, I unknowingly masked all of my ADHD symptoms in hopes of trying to hide that I didn’t “fit in” with the very neurotypical world of academia. By and large, it was not an ADHD-friendly space. And this constantly hustling and overworking left me completely drained.

Once I did get a diagnosis, there was still – AND IS STILL – a significant unlearning process as I’ve learned to let go of these masking behaviors and put in the supports that work best for my brain.

I’ve found this to be true for so many of my clients as well. This constant pushing and covering up who we really are is absolutely exhausting.

Masking ADHD can delay your diagnosis

Additionally, for those who are undiagnosed, masking our symptoms – whether unknowingly or not – makes it more difficult to actually receive a diagnosis.

The ADHD diagnosis process can be quite involved, and when we overwork to hide our symptoms, it can – in turn – delay access to appropriate treatment plans.

Masking ADHD makes it difficult to know the real you

Another obstacle that I’ve noticed a lot for both myself and my clients is that when we’re so focused on masking our symptoms, we prevent ourselves from stepping into who we truly are.

We’re hiding our incredible personalities behind this façade, trying to be who we think we’re supposed to be.

Meanwhile, we’re not recognizing or celebrating the incredible people we already are. Because when you show up fully as yourself, that’s when you can meet the people who are looking for this incredible, authentic version of you.

I’ve seen this firsthand in my We’re Busy Being Awesome time and time again. This is a community where people feel safe enough to take off their masks and finally feel seen for who they truly are. One of the members in the June cohort mentioned on the call the other day, “I have to say I don’t want anyone to have to deal with all this ADHD stuff, but it is “good” to hear others have similar roadblocks to tackle.”

And this is so true. When we realize it’s not “oh, it’s not just me. I’m not just failing at life. Instead, this is how my ADHD impacts certain things.” This is when we can take off those masks, accept where we’re at, and realize, “okay, this is where I’m at. What do I need to support myself?”

Getting to this place of acceptance is what allows us to put in the scaffolding to support our brains from a place of love rather than hiding from a place of shame.

How can we unmask and embrace our authentic selves?

woman hiding face with hand

How do we do this? How can we start making this shift to take off the mask and step into who we really are?

I’m going to share tips to help guide this process. And as you listen, I invite you to check in with the ones that resonate most with you.

Step 1: Create Clarity of When You’re Masking

To start, create clarity around the situations when you are masking and whether or not it’s an issue for you.

You may find there are several areas, you may find there are a few, or you may find none.

If you notice there are many areas in your life that you feel the need to shapeshift or chameleon into acting like everyone else, I will offer to first begin building awareness.

Don’t try to change everything at once, because frankly, these behaviors have served you in some capacity for quite some time. Meaning, that while overworking and over hustling ultimately led me to burnout, in the medium term, it also allowed me to keep up in my academic career.

Again, it wasn’t ideal, but my brain was not happy to simply give up these masking behaviors without a fight.

If your brain feels similar, I see you and I encourage you to – rather than going all in and trying to change everything at once – instead take note.

When do you feel the need to hide your fidgeting or overwork to keep up?

When are you pulled to check and double-check everything in an effort to avoid mistakes, bottle up your emotions or bite your tongue so you’re not “too much?” 

Take note of these situations and maybe even jot them down in a notebook.

Step 2: Accept Where You’re At

Step 2 involves accepting where you’re at.

I talked about this back in episode 147 of the podcast called the 4 phases of self-awareness with ADHD.

This step is truly key. In my opinion, there’s an important difference between:

  • Recognizing when things are hard for the brain and – without judgment – intentionally putting supports in place vs.
  • “Masking” to try and hide perceived “flaws” so nobody else knows things are hard

When we can learn to accept where we’re at, what we have to offer, and fully believe there’s nothing to fix that’s when we can establish support from a place of love rather than shame and hiding.

It’s a shift in perspective from “I have to hustle so nobody knows I’m struggling” to “I have so much to offer the world; what can I put in place to make this mission easier?”

If you want more support on how to do this, I highly recommend checking back to episode 147 where I talk about this concept much more in-depth.

Step 3: Make Intentional Decisions

Then we get to Step 3, which involves making intentional decisions about what – if any – shifts you want to make.

You can ask yourself questions like:

  • Does this behavior feel supportive of me and my brain?
  • Does it seem lasting, or can I feel myself edging toward burnout?
  • What are the benefits of these behaviors, and how can I achieve the same outcome in a way that feels like love and support rather than shame and hiding?
  • How can I work WITH my brain in a way that works for me rather than trying to fit myself in a box that’s not built for the ADHD brain?

As you ask yourself these questions, stay open. Stay curious. Give yourself space to imagine and explore.

The ADHD brain is brilliant at thinking outside the box and innovating ideas, so give yourself that gift of imagination as you find different ways to create scaffolding in a way that’s supportive of you.

Step 4: Find Community

One of the most empowering ways to help support your brain in releasing your masking tendencies and celebrate who YOU truly are is to surround yourself in a supportive, encouraging, and accepting community of other ADHD brains to get it. 

Maybe you start following other ADHD accounts on Instagram to realize you’re not the only one who navigates these obstacles.

You could join us in the free I’m Busy Being Awesome Facebook group and meet others in our busy awesome community.

Additionally, you could join other ADHD Facebook groups or local in-person groups to help foster that sense of community and belonging.

When you realize it’s not just you navigating these things, it feels more available to own and truly celebrate all the awesome you bring to the table.

Step 5: Build Support for Your ADHD Brain

Step 5 is to gradually build in that scaffolding and support FOR your brain from a place of love.

Now please note that putting in support is the LAST STEP and this is for good reason.

We do not want to simply switch one mask for another. Instead, we first want to learn how to take off that mask and recognize there is absolutely NOTHING to hide underneath.

Then – and only then – can we find the approaches that work best for your brain to help you reach the incredible goals and do the powerful work you want to do in this world.

Once we release that shame and judgment of ourselves and our brains we can find effective approaches outside of the neurotypical box that supports our brain and helps us reach our goals.

And – of course – if you want to do this work together in a supportive community of people with ADHD learning to accept and work with their brains to get things done, I would love to have you in the next round of We’re Busy Being Awesome.

This program is where we take all of these concepts that I discuss on the podcast and we implement them to ensure you’re building the exact supports your brain wants to thrive.

We’ll be enrolling for the next group beginning in September, so be sure to add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know when enrollment opens…

Want To Join Our Group Coaching Program?!

I will be opening the doors for the next cohort of We’re Busy Being Awesome in a couple of weeks!

Add your name to the waitlist so you’ll be the first to know about program dates and times, plus how you can sign up if it’s a great fit for you.