top of page

ADHD: What does Masking Look Like?

If you have a loved one with ADHD, or if you think you might be the one with ADHD, today's post is for you. I'm sharing some personal details of my experience with masking because it's such a big reason why many people aren't diagnosed until later in life. You may have heard of masking and wondered, just what exactly does ADHD masking look like? If you can better understand masking, you can better understand anyone you deal with who has ADHD. My exact experiences may not be anything like yours or your loved ones, so use them to get a general idea of what masking looks like and look at your situation with fresh eyes. This one is longer because of the details in the explanations, and you are free to skip around. I've bolded certain sentences to help you skim if it's too much.

When I was diagnosed with ADHD, many people in my life were shocked. (Not my husband, mind you. He was simply relieved that there was an explanation and help available.) I was shocked. I'd been in therapy off and and on for much of my adult life, and I was good friends with several licensed marriage and family therapists. No one had ever suggested it to me before. It wasn't until I relayed the conversation with my doctor to the therapist I'd been seeing for five years that the light bulb went off in her head.

"Of course!" she responded. "How did I not see it before? That's probably the root of everything we've been trying to deal with here. I want you to get tested. If that's what this is, there are so many ways I can help you."

The reason no one had realized it was because I was so good at masking. I especially fooled myself. As a young girl, I desperately wanted to please my parents. In our home, things did not go well for me if I didn't please them, so masking was a way to stay out of trouble. We were expected to control ourselves, work hard, and represent our family well - all understandable and commendable traits. My mom was good at helping me (and my dad) work around ADHD, although she wasn't aware she was doing it, which is what I credit with some of my early success. Sometimes, though, no matter how hard we tried, I just couldn't do it. In those cases, in an effort to stay out of trouble, I masked my failures.

For example, one of my main symptoms of ADHD is time-blindness and hyperfocus. I get so focused on what I'm doing that I lose track of time, which often makes me late. I can set alarms, but I dismiss them, thinking I'll finish what I'm working on at that moment. I think - I just need one more minute! Then, I completely forget the alarm. As a child, I didn't have the words to explain this problem because I didn't understand it myself. Instead of saying, "I'm sorry I'm late. I got so absorbed in what I was doing, I lost track of time," I'd make up a better sounding excuse.

I knew myself well enough to understand I could be impulsive and make costly mistakes. I built invisible walls all around myself to try to prevent serious problems, but sometimes the walls failed. In case of failure, I'd line up my explanations for my behavior like plan A, B, C, and D. I was unintentionally masking my impulse control issues by working out in advance how I could cover them.

I have to work very hard at some things that come easily to others, but I didn't want to appear too intense. I developed a very exuberant, silly side to mask my intensity. A few years ago, a former colleague pulled me aside and confessed how she hadn't liked me at all when we worked together. She thought I didn't take the job seriously. She told me that seeing what I'd done with my life since we'd worked together, she could tell she'd misjudged me. I was pretty hurt by her confession and wished she'd just kept it to herself. In hindsight though, I think it was hard for others to know what to do with me. I thought the silly side offset the intensity, but if people didn't look closely, they never saw the intensity. They just saw the mask.

ADHD probably had something to do with the reason I didn't get married until later in life. I was so busy masking that I gave off mixed signals and was hard to understand. Right before I started dating Rick, I realized what I thought about a guy mattered. I had to be myself, and if that was cool with a guy, then I got to decide if the way he was worked for me. But even after we got married, I kept a lot of myself hidden away, thinking he wouldn't understand. When I finally started opening up, I was shocked by his understanding, supportive response.

Even in my writing, I'm afraid I haven't made clear how serious I am about it. Not only do I write, but I read books, take classes, and get coaching. I learn about marketing, which continues to be the most uncomfortable and necessary part of this job. I get up very early to write, and have learned about graphic design, self-publishing, story arcs, and website design.

The mask I've been wearing is that I'm a stay-at-home-mom who has a little creative outlet with my blog - when the truth is that a couple years ago, I had to set new office hours to stop myself from working on it every moment I was awake. When I post a video, it's likely that HOURS went into making it. I have special equipment, a marketing plan, and I'm working on updating my business plan. It hurts when those closest to me don't interact with what I write - commenting, liking, or sharing it. I try to support my friends and family whenever they have a business venture, listening for hours to them rant about work frustrations, buying their products, commenting on their posts, and so forth. It's hard to understand why they don't reciprocate, but it's possible that one of the masks I've been wearing communicates to them that it isn't a big deal.

One of the things I've been working on ever since I learned about masking is recognizing the masks and laying them down. It's become very important to be honest and allow people to see the real me. For instance, if I'm late to meet you for something today, I'm likely to say something like, "I apologize for being late. I got distracted and lost track of time." I might call a friend and say, "Hey! I just posted a blog that's really good. Would you help me out by leaving a comment on my Instagram post? That way more people see it, which is important because it will help others. As my social media interaction increases, publishers take notice. They also notice when no one interacts with my posts."

I share all this personal information today as an example of what your loved one with ADHD may be thinking and feeling. Giving a person with ADHD permission to take off their mask and just be themselves is a great gift. Here are some examples of things you can say to a loved one with ADHD to help them feel secure enough to let down their guard:

  1. It's hard for me to see you as a person with ADHD because this is what I've always noticed about you. Were you masking something else? What have I been missing?

  2. I understand impulse control might be a struggle for you. I want you to know if you ever make a costly mistake because of it, you can tell me. I'll still be here. I'll help you try to figure out how to make it right.

  3. If you think they're masking, you might ask, "What you're saying/doing seems like it might not be quite right. I accept you the way you are. You can tell me what's going on, even if it's uncomfortable.

  4. I know in the past I've thought you were lazy or unmotivated, but I'm starting to understand that you may have been working a lot harder than I realized. I'd love to hear about the time and effort you're putting into your latest project.

  5. And if you REALLY want to make us happy... Ask us to tell you all about our latest hyperfixation, then really listen, ask questions, and try to understand. We've likely done a deep dive into research and know way more than we think you want to know. It may take a minute to convince us that we really have the freedom to talk about it all. But what a gift that is. Not having to mask our excitement, not having to make sure we don't overshare or talk too much? H.E.A.V.E.N. If the thought of that totally overwhelms you, it's also very loving to say, I'm setting a timer for (amount of time) and I want to hear about this thing you love. When the timer goes off, I have to turn my attention to something else, but I'm all ears for the next x minutes.

I welcome your comments about this subject. Like I said, every comment that shows up on here means a lot to me.



pink and gold
Adding this banner to the bottom of my posts to clarify how seriously I take this work.


bottom of page