What Is ADHD Masking?

adhd masking

Verywell / Laura Porter

ADHD masking is when someone with ADHD presents in a way that makes them seem like they are not living with the disorder. It's also called "impression management." The term was coined by psychologist Russell Barkley, who said it occurs in about one-third of all people with ADHD.

ADHD masking may also be called "camouflaging." This is when someone with ADHD tries to cover up their symptoms by copying the behaviors of people who don't have it. ADHD masking may be a way for some people with ADHD to fit in socially, avoid being stigmatized, or feel more accepted.

Types of ADHD masking include hiding hyperactivity with calmness, sitting quietly at a desk without squirming in one's seat, or responding as you are expected to do during class discussions even though your mind may feel chaotic. Masking may also include over-focusing on a teacher, task, or activity to avoid distractions and impulsivity.

History and Prevalence of ADHD Masking

In 2015, Barkley wrote about the ADHD masking phenomenon in his book, "Taking Charge of Adult ADHD." He said that some people with ADHD try and show others they have it under control by controlling their symptoms.

Research on ADHD masking is still limited, and it has not been studied extensively. Barkley said that this is due to the fact that ADHD masking is a very difficult concept for people without ADHD to understand, so they may find it hard to believe.

What's more, people with ADHD may be ashamed to admit they are "faking" it, and doctors don't always ask patients about the possibility. In other words, it may be that ADHD masking is more common than we know.

Examples of ADHD Masking

ADHD masking is a way of hiding symptoms through learned behaviors that can be healthy or unhealthy. Many people with ADHD break social rules through their behaviors and may face shame and ridicule. As a result, they develop coping strategies to hide parts of themselves.

ADHD masking can be used as a coping mechanism and sometimes may help people get by when they are young and trying to make sense of the world around them. But eventually, this behavior becomes difficult to manage on its own.

Below are some examples of ADHD masking.

  • Staying too quiet and being overly careful about what you say to avoid talking too much or interrupting people
  • Obsessively checking your belongings to make sure that you don't lose things
  • Reacting as you are expected to during class instead of how you feel inside
  • Seeming "fine" and not showing any signs that there is a problem when in reality, you are struggling to keep up or maintain relationships
  • Being overly conscientious about how clean the house looks even though you may be overwhelmed by all the work it takes to keep it tidy
  • Hiding hyperactivity through calmness, so people think everything is fine, but in reality, you have trouble focusing because your mind jumps from one thing to another too quickly to process what anyone around you is saying at the moment
  • Being unable to relax leading up to appointments and arriving much too early, as a way to ensure that you are not late due to time blindness
  • Listening carefully and focusing too hard when someone is talking to not miss anything they say
  • Excessively writing everything down so you don't forget it later because of memory issues with ADHD
  • Obsessively organizing paperwork and creating systems to make sure you can find what you need
  • Bottling up intense emotions until you feel sick inside without knowing why (this can sometimes also lead to depression)
  • Calling in sick to avoid being placed in stressful or anxiety-inducing situations
  • Being irritable when you force yourself to concentrate on something that doesn't interest you for an extended period of time
  • Taking on too much responsibility to make up for what you perceive as your faults
  • Attempting to cope with the world by developing perfectionistic tendencies (e.g., expecting that you will never do anything wrong)
  • Overdoing something until exhaustion sets in so that others see how capable and reliable you are even though deep down you are struggling
  • Hiding that you may feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities leads to feelings of shame and guilt.
  • A need to always appear in control to avoid feeling ashamed about whether others see your struggles
  • Suppressing stimming behaviors like leg bouncing so you don't disturb others even though you feel uncomfortable sitting still
  • Mimicking or copying other people in social situations so that you will be accepted

Impact of ADHD Masking

Below are some of the potential negative impacts of engaging in ADHD masking.

  • ADHD masking can hide symptoms, which may lead to a delay in diagnosis.
  • People who engage in ADHD masking might be unaware that they have undiagnosed ADHD, which can lead them to develop depression and anxiety.
  • If you are very good at masking your ADHD symptoms, people may not believe you when you tell them that something is wrong or that you are struggling.
  • People who engage in ADHD masking might also be at higher risk for developing substance abuse problems to cope with how they feel inside, which can lead to even more health issues down the line.
  • ADHD masking replaces outward stress with internal stress. People who engage in ADHD masking can continue to go undiagnosed for years because they are able to hide their struggles well.
  • ADHD masking can make it hard for you to know what is real and what is an act. You may feel as if you are not able to be yourself and instead turn into someone else so that others will like you.

Coping With ADHD Masking

When you can identify that ADHD masking is taking place, you can start learning ways to cope without turning into someone else. You might be surprised at how much more enjoyable life becomes when you learn new skills for managing instead of hiding your struggles.

Below are some ideas to get started:

  • Identify which form of ADHD masking behaviors are healthy and which are hurting you. For example, learning to keep a reasonably tidy home might be helpful, whereas needing everything to be perfect would be harmful.
  • Learn how to deal with your emotions instead of avoiding them. Seek out a therapist or coach who understands what you are going through.
  • Understand that you are not alone in how you experience life. Connect with other people going through the same struggles so that you can feel less alone. For example, join a support group for people living with ADHD. Find an online community where it will be safe to express yourself without judgment.

A Word From Verywell

ADHD masking is a way of coping that feels easier in the moment but does nothing to help you deal with what truly needs attention inside yourself. By understanding how you cope, recognizing when your behavior becomes too much, and learning new tools for dealing with stress, it is possible for you to finally start living life more fully.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Barkley RA. Taking Charge of Adult ADHD. Guilford Press; 2010.

  2. Kosaka H, Fujioka T, Jung M. Symptoms in individuals with adult-onset ADHD are masked during childhoodEur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2019;269(6):753-755. doi:10.1007/s00406-018-0893-3

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."