How hard would it be to swim gracefully while holding a beach ball under the water?
You might be able to do it for a little while, but eventually, that ball will surface. It takes too much energy to keep it submerged – and so does pushing down your ADHD.
Instead of telling another person about your ADHD challenges, you might compensate for your symptoms in different ways.
This might be coming up with more “reasonable” excuses for being late or distracted or suppressing stimming behaviors like bouncing your legs or chewing on the end of your pen.
This is what’s known as ADHD masking.
It happens when a person tries to hide their ADHD symptoms to blend in with the crowd and protect themselves from judgment. This is done by mimicking the behaviors of those around them.
In some instances, it can be a helpful strategy. But it comes at a cost, because it’s draining and isolating to maintain the mask. That’s why it can lead to burnout and affect a person’s mental health.
Find out how to unmask and regain your confidence.
Understanding ADHD Masking
Masking is when a person with ADHD acts in a “socially acceptable” way to fit in and form better connections with those around them.
This usually involves camouflaging their symptoms by controlling their impulses, rehearsing responses, and copying the behaviors of those who don’t have ADHD.
Keep in mind that masking does not mean you’re fake or ingenuine. It’s often a learned response based on what society views as “normal.” Many adults with ADHD mask their symptoms to prevent them from interfering with their relationships and social life.
Some people mask unknowingly, while others are aware of it. This ability to adapt socially is usually learned from childhood, which can complicate or delay proper diagnosis.
Research also suggests that women with ADHD are less likely to be diagnosed than men due to these compensatory mechanisms and masking behaviors.
The Signs of ADHD Masking
Masking can take on many different forms – knowing what it looks like can help you recognize and understand it better.
In general, you can split masking into two main groups; masking in inattentive-type ADHD and masking in hyperactive-type ADHD.
Predominantly inattentive ADHD is linked to difficulty focusing, trouble listening during conversations, poor organization, forgetfulness, and a lack of time management.
If you have this type of ADHD, you may mask it in the following ways:
- Coming up with excuses for being late or distracted (without harmful intentions)
- Putting in twice the amount of effort and time than others to achieve a goal
- Working extra hard to complete tasks right before the deadline
- Checking your work multiple times before submission
- Focusing intensively during conversations to keep up
- Being extra early to events to avoid being late
- Having multiple alarms and reminders set up
- Writing everything down
Hyperactive-type ADHD typically involves fidgeting, talking excessively, being unable to wait your turn, or being unable to sit still. This form of ADHD may be masked as follows:
- Staying silent in conversations or being extra cautious with your words
- Suppressing your energy to appear calm
- Suppressing the urge to fidget or stim
- Bottling strong emotions up
Often, masking feels like living with two different personas. The first is for when you’re alone or with those you feel comfortable around, and the other is for when you’re around colleagues, classmates, and other people you don’t know that well.
ADHD Masking Vs. Managing ADHD
Masking can result in a person learning how to adapt and function better in their work, relationships, and at home. This can help prevent your life from getting derailed by your symptoms (not just hiding or denying them).
These coping strategies can help manage ADHD, but it’s important to note that they develop due to a person adapting to mask their symptoms.
Here are some examples of healthy compensation mechanisms of masking:
- Making it a point to listen actively during conversations, especially with a partner or loved one
- Setting multiple reminders to ensure you remember important work and family events
- Jotting down ideas or important things to remember whenever they come into mind
- Decluttering and organizing your workspace to help you focus
Consequences of Masking
For some people, it takes a lot of energy to mask, both mentally and emotionally. Like swimming with that beach ball, it isn’t easy. Other troubles can include:
- Having trouble finding support when facing ADHD-related challenges
- Complicating or delaying a diagnosis, leading to untreated ADHD
- Developing anxiety and depression from undiagnosed ADHD
- Having trouble differentiating what’s real and what’s an act
- Having perfectionist tendencies and lower self-esteem
- Feeling burnout from having to act a certain way 
- Becoming anxious or tense around other people
- Feeling alone or isolated
It’s best to assess how masking impacts you and identify which behaviors are helpful and which are harmful. For example, learning how to organize your workplace might be frustrating at first, but it can lead to better focus and work performance.
On the other hand, if certain forms of masking have taken a toll on your mental health, unmasking may be the best decision to make. It can be daunting, but it’s a change that many ADHDers don’t regret making.
It’s still important to have your ADHD professionally diagnosed and treated, as this can help lighten the mental load of masking. And there are plenty of ADHD resources and avenues for support that can help you.
How Can Unmasking Help?
When you unmask, you allow your friends and family to understand your ADHD challenges and support you better. This makes it easier for you to seek support and encouragement when you need it.
It also reduces the emotional and mental weight of having to act and talk a specific way whenever you’re around people.
For some people, unmasking gets them closer to an accurate diagnosis. It can also be the first step to building greater self-love and confidence.
Just remember to be patient and compassionate with yourself during the process.
5 Tips to Help You Unmask Your ADHD
Instead of unveiling your true persona in every situation, decide who you feel comfortable unmasking for. Then you can develop a gradual plan to do so.
Here are five tips to help you out:
- Identify when and why you mask your symptoms. Many ADHDers mask unknowingly. Try to be aware of how you behave around certain groups of people. Identify situations that cause discomfort, and reflect on why your mask goes up. This allows you to assess all your masking behaviors and differentiate helpful from harmful ones.
- Explore alternatives for unhealthy masking behaviors. If loud parties and large gatherings drain you, make it a point to leave the event earlier. Instead of suppressing all your emotions, talk to a therapist to learn how to acknowledge and regulate them better.
- Don’t be afraid to speak about your ADHD challenges. Inform your closest friends and family members about your struggles with ADHD. Then gradually move on to other relationships. You can also ask those around you to help spot and point out your usual masking behaviors, so you’re more aware of when they happen.
- Understand that you don’t have to journey alone. Living with ADHD can sometimes feel like an isolated and lonely path. By connecting with other ADHDers, you can seek support, encouragement, and advice from others who have been down the same road. ADDA’s virtual support groups can help you find an online community where you can express yourself without judgment.
- Seek professional treatment and support. ADHD medications can improve symptom management. Additionally, therapy can help you learn how to replace self-limiting thoughts with healthier self-motivating ones. An ADHD therapist or ADHD coach can also help you improve your organization, prioritization, and time management skills.
Balancing the Double-Edged Sword of ADHD Masking
Unhealthy masking behaviors can often lead to burnout. One of the best ways to prevent this is by helping others see the world through the lens of your brain. This can relieve the pressure of putting on a show and helps build a support system for when you need one.
That said, what people think of you doesn’t have to hold you back from living a happy and fulfilling life with ADHD. Remember to celebrate your strengths and victories.
If you’re looking for resources to learn more about ADHD masking, check out ADDA+. It’s a supportive community providing helpful tools, resources, and encouragement to empower you to live your best life.
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