While the core symptoms of ADHD such as inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity are widely discussed, less attention is given to the prevalent emotional challenges. One such challenge that often lurks in the background is imposter syndrome. Defined as the internal experience of doubting one's own skills, talents, or accomplishments, imposter syndrome can significantly compound the difficulties faced by adults with ADHD.
The Unique Intersection of ADHD and Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome is not exclusive to individuals with ADHD; it is a universal experience to some extent. However, the presence of ADHD can magnify the feelings associated with imposter syndrome, such as chronic self-doubt and the fear of being exposed as a "fraud."
For instance, a person might find it hard to internalise their achievements due to persistent self-doubt, questioning whether they 'deserve' the success they've achieved. The forgetfulness and organisational challenges often associated with ADHD can further fuel these feelings. You might catch yourself thinking, "If I were really competent, I wouldn't be struggling with these basic tasks."
Doubting An ADHD Diagnosis: Imposter Syndrome's Unique Twist
A less-discussed but significant aspect of imposter syndrome in ADHD, and one that I have encountered a number of times in my clients, is doubting the legitimacy of the diagnosis itself. Questions like "Am I just exaggerating these difficulties" or "Am I a hypochondriac?" are not uncommon. Sometimes, even after receiving a formal diagnosis, individuals may find it hard to internalise this validation, wondering if they've somehow 'tricked' professionals into diagnosing them with ADHD. I have known more than one client who has obtained a second ADHD assessment after feeling unsure of the initial assessment process or diagnostic outcome.
This doubt can be amplified by the complex nature of ADHD and its frequent co-occurrence with other conditions like anxiety and depression. The presence of multiple conditions might make some people feel like they are 'collecting' diagnoses, fostering concerns that they are hypochondriacs or exaggerating their struggles. In reality, I expect my clients to have more than just ADHD. 80% of adults with ADHD have one comorbid diagnosis, and 50% have two or more. Comorbidity is the rule, and not a sign of hypochondria.
Another way I like to think of this facet of imposter syndrome is that a thorough ADHD assessment will include looking at school reports and talking to a person who knew the person as a child. This longitudinal look at ADHD symptoms minimises the risk of misdiagnosis and has been helpful for some of my clients who at first received an abbreviated assessment.
Consequences on Wellbeing
The emotional toll of imposter syndrome can lead to increased stress, lower self-esteem, and avoidance of new opportunities for fear of failure. This can have a negative impact on personal relationships, career advancement, and overall life satisfaction. It also makes it challenging to engage effectively in self-advocacy, which is critical for obtaining the appropriate healthcare and support.
Strategies for Coping
1. Recognise the Patterns
The first step in coping with imposter syndrome is to recognise its presence and how it influences your thoughts and actions. Self-awareness is the first step in disrupting the cycle.
2. Challenge Your Thoughts
Question the validity of your self-doubting thoughts. Are they based on facts or simply emotional reasoning? Is it worth ruminating on these thoughts, or best to let them hang out in your head while you get on with the jobs of life?
3. Celebrate Achievements
Make a deliberate effort to acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments, however small they may seem. This can serve as a reminder of your skills and competencies. One practical way to do this is to note down two or three things that you did well at the end of each day. If you write these down regularly they will begin to form a long list of evidence that you can actually do some things well.
4. Seek Support
Opening up about your experience with someone you trust can offer a new perspective and emotional support. Consider talking to friends, family, and especially other neurodivergent people who may be experiencing the same difficulties.
5. Consult a Professional
It may be beneficial to consult a psychologist or therapist. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can both help to either change thought content, or to reduce the attention and meaning you assign to unhelpful thoughts.
Imposter syndrome is a silent but significant struggle that many individuals with ADHD face. While it's a complex issue that doesn't have a one-size-fits-all solution, understanding its relationship with ADHD can be a good step toward gaining better management.
Clinical psychologist Dr Sharon Saline discusses imposter syndrome and provides suggestions of what can help