Living With ADHD: What if People Find Out I'm a Fraud?

Health Writer

Heidi has ADHD. She worked hard at her job as a sales rep. Harder, in fact, than all of her coworkers. She often stayed late into the evening or took paperwork home to finish. While she was frequently one of the top sales reps, she struggled with finalizing the sale and follow-up work. Staying late or working from home on the weekends was the only way she could keep up. She lived in fear that someone, her bosses mainly, would find out that she was terrible at this job, that she was a fraud, that she wasn’t deserving of their praise.

For many adults with ADHD, shame is a part of everyday life. Shame comes when you are disappointed with yourself; when you think, “I should be able to…” or “I shouldn’t have done…” or “I really messed that up.” To cover up feelings of shame, or in an effort to hide perceived flaws, you might try to appear "normal" and well-balanced to others.

Like Heidi, you might want to give up your free time to show your bosses you are up to the work. You might make up excuses to avoid going out to dinner with friends because you're afraid to say that you are terrible with finances and are broke. You might always meet friends at a restaurant or the local park because you want the social interaction but don’t dare invite them to your home because they might see how totally disorganized you are. You spend your life feeling like you need to put one face on in public, one that shows you have it together, when inside you feel like a fraud; that no matter how hard you try, you can’t get it together.

The ‘imposter phenomenon’

The term "imposter phenomenon," or imposter syndrome, was first introduced in the 1970s by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance. It describes someone who is unable to accept successes and sees any accomplishments as a result of luck rather than ability. Imes and Clance used the term to refer to high-achieving women, but research has shown that men also experience it. To date, there isn’t any research on adults with ADHD and the imposter syndrome, but many of those living with ADHD can relate to hiding their struggles, finding it difficult to celebrate success and judging themselves negatively. If you struggle with the imposter syndrome, you might:

  • Chalk up any successes to luck rather than ability, hard work, intelligence, or creativity
  • Constantly worry about the next challenge and remain certain that you can’t rise to meet it
  • Negatively compare yourself to others
  • Determine your self-worth in terms of achievements
  • Overthink negatives of a situation
  • Disregard praise or compliments because you don’t believe you deserve it

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “the imposter phenomenon becomes a cycle.” You are constantly worried that someone is going to find out that you are a fraud, that you have many flaws and your successes are flukes.

What you can do

You might think that you are the only person who feels like it is only a matter of time until you get "outed" as a failure. But you are not alone. Although there aren't, as of yet, any specific statistics, the APA does say the imposter phenomenon is not uncommon.

There are steps you can take to overcome feeling like a phony:* ** Create a supportive and encouraging network.** Surround yourself with people who enjoy your company and can help you see the positive in yourself.

  • Write down areas where you excel. Everyone is good at something. No one is good at everything. Families and companies work best when they utilize each person’s strengths instead of focusing on weaknesses.
  • Stop reaching for perfection. One reason people feel like phonies is because they are only willing to accept perfection; they think that anything less is a failure. This isn’t true. Doing your best is a good goal. Some things will turn out great, some will be just okay. Accept that perfection is not a realistic goal.

  • Reframe your thinking. Rather than thinking in terms of what went wrong, try to look for at least one positive in each situation.

  • Seek help. If you are struggling with self-esteem issues or can’t get past feeling like an imposter, talk with a psychologist or therapist. Getting help can help you live a more satisfying and fulfilling life.

For more information on managing ADHD in adults:

10 Signs of Adult ADHD

How ADHD Symptoms Manifest in Adults

25 Tips for Time Management for Adults With ADHD

8 Ways to Get Motivated With Adult ADHD

Understanding Brain Fog in Adults With ADHD

Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHDIdiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral TherapyEssential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.