ADHD, confidence, and imposter syndrome
An essay on the possible relationship between ADHD, confidence, and imposter syndrome.
A few months ago, I was diagnosed with ADHD. It was not entirely surprising because I always used the word scatterbrained or ADD to describe my brain when I was under stress or up against a challenging deadline. However, I had succumbed to the popular contemporary narrative that everyone is ADD now. Our obsession with it is either the millennial urge to find an excuse for laziness or a manifestation of the toxic productivity culture.
For many of us who have ADHD, it's neither of those, and it is an undeniable handicap. It's taken me months to get to the point where I can even say the last statement without inviting my ridicule for being too dramatic about “the lack of attention (eye-roll).”
Since starting medication, I have been productive and enjoyed my hobbies and relationships a lot more. In many ways, I finally feel like an adult! In the last few months, one thing has been undeniable - ADHD's effect on my confidence and feelings of imposter syndrome. However, the impact isn't simply from having ADHD but also from decades of undiagnosed ADHD. Even as medication mitigates many of the effects of ADHD, the imposter syndrome doesn't go away overnight. It's something I have had to work on and will probably be working on for years to come, and like any journey, the first step is understanding it.
This essay is my (utterly unscientific) attempt to develop a hypothesis on the connection between ADHD and challenges with confidence and imposter syndrome. I wrote it primarily to reason about it, and I am sharing it to see if it creates any resonance.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a disorder of the executive functioning of the brain. It manifests most visibly as a lack of attention or physical/mental hyperactivity, but those are not the only or necessary conditions for ADHD. I invite you to dig into videos by Dr. Barkley to learn more. Studies show a strong link between low Dopamine levels and ADHD. This is also evident in the most common and very effective treatments of ADHD with stimulants.
ADHD is not all bad news as it gifts many of us some peculiar behaviors, one of which is chasing stimulation, which can sometimes be channeled constructively in work or academics to master things we find interesting. It also means that we often struggle with simple things that are neither interesting, novel, or of high consequence. For people with undiagnosed ADHD, this invites a lot of ridicule and struggle in an increasingly focused on productivity and achievements. Based on my "research" of reading hundreds of posts on Reddit, for many people with ADHD, being repeatedly told that they are stupid or lazy contributes significantly to their lack of confidence.
I'll be the first to admit that my life hasn't been an uninterrupted tale of a lack of confidence or feeling like an imposter. I've been luckier. For the most part, people in my life have been very encouraging of me and my work. Perhaps it's for that reason I feel confident (huh) writing this essay. I have enjoyed several phases where I acted from a place of confidence and sometimes even over-confidence. However, the challenge always appeared when the stakes got high, or the situation demanded acquiring more profound expertise.
As many people around me pointed out, I was extremely demanding of myself. There is some truth to the latter - I was my worst critic. I refused to acknowledge that something was holding me back, and perhaps the drag I felt was as real as high sugar in the blood is for a person with diabetes. I was afraid I'd start using that as an excuse not to push myself and that I'd stop trying to reach my potential and justify it. Once again, like transition, fear and shame prevented me from acknowledging my feelings and investigating their source. Fortunately, the reality is stronger than the walls we build around it.
Even as I've found respite in medication, and the inner critique has let up a bit, it hasn’t gone away. It is undoubtedly my voice, not the voice of “social expectations” in my head. I have been investigating it for the last few months. Where does it get its credibility from, and can I dismiss it if I tried harder?
Do my lack of confidence and imposter syndrome stem from this voice? Are they an unavoidable part of the human experience, and does my ADHD worsen them?
Google defines confidence as
the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.
For this essay, let's define confidence as the belief that one can rely on themselves. We'll focus on that belief in a professional context because that's usually where lack of confidence surfaces most visibly, and the imposter syndrome is the strongest. It also shows up in personal relationships to have an equally detrimental impact, but we'll leave that for another day.
One develops skills and confidence in their abilities by repeatedly engaging them. Failures are helpful for learning, but successes are crucial to building confidence. From cooking to driving, programming to design, it's a story that repeats everywhere. Practice makes perfect. Lots of successful practice makes confidence. Confidence in our skills enables us to pursue situations with consequences and encourages us to pursue mastery, especially in complex domains.
Let's say you start learning math, and there are five levels to master. Level one is the basics, and level five is the expert, at which point you might be teaching math professionally. You start with level 1 and take the time to improve and feel more confident. Soon you will be ready to progress to level 2. As you climb up the levels, you integrate the levels you've already mastered and instead move your active attention to the new level you need to master. However, your confidence slowly erodes if you repeatedly make mistakes in levels you thought you had nailed down or find yourself struggling to use those skills deftly.
The problem with the ADHD brain is that its novelty fades as you get better and start integrating skills into your life. As a result, it gets harder to hold attention and easier to slip up and make a mistake. The timing is usually divine. Often, just as you start leaning on the skill, you are taken by surprise by a slip-up. It's a total buzzkill. As this pattern repeats across many situations and skills, many of us end up with an unfortunate association. When the voice in our head says, “you got this!”, instead of believing it and moving on to the next level, we fear we will make a mistake. In my life, I started associating the voice 'you got this" with "don't be cocky, or you'll mess up.”
I hypothesize that for many of us, this association morphs into a fear of missing the mark whenever we feel confident.
This is only half the story.
In the "real" world, not only do you need to develop the confidence that you can complete a thing, but also that you can complete it within the allocated time and by a fixed hour! One defining characteristic of the ADHD brain is time blindness or near-sightedness to future time. It manifests as tardiness for many of us, but many overcompensate by building systems to save face socially. Nevertheless, it still leaves us with a strange relationship to time - an intellectual one instead of a viscerally felt experience. It makes it difficult to plan future time on a calendar and stick to it painfully (and hilariously).
Even when we can get things done, we complete them just before the deadline or after a lot of misery. We spend a lot of time procrastinating and hating ourselves for it. The worst part? Our time blindness or the intellectual relationship with time prevents us from internalizing the time/effort/output relationship. For example, even after having written blog posts hundreds of times, when I had to do them again, I'd find it very hard to put it on my calendar, allocate the two hours it takes to write the fast draft, and believe that it's possible to it done. I'd often find myself staring at the calendar, wondering how I would get it done in two hours, and procrastinating. I wouldn't necessarily slack off - I'd switch to something that I found more interesting or had a higher consequence.
Imposter syndrome is defined as
Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud. It disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments.
In this context, ability can be defined as
possession of the means or skill to do something.
I'd expand that to possessing the talent to do something and using it to do it when you need it done.
Through the personal example I just shared, I hope to demonstrate how confidence in a skill is strongly coupled with “believing” you can use the skill at will. You may be getting things done because they need to be completed before the deadline, but that would not leave you more confident each time. Quite the contrary. People around you don't see this. If you pick your profession and projects wisely, you will progress and get recognition for your work. However, looking out, you wouldn't feel confident that you belong or deserve the praise and promotions.
Imposter syndrome is this confidence gap. The gap between the confidence you should feel given your accomplishments and the confidence you feel. You are being recognized for your abilities; while you possess them, you cannot lean on them like some of your peers. Things worth accomplishing are challenging for everyone. Still, for people with ADHD, an added layer of self-hatred comes from the inability to apply ourselves, despite our best intentions. It's why productivity books written for the neurotypical brain are shockingly ineffective for people with ADHD. Just search for ADHD and GTD :)
It also explains why the imposter syndrome worsens as we progress in mastering our profession. As we spend more time, we get better, but our relationship with feeling confident doesn't get much better.
Life is full of tedium. Things that need to get done to keep it all moving. There is a word for moving through time, getting chores and work done, especially ones that aren't exciting or novel. I hated the term until recently - "adulting."
Google defines adulting as
the practice of behaving in a way characteristic of a responsible adult, especially the accomplishment of mundane but necessary tasks.
I feel it right now as I write this essay. I know what I want to write about, I know I can make a well-thought-out argument, and yet, getting this to the finish line requires writing a ton, throwing away most of it, and then editing it until it's in a good place. I love writing. This should be no problem. Unfortunately, once I am past the most exciting step of capturing the core idea, the rest is "adulting"—most of it. As I push through it, I face so much resistance that I question my ability to get this done. The later edits aren't "exciting" and, therefore, more brutal to get through. You can bet I'll hear the voice and feel like an imposter in the last few revisions crucial to getting this published.
In reality, it's taken me many months to get this essay to the finish line, and even as I am almost at the finish line, I have no idea how long a similarly complex topic would take to write again. Just because I understand it doesn't mean I know how to beat it! Not yet, anyway.
If you read this far - thank you! I'd love to hear from you, even if you vehemently disagree. I am @unamashana.