I regularly hear from successful adults with ADHD - particularly men - that though they experience success at work they worry that they still don't feel successful. In fact, they feel as if they have others 'fooled' and that some day they may be discovered as a fraud. A marriage tip reader recently wrote me to ask "what's at the root of this? I often feel this way but can't pinpoint why..." As I've talked with adults in counseling about this issue I believe it has to do with the inconsistency of ADHD.
One version of this inconsistency is in wildly contradictory skill sets. Something that should be "hard" is easy, while something that is easy for most people is very hard. In The ADHD Effect on Marriage I quote a physician who asks "Some days it is a struggle to keep my life together even in the little ways most people take for granted. After all, if I can't make sure my socks make it into a hamper how is it I can take care of a seriously ill patient in an emergency? A four year old can be taught to put their clothes away but I can't?" (p. 87) This man's inability to do the supposedly 'simple' things in life colors his perception of who he is. The foundation of being an adult (being competent at the tasks that children can do PLUS being competent at things they can't) is shaky - he therefore questions his higher-level skills. On the outside he is an accomplished doctor. On the inside he can't do what a 4 year old can. How long until others figure this out?
What this man isn't taking into account is that picking up your socks has zero relevance for the skills of being a good doctor. Socks are BORING. Taking care of a patient in the middle of a heart attack is not. But as long as the doctor expects he must be able to do everything, he will feel like a fraud. But let's reverse that idea for a moment. What if I, Melissa, said that because this man was a doctor I, too, needed to have those skills in order to feel whole? Would anyone think that was reasonable? I doubt it. This doctor is discounting the impact of his ADHD in making his skill set wildly uneven...rather than accepting that this is who he is, and thanking himself for choosing a career that fits his skills and at which he can truly excel. (Thank goodness he's not a housekeeper!)
I think there is another aspect of the inconsistency of ADHD that impacts whether successful people feel they 'earned' their success and, therefore, can take full pride in it. That inconsistency has to do with the results one gets when one attempts to accomplish any specific task. For those without ADHD there is a pretty strong correlation between the amount of effort expended and the likelihood of success. Try harder and you will probably reach your goal. This is not the case for those with ADHD. Due to the pervasiveness of ADHD and its symptoms, there is not a strong correlation between effort and success. Sometimes you try hard and you succeed. Sometimes you try hard and you...get distracted and miss your deadline. This leaves an element of uncertainty in the everyday lives of adults with ADHD that never really goes away. They learn to cope with this by developing a sort of "go with the flow" attitude and lifestyle. But inside, there is always this question...can they rely on being successful the next time? Or will an ADHD symptom get in the way? Imagine living with that 24/7 and you will understand better why even the most successful adults with ADHD sometimes feel like frauds.
And now, to follow up on that, I would like to add that you shouldn't feel like a fraud. If you are successful it is not because luck has just fallen on you. It is because you earned it. In fact, adults with ADHD typically have to work HARDER to earn their success because the ADHD symptoms must be overcome, or at least organized to serve whatever it is they are trying to do. So next time you are feeling like a fraud, tell yourself a new story. Tell yourself "I'm here because I earned it. And I am capable of continuing to be successful - it may not always be a straight path...but I have it in me! And I'm going to enjoy the daily journey, too!"