ADHD Issue - I Feel Like a Fraud

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!"


But what about "I WAS Successful?"

First off, thank you for this blog post ... I've struggled with this feeling for my entire career. But even after I was diagnosed 4 years ago, I never considered that the feelings of being a 'fraud' might be attributed to my ADD. I've always felt like I have the talent/skill sets to accomplish great things. But, as you pointed out, the inability to compliment those aspects of my life with the skill sets that most folks take for granted, has increasingly lowered my confidence in the idea that I could keep perpetuating success.

About ten years ago, I transitioned from a career in Graphic Design, to Advertising/Marketing/Sales. My passion has always been graphic design and marketing, but I transitioned because it provided the opportunity to earn more money for my family. For awhile, I did well. When it came to talking with customers, cultivating relationships, etc. I was great. But when it came to the mundane aspects of the job such as paperwork, follow-up, and implementation, I wasn't so great. During one particular reprimand (long before my diagnosis), I had a boss tell me something like, "You're a great guy. I like you, your coworkers like you, and so do your customers. But I think you're just wired differently." I believe he meant well, but it had a big impact on me. At that time, ADD was not even on my radar. I took it as a subtle "You're not good enough" statement. Since then, I've moved on through 3-4 jobs with a couple different companies. All these roles had the same outcome ... High levels of success, trumped by ineptitude at accomplishing the smaller, mundane tasks that make corporate America so "great."

Fast-foward to recent times ... I was laid off in December of 2012. A year earlier I underwent brain surgery to remove a tumor on my auditory nerve that had taken a significant portion of my hearing. After the layoff, I began focusing on getting back into Graphic Design, to avoid the anxiety I had developed about interacting with clients, knowing that I couldn't hear them well enough to be effective. It didn't take long for me to see that my lack of a college degree (which was never a problem ten years ago), was seemingly preventing me from even getting a call for an interview, regarding positions that I was HIGHLY qualified for. I decided to continue looking for full-time employment, but felt like my best bet might be to begin focusing most of my efforts on building my freelance graphic design work.

When I'm working on a design project, I'm great. Every client is thoroughly excited and happy about the results. But I have the same problem now, as before. When it comes to the aspects of building a book of business, I struggle. All I want to do is sit in front of the computer and work, because graphic design and writing are two of the few things that I can stay focused on for hours at a time. I'm extremely anxious about the idea of getting out of the house to find new business. My mind goes into 'overwhelm' when I think of the details involved in keeping up with paperwork, invoices, following up on leads, etc. On top of that, I can't seem to find a balance between working from home, and working IN the home. My wife works full-time, and I feel a great urgency to try helping around the house because I'm the only one that's here all the time. On the same note — although my wife is great at the things that I struggle with, and could be a big help to me — I feel guilty about asking her to add to her plate, which is already pretty full with her own work. Couple that with the depression I struggle with daily — about the fact that we've gone from living comfortably, to barely scraping by — and I find myself in a situation where I never know, from one day to the next, whether I'll be able to pull out of this tailspin. 

I know a lot of it is the ADD, but my hearing loss plays almost as large a role. For many years, I always felt like, "I'm not cut out to work for other people." I can do it for a couple years at a time, but then something always happens. I used to attribute it to being restless and wanting more ... more money, or more advancement, or more fulfillment. Now, I see the prospect of working for myself as my best option for long-term happiness personally and for my family. But I've spent the past 20 years working for a steady paycheck. The notion of being an acute ADD person, who is responsible for creating and generating my own income, is extremely stressful and often leads to more bouts of depression and feelings of inferiority.

It's a catch-22 ... In the past ten months — without the stress of working full-time (where I was always either commuting long distances to work, or traveling to cover a mult-state territory) — I feel like I've made leaps and bounds in my ability to understand and live with ADD. I've spent my entire career daydreaming of how great it would be to have an opportunity to work for myself. Yet now, the stress of NOT being employed, not knowing where my next "paycheck" will come from (or when) — as well as the guilt and depression of not being the major contributor to my family's finances — has created many new ways for the ADD to interfere with my ability to experience the success that I once thought I was capable of.

Part of me knows that I can find it again. But an equal, and increasingly more dominant part of me continues to argue that I can't ... that I'm finished and will eventually be that man/husband/father that people say, "could've been so much more," but ends up working at a dead-end job and never getting back to the level I was at before.

And that leads to another aspect of the 'fraud' complex ... Outwardly, to most people, I'm laid-back, funny, and most-times a very positive guy. Inwardly, however, I feel extremely lost and out of control of my own fate. I don't know what to do. And if I did know what to do, I don't know if I'd have the confidence anymore to make it happen.

Where do I go from here? And how do I do it?

You need a business partner

You have a rare skill set and are very good at it.  You also lack organizational and new business development skills.  So, find a business partner who has those skills you lack.  Take a careful look at how you structure the compensation.  Maybe you can find someone who want to do business development and billing/office stuff for you for about half time to 2/3 time and is willing to work by the hour.  I know that I have found that when people need to reenter the workforce they are often excited to get flexible work that they can count on - many parents are looking only to work during school hours, for example, yet those jobs are very hard to come by.  OR you might decide that you want someone full time and that you want to split the proceeds of whatever comes in.  You are both working on spec.  OR you might start with the part time help, and move to the full time if things start working out.

You DON'T need to do it all.  Do what you do well - and unapologetically look for someone who doesn't do graphics but does do business stuff to work with.  Lots of people need graphic design help these days.

P.S.  This is YOUR business.  Do your best to set up a business that leaves you unambiguosly in control of major decisions unless that's simply not possible.  AND MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A CONTRACT AND/OR CLEAR UNDERSTANDING OF YOUR FINANCIAL ROLES.  You are either employer or partner, and they are quite different.  Your wife - who most certainly does not with to take this on as another job, might be willing to be another set of eyes for this contract - and you will likely find it worthwhile to invest in a lawyer to review it, too.

Freaking ADD

I feel great compassion for what you have blogged.  Primarily because I feel these same symptoms as an ADHD person.  Coupled with that statement is the fact that my successful college student Son has ADHD too.  Since his youth does not allow him to reflect on his symptoms, and his great ability to compensate now in his youth is so great, I do the reflecting for him...I worry...something I never used to do.  The positive side of my words are this...Melissa is right on.  Paper work is worse than a nightmare in our world, so get an administrative partner.  I thrived for 15 years as a registered nurse in a hospital setting.  All I did was patient care, charting their cares, and saw that Physicians orders were followed up on and carried out.  I was a good Nurse, and I enjoyed caring for my patients.  Currently, I'm in a School Nurse position, I love working with kids.  This job, however; surprised me with an overwhelming amount of paperwork to complete before Students began each school year. It too me an 60 hours to complete this 20 hour task that left me feeling so stupid, inadequate and depressed.  It odd how our self esteem is based fairly or unfairly on our successes whether we are wired or not wired for that part of the job.  Finally, I spoke with my friend and previous Nurse I shared the job with for 2 years that I was a good Nurse, and loved nursing, but was not an administrator, saying I never have been, that is did not like it nor understand it, so would have to quit if I had to do it.  The whole 60 hours of floundering  into the late night left me convinced that I was worthless!  Shoot, my friend, said, have the health aide do the paperwork details because her personality was made for it.  Well, that was a "duh" moment for me, and, I know you understand!  Why do we become our worst enemy by degrading our own being, better than anyone else can, instead of looking at the ISSUES at hand....well, we all know that because of our ADHD life history.  Anyway, get a partner gifted in accounting/paperwork, and do what you were made to do.....graphic design!

Avast Thar Mateys!

Thanks for your reply ... I definitely get where you're coming from and I appreciate your words.

I just spent four days replacing a power-steering hose on my truck. It should've taken thirty minutes ... hour, tops. But on the other hand, I'm finding ways to "embrace" some of my ADD traits, to use them as a positive tool and I've got some plans hatching ... So right now I'm in an "I don't know anymore," mood ...

And I'm randomly talking like a pirate.

"Why couldn't the pirate kids go see a movie?" -- It was rated, "ARRRRRR."