If you have ADHD, you might be the last to know. And when you finally get diagnosed, you might be surprised to find that no one else is surprised.

Head in SandIt’s common for people with ADHD to underestimate, or even completely fail to recognize, their symptoms.

There’s a whole subfield of ADHD research on this. Most recently, for example, a study of 107 teens with ADHD found that 66 percent of them underreported their symptoms and 24 percent denied they had any symptoms at all! (Their parents, meanwhile, gave higher and more accurate estimates.)

As people with ADHD get older, they do tend to become more self-aware. Still, no one with ADHD is necessarily immune from failing to see the full extent of their symptoms. In psychology generally, it’s widely recognized that people with a whole range of disorders often lack insight into their conditions. This can happen with ADHD too. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • Getting used to your symptoms: Fish, meet water. When you’re totally immersed in something all day every day, it can be hard to recognize that thing even exists. For people with ADHD, their symptoms are a basic and ongoing fact of life. When you don’t know anything different, it can be hard to see your symptoms as something out of the ordinary.
  • Not knowing what’s “normal”: It’s easy to assume that other people are like you. It won’t necessarily occur to you that in some regards, the way you go through life is different than the way most other people go through life. So if you want to gain more insight into your symptoms, here’s a little exercise you can do: make a game of observing how other people pay attention, exercise self-control, etc. and see if you notice any discrepancies.
  • Blaming external factors: When things go wrong, it’s natural to look for external causes you can blame. It’s not fun to find the common denominator in your failures when the way your brain works is that common denominator. So when your ADHD symptoms create chaos in your life, your first instinct might be to chalk your problems up to bad luck or whatever other explanation you can find. But recognizing your ADHD symptoms as a consistent source of problems in your life doesn’t mean you are bad, incompetent, flawed, etc., and acknowledging this distinction can make it easier to take an honest look at how your symptoms are affecting your life. Of course, people with ADHD can also have the opposite problem, too, by blaming all their problems on themselves – the goal is to be able to assess the impact your ADHD symptoms have on your life without making it too personal and spiraling into self-blame.

For people with ADHD, underestimating their symptoms can be a real barrier to diagnosis and treatment. It’s hard to get help for a problem you don’t recognize you have! And even once you do get help, not being aware of your symptoms can stop you from getting the most effective treatment and developing coping strategies that could improve your life.

That’s why if you have ADHD, you owe it to yourself to (1) meet with a therapist and (2) reflect critically on your symptoms and how they could be affecting your life in ways you haven’t yet acknowledged. Doing both these things can help you develop perspective on what ADHD looks like in your everyday life, which makes it easier to take steps that make your life better.

Have you tended to underestimate your ADHD symptoms? What are some other reasons people might not recognize their symptoms? Please comment below!

Image: Flickr/Peter under CC BY-SA 2.0