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Overcompensating for ADHD

One of the interesting things about people with ADHD is that they naturally find ways of compensating over time. Even if they aren’t diagnosed, they tend to gradually discover ways of operating that help them cope with their symptoms.

If you have ADHD and you find a coping method that works, you tend to cling to it for dear life. That’s because you know what your life looks like without that coping method, and it isn’t pretty. And so, compensating for ADHD can turn into overcompensating for ADHD.

Sticky NotesPeople with ADHD who take coping strategies to the max can end up with habits that look on the surface like the exact opposite of ADHD. For example, I’ve talked about how people with ADHD tend to be chronically late, but there’s also a group of people with ADHD who compensate by showing up to everything obsessively early.

Another example would be an ADHDer who meticulously and unwaveringly follows a certain organizational system because they’ve found that system helps counteract the general chaos that often comes with ADHD. Similarly, my room might be a mess, but there are probably people with ADHD out there who have catapulted to the other end of the spectrum and clean their room every single day.

At first glance, the ADHDer who always arrives half an hour early might seem like the polar opposite of the one who’s chronically behind schedule, but the two still share the same underlying inability to judge and manage time. It’s just that the early-bird ADHDer deals with these time-related difficulties by getting so far ahead of schedule that being late is totally out of the realm of possibility, so not having a good grasp on time doesn’t matter.

When I talk about “overcompensating” for ADHD, I’m simply making the point that people with ADHD can go from one extreme to the other. There’s not necessarily anything wrong with taking a coping strategy to its logical extreme – if it works, it works.

That said, even if it works, it can be stressful. Overcompensating for ADHD tends to come from a place of anxiety. You’ve been burned by your symptoms so many times in the past that you do everything within your power to avoid being burned again.

To some extent, anxiety can help with coping for ADHD. If you’re constantly worried about whether you’re going to late, in a way that probably will counteract the effects your ADHD-related impairments in estimating time, in the sense that it’ll make you less likely to be late (it won’t make you better at estimating time). If you’re always stressed out about whether you’re going to lose track of things due to disorganization, that will make you more likely to adhere religiously to a specific organizational system.

So anxiety does have some benefits in that sense. Of course, the downside of anxiety is … it makes you anxious. It’s the same story with overcompensating for ADHD in general – it can mitigate the problem you originally set out to solve, but at what cost?

Ultimately, how far is too far to take a coping strategy is something that depends on the person. You have to weigh what you’re getting out of that coping strategy, and what you’re putting into it. I do think some degree of obsessiveness or “hyperfocus” can be helpful in implementing strategies that help compensate for ADHD. After all, those of us with ADHD tend to do things all the way or not at all, and when it comes to coping strategies, the former is usually preferable.

Image: Flickr/Matt Corkum

Overcompensating for ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2017). Overcompensating for ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Dec 2017
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