I have ADHD, and I worry.
Like 25-40% of people with ADHD, I have an anxiety disorder. This isn’t a coincidence. People with ADHD are “consistently inconsistent,” and we never know when our symptoms will manifest. And so we worry. For some of us, that worry becomes a chronic condition. For others, that worry isn’t a disorder, but it surfaces regularly. For most of us, it seems, our worry is inextricably tied to social situations — and it’s been that way since childhood.
Peopling sucks. I am not good at peopling. Many of us with ADHD, even those who are labeled extroverts, are not good at peopling. We are good at pretending to people effectively, then coming home and collapsing with the mental effort of pretending to people effectively.
My anxiety disorder is probably (mostly) social. At some point in their lives, 12% of adults will experience social anxiety disorder. Symptoms of this include a fear of conversations with people other than your immediate family or very close social circle; trouble making and keeping friends (oh yeah); an intense fear that people are judging you (you are judging me right now); feeling very self-conscious around people and in front of them (I will not walk to the mailbox without eyeliner); and experiencing panic attacks triggered by social situations.
We’re always scared we’ll mess up socially. And, well, a lot of us do. Regularly.
Social Executive Functions and ADHD
Real talk: people with ADHD already have difficulty with executive functioning. This difficulty hinders our emotional control. We have trouble with working memory and with metacognition, or self-awareness. All these things help smooth social interactions. They tell us when to start talking and when to shut up. They tell us how much a person is interested in something and when to change topics; they tell us when to stop sharing details about our personal lives. They tell us when someone actually likes us and when they really don’t. They tell us what to say, how to say it, and when to say it.
Maybe, like me, you find all these things a complete and total mystery, and you wonder if this is why you have very few real friends. Maybe, also like me, you find social interactions totally draining (even if people claim you’re an extrovert). And maybe sometimes you also suddenly find yourself talking — and no one’s listening. People look at you weird, but you have no idea why. If you could just put your finger on that why, it seems like you could solve everything.
That why, of course, is ADHD. Beyond that, everything gets murky.
Growing Up ADHD
A person doesn’t suddenly and magically develop ADHD. An adult with ADHD has always had ADHD. Their working memory has never been the same as a neurotypical person’s. They’ve always struggled with emotional control and metacognition. They’ve always been prone to impulsivity and maybe hyperactivity. The ingredients that make social interaction difficult have been around since childhood.
And children can be mean little goblins.
Many of us probably grew up as that kid, and you know exactly which kid I mean. You were the “spacey” kid who talked too much or the loud kid who wouldn’t stop getting into trouble. Throw in rejection sensitivity dysphoria — “the tendency to personalize ambiguous social interactions, interpret them negatively,” then find it impossible to regulate the ensuing emotions, which often leads to children with ADHD facing criticism for being “overly sensitive” — and you have a Perfect Storm for bullying. Of course, every kid with ADHD isn’t bullied. But we do face social ostracism more often than most other children, especially when we miss common social cues.
Guess when people learn the basics of proper social interaction — things like conversational turn-taking, oversharing, topic changing, and the proper way to answer someone who’s unhappy? They learn these things during childhood, and they usually learn them through interactions with other children. When your interactions with other kids are severely lacking because other children run away from you on the playground, you never learn to fix your broken social skills.
Like me, you walk through life baffled. You’re constantly wondering, “What did I do?” or “Why did I say the wrong thing?” I recently realized that when a neurotypical person tells you about something that happened to them, you should not reply with a bridge sentence like, “That’s so awesome!” then tell an anecdote about yourself that relates to their story in an attempt to connect. Neurotypical people think this is very rude. You should instead validate their story with words like, “Wow, that’s awesome! Tell me more!” A response that, to us, means, “I understand you, here’s how,” they read as “I am selfish and trying to take over this conversation.”
I don’t want to tell you how old I was when I learned that. Most children pick it up before high school.
Peopling Is Not Getting Easier
We were awkward children, and we grow into awkward adults. No wonder we have social anxiety. We are anxious about social situations because we are not good at social situations. They leave us confused and hurt. We start talking and people talk over us. We don’t know when to talk. We don’t know how much to talk. It’s mentally exhausting and even if we manage it, we want to collapse into a gooey puddle afterward. I come home and hide in my enormous Vans hoodie, watch David Bowie videos, and pretend I don’t have to leave the house ever again.
I’m not handing out a magic solution. Believe me, if I had it, I would. But if you’re that adult with ADHD who can’t people properly, you’re not alone. I know how much it hurts. I know it has hurt for a very, very long time, and you’ve never known what, exactly, you were doing wrong. Reading some essays about it can help — though some of these relate to autism, they can still cue you in to neurotypical social behavior. I finally looked my therapist in the eye and said, “My ADHD hurts my interactions with other people, and I’m sick of it. Can you help teach me how people expect me to act?”
I don’t want to be neurotypical. I like myself the way I am, thanks. But in some social situations? Faking neurotypical would save me a lot of stress, exhaustion, and anxiety. And maybe, after parties, I wouldn’t curl up in a giant hoodie and watch “Starman” ‘til I fall asleep.
Social Anxiety and ADHD: Next Steps
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