If you have ADHD, you are probably familiar with the constant juggling act of your life and obligations. Sometimes it feels like you have to work so much harder just to get bare minimum results. When keeping up with your tasks becomes too overwhelming to manage, it can result in burnout. Burnout can happen to anyone, but is especially common in people who tend to overcommit, neglect self-care, and have difficulty with time management. And unfortunately, there is a lot of crossover between behaviors of burnout and behaviors of people with ADHD.
I work with a lot of clients who experience the ADHD burnout cycle. Many feel like they’re doing something wrong, and that they should be able to accomplish more with the time that they have. Understanding how your ADHD impacts your behaviors and beliefs is a key first step in overcoming ADHD burnout. In this post, I’ll discuss factors and symptoms of ADHD burnout, and how it can impact you in the long run.
In general, people with ADHD are more likely to overcommit at work and in their relationships. There are a lot of reasons for this, and a significant amount of it boils down to the tendency of people with ADHD to seek out dopamine, novelty, and validation from others. Here are some common factors that can lead to ADHD burnout.
Time blindness. People with ADHD tend to have time blindness, so it's hard to estimate how much time something will realistically take. This means it's easy to commit to something, then feel like there’s too much on your plate and get overwhelmed. This leads to a cycle of shame, blame, and guilt. Time blindness can impact both work and personal life, leading to burnout in both arenas.
Difficulty prioritizing tasks. Task prioritization is hard for people with ADHD. You may have the best intentions, but when it comes right down to it, only the most urgent tasks get done in a timely manner. This can mean you’re living your life trying to juggle all your urgent and important tasks. When you’re stressed out by impending deadlines and living in a constant state of rushing to complete important tasks, you’re more likely to have anxiety and drop whatever self-care rituals help you relax. This fuels the burnout cycle.
People pleasing. People pleasing often looks like trying at all costs to be seen as likable, helpful, and high achieving. When you try to get people to like you, your boundaries can suffer, which can be exhausting and ultimately lead to burnout. While people pleasing certainly isn’t a habit reserved for those with ADHD, it frequently impacts neurotypical brains. The correlation exists partly because many aspects of socializing can prove challenging for people with ADHD. Many people with ADHD grew up being shamed by others or themselves for not fitting in, not listening properly, or being too fidgety or spacy in public. So they learned to try to fit in, do what everyone else was doing, and go above and beyond in order to try and gain the love and acceptance of the people around them.
Perfectionism. Perfectionism, in which someone sets unattainable personal standards and ruthlessly compares themselves with others – goes hand in hand with both people pleasing and anxiety. People with ADHD are commonly perfectionists as a coping strategy to overcome past feelings of not being good enough. Perfectionism can result from a lifetime of feeling like you need to behave a certain way in order to get respect, admiration, and love. If you’ve always been taught that you’re lazy, scattered, or flaky, you’re more likely to try extra hard to “make up” for those perceived flaws by working yourself to the bone in a career path.
Masking. People with ADHD often mask mental, emotional, and physical behaviors that might make their neurodiversity more obvious. Masking happens in all aspects of life – at home, at work, and in public. Masking often includes hyperfocusing on conversations in an attempt to keep up with the conversation around you, which can be exhausting. It also includes taking on more responsibility at work to make up for your perceived flaws, and this can lead to stress and burnout.
Procrastination. Difficulty sticking to deadlines without some form of external accountability plagues many people with ADHD who often rely on procrastination to complete important tasks and obligations because they don’t feel motivated otherwise. Unfortunately, this cycle leads to surges in stress and anxiety, and can leave your nervous system on constant high alert. When combined with a high-pressure job, this is a recipe for burnout.
Hyperfocus. Many people with ADHD have a tendency to hyperfocus on one task or work project for an extended period of time. This can often lead to a downturn in self-care. Things like sleep, eating well, exercising, and time spent with loved ones can get put on the backburner, and eventually it all gets to be too much.
Attraction to change and challenge. People with ADHD are often drawn to things that change quickly and are challenging, such as high-stakes jobs with lots of moving parts. These types of jobs keep things interesting, prevent boredom, and include built-in accountability, but they are also demanding and stressful. These types of jobs – healthcare workers, lawyers, therapists, or tech workers, for example – have a higher rate of burnout in general, which means that people with ADHD also have a higher rate of burnout.
ADHD burnout feels like exhaustion – mentally, physically, and emotionally. It also usually includes negative and anxious thoughts about your performance at work or your ability to keep up with the mountain of tasks piling up in your to-do list. Some other symptoms include:
If you’re dealing with symptoms like this, it might be time to figure out how to better manage the demands of your work and home life. Otherwise, your mental health could suffer in the long run. Therapy is a great opportunity to explore this.
Burnout is a vicious cycle. People with ADHD tend to over-commit and overextend themselves, which leads to fatigue, anxiety, and depression. ADHD burnout also highlights the very insecurities that have caused you to overcommit and overextend in the first place – when you’re burned out, you’re right back to feeling lazy, scattered, and not enough, which is what you were trying to avoid. This can cause you to double down on your perfectionism, people pleasing, and masking behaviors, which perpetuate the burnout cycle. In other words, being unable to fulfill all the obligations you’ve piled on becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I see this with my clients all the time. Living with ADHD burnout increases shame, blame, and guilt. It underscores the sense that there’s something wrong with you at your core. And then you feel like you have to make up for those flaws by working even harder in order to be loved and accepted.
Perfectionism, people pleasing, and other coping mechanisms probably worked for a while to cope with the difficulties of living with ADHD. They might have even helped you score your dream job or a fulfilling personal life. But ultimately, these kinds of coping mechanisms increase your chances of having anxiety, depression, relationship issues, and burnout.
The suffering that stems from ADHD burnout is hardly ever self-contained. If your self worth is suffering in your career, it’ll probably also suffer within your close relationships. The symptoms will bleed into your whole life until you can start to manage them again.
Working to exchange unhealthy coping mechanisms for healthy coping tools – and gain new skills to create a better work-life balance – can make a huge difference in your work and personal life satisfaction.
If the demands of work and home life are leading you down the road of ADHD burnout, I’m here to help. I offer online therapy in Idaho and Iowa and coaching services wherever you’re located for anxious clients who struggle with things like people-pleasing, perfectionism, burnout, overwhelm, and ADHD.
Reach out today and see if we’re a good fit. Let’s start building a better future together.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.