Anxiety, imposter syndrome, and ADHD (Mallory’s story)
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Mallory Band was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety when she was 8 years old. She has two brothers with ADHD, but their ADHD looked different. They were hyperactive on the outside. But Mallory felt hyperactive on the inside. She struggled with perfectionism, people pleasing, and big emotions. As with many women who have ADHD, imposter syndrome set in as she got older.
Mallory’s “aha” moment came well after her ADHD diagnosis — when she was in graduate school learning about executive function. It was the first time she had stopped to think about how her own brain worked, and how burnt out she was from pushing herself against it. Now she’s an executive function coach who helps people with ADHD lean into the power of saying “no.”
More from Mallory: Imposter syndrome at work: How I stopped feeling like a fake
Mallory: I was diagnosed when I was 8, but that's certainly not when I had the "aha" moment. I was having these big emotions, I was experiencing imposter syndrome, but I didn't know what that was. Not until I was in grad school when I started to take a deep dive into learning about the brain and learning about the science of learning and teaching and understanding what's actually happening with my brain wiring. Things were making sense.
Laura: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "ADHD Aha!," a podcast where people share the moment when it finally clicked that they or someone they know has ADHD. My name is Laura Key. I'm the editorial director here at Understood, and as someone who's had my own ADHD "aha" moment, I'll be your host.
I'm here today with Mallory Band. Mallory is an executive function coach and an ADHD advocate who lives in Maryland. Mallory, you wrote into the show and you had said that you were diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety when you were 8 years old, and immediately I was like, "Whoa, that's awesome," to have those diagnoses so early in life. I was maybe projecting, I don't know if it felt awesome to you, but let's start there. How did you get both of those diagnoses so early in life?
Mallory: My dad is still a practicing psychiatrist, and my mom was a special educator for over 40 years, so they were certainly well versed in this world, even, you know, 25, whatever, years ago when things were a little bit different and we didn't know as much. But I guess also having two older brothers who had some similar challenges with ADHD, although those traits permeated themselves in different ways.
Both of my brothers would get really angry at each other and get into fights and be out of control at times. And I wasn't physically hyperactive like that. Certainly impulsive. But I think a lot of it was my mind was really hyperactive, but I sort of took on some of the traits of just having these huge emotions and keeping it together during the day at school. But then when I would come home, things would sort of unravel.
And I think my parents were sort of keen in understanding that something's up. This is not what every 8-year-old is experiencing or exhibiting. But I was really lucky in the fact that, you know, I was sort of in the majority in my family where there were five of us, four of us, who have ADHD. So, it didn't feel super different, and it was just sort of, we sort of kind of fed off of each other. And just that was the norm for us.
Laura: So, five people in the family, so all three of the siblings have ADHD. So, it sounds like, if I'm doing my math right, one of your parents has ADHD, too, is that right?
Mallory: Yes. My dad was diagnosed as an adult and it was like, "Duh!," when he got diagnosed. "Of course you have ADHD. It's very obvious."
Laura: You mentioned that your brothers are, they're maybe more, quote unquote, classically hyperactive and you're more hyperactive in your brain. How else were your symptoms distinct or similar?
Mallory: I think that they would physically get into fights. I think my middle brother certainly was very hyperactive, was bouncing off the walls, would do things very impulsively, like our neighbors had a trampoline, so we also had a basketball hoop. So, he like, thought it would be a good idea to wheel the basketball hoop over to the trampoline to try to make like slam ball. And of course, it got stuck in like all this. And he would just do stuff without thinking. And I think, you know, a lot of it was like the really extreme procrastination of he would not pack his lunch and I would hate to be late for school, so it would drive me insane. So, I would just do it for him and pack his lunch and get everything cause we needed to get out the door because he was procrastinating. He wasn't ready, you know. So, I think he probably was just, "Oh, great, if I don't do it, she'll do it for me." So, sort of like having that bit of enabling, but also like I was so anxious for him to get out of the house so we cannot be late for school.
Laura: So, you're coming home, you're falling apart when you come home from school, which a lot of parents don't realize, that's a sign of trust. Like, it may be frustrating for parents, but you feel comfortable letting go when you get home. Where does your parents take it from there? What did they investigate?
Mallory: Yeah, I think part of the way that my ADHD and anxiety, and I really still, even as an adult, find it really hard to untangle what is what and sort of what the differences are, because I think they are really, at least for me, really intertwined in how they present themselves. But I would be able to keep it together all day at school. And then when I would come home, it would just be there was so much pent-up anxiety, and kind of overwhelm.
And the way that my anxiety permeated itself was I had the need to complete everything all at once. If there were things that were not complete or things that were looming over my head, that was the most uncomfortable kind of situation for me to deal with even in kindergarten. So, before I was 8, you know, I would come home, you'd get a homework packet, and it would be due on Friday and you'd be assigned it on Monday. And I couldn't get over the fact that there wasn't an option. I had to finish it on Monday or else it just something bad was going to happen or just, it didn't feel right, and I couldn't stop myself.
So, it was almost like I was going into overdrive, which is I think, different in that aspect where it wasn't the typical procrastination or we couldn't get started, but it was I couldn't stop myself until it was done. And that was a lot of the emotional dysregulation thrown in there and not being able to sort of discern what priorities were because everything was an urgent task.
But I can really remember that as early as that kindergarten example. And of course, there was a lot of screaming and crying and yelling at my parents because, you know, I was frustrated at them. But really it was I was frustrated with the brain that I have. I didn't understand what to do with it, how to work with it.
Laura: So, talk me through what — and I've even had experts on this show talking about the connection between ADHD and anxiety, and it is really difficult to parse out where one stops and where one begins — but tell me what you think is happening there. How does ADHD contribute to that mindset and how does anxiety contribute to it in your experience?
Mallory: It is really challenging because I think we've got the anxiety piece where the rumination is going on and thinking about all of these things that were in the past and thinking about, "I should have done this differently, I should have done that differently," but then also sort of having those fear thoughts, thinking about the future of "What am I going to do about this? What am I going to do about that?" And sort of coming up with all of this sort of false scenarios, you know, that might never even come true?
And I think part of that with having some of the emotional regulation on the ADHD side and the impulse control, where I know this isn't helpful, but I can't stop myself, let me keep going and see what, let me just try to solve this problem and not having the foresight to understand that this is actually only getting worse if I allow myself to keep going instead of pumping the brakes.
Even with all of that being said, I do find it extremely challenging to discern what is what. I think it certainly makes it more intense having both and certainly the way my ADHD presents itself, having anxiety thrown in there or layered, I guess layered in there, I'd be a better illustration of how it really is, makes it even more challenging to figure out what is what. But I think they sort of just tag team against me and for them almost a complementary way and makes it much more challenging to navigate through life with that dual kind of threat going against you.
Laura: Whoa, that is really well said. That layering in. When you got diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety, what was your awareness and vocabulary like around ADHD and anxiety at that time?
Mallory: You know, my parents said, "We're going to do this testing and you're going to try medication, you know, having various tutors and things like that, all throughout school. And I will also sort of say, of course, that we know it has nothing to do with your intelligence." And I was somebody who was that straight-A student.
But on the backside of that, I was burning myself out and creating a lot of these really bad habits in terms of perfectionism and imposter syndrome and all of these things, having no idea that maybe this isn't the norm. Not everyone is coming home and having a three-hour meltdown just to do 20 minutes of homework where it could have just been done and you were over with it.
So, I had extra time, I had tutors and stuff, but I was lucky enough where that didn't really feel different to me because my brothers had those accommodations as well, and it just was like," Oh, well, they're cool. So like, that's fine, whatever."
Laura: So, you were diagnosed at 8, but it sounds like your "aha" moment came much later. That was when you were in your 20s. Can you describe in a little bit more detail what was your actual "aha" moment around ADHD?
Mallory: Really, it was when I was in grad school, I was at Hopkins and we were doing a lot of reading and work around mind-brain teaching and that was just so fascinating and so eye-opening where it was really just in the brain, and that was my first really kind of deep dive into what's under the hood and what's going on and what might be happening in my brain and how that actually impacts my life on a daily basis. I'd never actually taking the time to think about this makes X, Y, and Z tasks a lot more challenging, or you're actually figuring out ways to do daily tasks that other people might not need to do.
But unbeknownst to me, I'm sort of coming up with my own system or my own structure, and it was just kind of fascinating and things were making sense. My behaviors were making sense. The feelings of imposter syndrome were making sense, the manifestations of perfectionism were making sense. And it's been a huge learning journey and not to feel, you know, "Woe is me," or "This is so hard. Life is so hard." Well, sure, life is hard, but life is hard for everybody for different reasons.
But I think being able to be patient with myself, to actually understand what is going on in my brain, how my brain works, and then trying to play to my strengths instead of always pushing against it and just going in a one way street of "I have to do it this way because that's always how I've done it," and actually learning how to best support myself. And that was a pretty cool experience, even though it was almost 20 years after my original diagnosis.
Laura: Were you feeling like an imposter up until that point?
Mallory: Oh yeah, definitely. But I really hadn't heard of imposter syndrome, and I hadn't heard of rejection sensitive dysphoria at all. I sort of think about these three things for me are really tightly intertwined and how they impact my life on a daily basis. I didn't have the label or the words, but those were the feelings that I was experiencing.
And I think with the education, with understanding my lived experiences more, having a label or having something to put on how I was feeling, and then also understand, "Oh my gosh, there's so many other people who are also feeling whatever I'm feeling," just felt like I wasn't the only one who's like some weird person who is experiencing these things, but it's actually quite normal. And that just brought forth some comfort in this journey.
Laura: For anyone who's listening who hasn't heard the term imposter syndrome, could you define it for them?
Mallory: Definitely. For me, what I think imposter syndrome is, no matter what your accolades are, no matter what your credentials are, whatever you achieve, it doesn't matter because you're never going to be good enough. You're always feeling like someone's going to catch you and call you out for being a fraud or saying that you don't belong no matter how experienced you are, whatever background you have. It really comes from a lot of this insecurity and just never feeling good enough, feeling like everything comes from, "Well, I got the A because I was lucky the teacher put a curve on the test. It wasn't because I studied really hard. It wasn't because I'm really smart and I worked very diligently to prepare." So, your efforts don't actually impact anything. It's all luck.
And on the other side, someone's going to always be there to catch you and call you out for doing the wrong thing or from making a mistake. And I think that's where, in my mind, perfectionism for me ties into imposter syndrome and feeling like you have to be perfect and there's no room for making mistakes or messing up because then you're going to be caught even sooner for being an imposter and not belonging. And you don't want to stand out and be different. You sort of want to just blend in and mask.
Laura: And what's the ADHD layer on that in your experience? How did ADHD interplay with the imposter syndrome in particular?
Mallory: I would say it's kind of masking some of these traits that might not be as desirable. Like, for example, I'm someone who has a really hard time with blurting things out and interrupting people. So, when you're in a meeting, it's like, "Well, how did this person get hired? They can't even wait their turn. They don't even know the etiquette of having a conversation. What's going on there?"
And I think part of it, too, is making any type of mistake that just like wasn't an option ever. Not because that's what my parents said. I was actually putting these expectations on for myself. You had to be perfect. And if you weren't, well, bad things were going to happen. Someone's going to find out, and someone's going to figure out other characteristics about you. "Oh, you're not perfect and you're really annoying, so you don't ever stop talking. You don't know how to take turns in a conversation and your legs are always bouncing and you often have really big reactions to things."
It just depended on what it was, but then it was sort of a domino effect where one thing led to another led to another. And I didn't want to be exposed as here were some traits that were maybe different, or that I guess rather I wasn't really comfortable with or didn't understand it like in the ADHD world, that's really normal.
Laura: I've been trying to restrain myself a little bit during this interview. I've been trying to keep myself from saying too much. Like, "I totally relate to that. I totally relate to that." But anybody who listened to the first episode of this podcast knows that this is very similar to my story, ADHD and perfectionism. And my "aha" moment came after my diagnosis when I finally realized, "Oh, this actually is a big deal in my life."
And it sounds like that's similar to you, because clearly you had supports in your life as a child and as a young adult in your family and you were learning about the supports that you needed to cope with ADHD symptoms. And then, am I right to hear that you're basically on the brink of burnout, right? because you were just pushing yourself way too hard?
Mallory: Absolutely. And even after I had this "aha" moment, I was still, it wasn't like, OK, the next day I flipped the switch and changed. I was still pushing full force and then sort of just realized, "Oh my gosh, I'm exhausted. This is too much."
And with just going through different life experiences and having different challenges arise, kind of understanding that you have to work on your cognitive flexibility too because you really will continue to burn out. Life is going to do whatever it's going to do. It's going to happen no matter how good of a person you are or how prepared you are, things are going to happen that you don't want to deal with.
So, trying to build in some of that cognitive flexibility to help alleviate feeling exhausted all the time and really just being a little kind and gracious and patient with yourself. Because if you're not doing that, nobody else is going to do that for you. So, you have to be the one to take the lead on that.
Laura: Yeah, I'm going to oversimplify for a second, but, and this is what struck me when I got your email that day, I was like, "Wow, here's someone who was diagnosed much earlier than I was, who had supports throughout her life and a better understanding at least of what was going on than I did, and yet still had this "aha" moment later in life like I did." So, it just felt, that felt very important. It felt like that was like a little nugget of truth. Like the most important thing, I don't know, at least in my story, was a little bit of a mindset shift, right? And I'm wondering if you can, it sounds like that was the same for you. If you could put a fine point on, what was that mindset shift for you?
Mallory: Yeah, you know, I think I was sort of in an environment that, you know, was dealing with some really challenging people and that is not something had ever been in before. That's another thing not having them brought up yet, but another part of my ADHD and I think of feeling insecure was being a people pleaser, having to say yes to everything because I was insecure and wasn't, you know, I needed to be perfect. So, I didn't want people to be upset with me. That thing where someone's like, "Hey, can I talk to you?" I'm like, "Oh my gosh, what have I done?" And trying to jog my memory and see why this person, you know, it's like horrifying for me. And for the first time in my life, like having to put up boundaries felt extremely uncomfortable.
But that sort of something where that mindset shift started to take place, where it's like, just because I'm doing something doesn't mean I'm stuck here, doesn't mean I have to stay in here just because you want to switch or leave or do something else. It doesn't mean you're quitting, but you're trying to figure out what's the right path for you. And I realize for me, I am so, such an emotional being, I am so intensely empathetic, I care too much. And that actually is a disservice to me, you know, letting people walk over me and saying yes to everything because I didn't want to upset people.
But going through that experience where people might not have had the best interest for me or were trying to take advantage of me and realizing that, "No, just because I have some of these challenges doesn't mean I'm not good enough, doesn't mean I don't deserve the best for myself and I'm able to put my foot down. I don't have to say yes to everything. I can set boundaries, even if that makes other adults uncomfortable. That's too bad."
Part of that mindset was, "I'm not in control of how other adults feel," and that was something I know it sounds really ridiculous, but I didn't understand that until truly a year ago. It does feel awkward, it does feel bad to shut people down or say no to things. But that was leading to burnout. That was leading to way more anxiety than I needed to be dealing with because I already, my baseline feels pretty high.
Laura: We haven't really touched on it yet, but if you couldn't tell already by the way that Mallory has been talking and how motivational it is, Mallory is an executive function coach and works with a lot of young people. And I have to share with you, Mallory, that as I was getting ready to do this interview, I was feeling so much of what you were talking about earlier. The "I need to get everything done at once," and I have to tell you, I have like a task list right now completely unrelated to the podcast of things that I need to do. And I was like, "How could I possibly stop what I'm doing right now to do a recording for a podcast?" And then I had this moment of relief, and I was like, "Wait, Mallory is an executive function coach. Maybe she can help me work on this during the interview."
Mallory: I love it. And I would say too, like for me, when I don't write things down, when I let things stay and fester in my head, that's where the anxiety wheel starts to spin and go wild. So, I really do think, you know, first and foremost of writing things down, but also thinking about things in terms of priorities. So, what are the few things that absolutely need to be done today thinking about as like a triage approach of whatever's bleeding, you have to work on that. If it's a call for a cut, like that's going to be OK. You might not have to deal with that today.
It might not feel good to let that sit, but it is kind of cool to be able to see that, "OK, well, it's still going to be there tomorrow. I survived. We've survived every single day. We've always gotten everything done." So, sort of trying to rely on past experiences, too, because I don't know about you. But again, yes, definitely having things that are unticked on my to-do list does not feel good, but also feeling exhausted and cranky and angry or whatever doesn't feel good either. So, there has to be some type of middle ground. We have to be able to have some type of balance.
Laura: Yes. And I have to ask you about when you're working with young people on strategies, I'm going to quote something you said earlier, this voice in your head that tells you that, "Life is hard for everyone. I don't deserve to say no. I don't deserve help." It's something I hear so many times from my guests on ADHD Aha! Those thoughts like they layer on, to use your expression, they layer on to all these good coping strategies. What do you say to help people cope with those kinds of thoughts? The "I don't deserve to say no."
Mallory: First and foremost, I think the best type of conversation that we can have is being vulnerable from my end and sharing my own experiences where this is when it worked, this is when it didn't work, and acknowledging, "Here are certain examples of where I need help," and helping other people learn how to delegate tasks and just to really to normalize that. Because I think as a child I didn't realize like, "Oh, my parents don't have it all figured out. They don't know everything." And you sort of, that's what I thought of just, "Adults know how to do everything."
And I think part of, at least for me, part of what I'm realizing is, "Everyone's winging it." We're all sort of just trying to figure it out and do our best and helping kids and young people understand that, sooner or later we're going to need to get comfortable with self-advocating, we're going to need to get comfortable with saying what we need. So, practicing it in a safe space, even if it's just role-playing between you and I for a while. The hard thing really is we can't force anyone to do anything until they're ready, until they understand why we need to do this, why it's important, why it matters.
Laura: Do a lot of the young people you work with have imposter syndrome in addition to ADHD?
Mallory: Many of them do. Many of them certainly have low self-confidence, low self-esteem, and sort of feeling a bit alienated. And I think part of why I really like doing this work is because I can see my pieces of myself in a lot of them and trying to think back of, "What did I need at this age? What did I wish I had? Can we have some of these conversations now that we know a lot more, now that there's a lot more research out there, that we just, a lot of this is much more normalized now?" So, trying to bridge the gap and make this just more normal.
Laura: Mallory, it's been really great to talk with you today. It's been very validating, I think is a good word to say it. And I think the work that you're doing is so cool. So, I just want to say thank you for spending this time with me and for all the work that you're doing.
Mallory: Thank you so much for having me, Laura. This was really a great opportunity. I really appreciated chatting with you.
Laura: You've been listening to "ADHD Aha!," from the Understood Podcast Network. If you want to share your own "aha" moment, email us at ADHDAha@understood.org, I'd love to hear from you. If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Understood is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. We have no affiliation with pharmaceutical companies. Learn more at Understood.org/mission. "ADHD Aha!" is produced by Jessamine Molli. Say hi, Jessamine!
Jessamine: Hi everyone.
Laura: Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, Seth Melnick is our executive producer, and I'm your host, Laura Key. Thanks so much for listening.