Fibbing: How does ADHD factor in?

Cindy JobsHealth and Well-Being, Organization, Uncategorized

“In times of stress, the person doesn’t attack, run away, or play dead in front of teachers or bosses or spouses —

he or she fibs to protect self-esteem.”

As an ADHD coach, my clients often come to our coaching sessions wanting to explore the impulse to, and repercussions of, telling fibs.  I think most of us will agree that most fibs, or lies, eventually become exposed and the damage done with the deception is far more extensive than if we’d just told the truth in the beginning.

Let’s be honest here.  I’m guessing everyone has fibbed at one point or another.  Unfortunately, due to some challenges with executive functioning challenges (time management, impulse control, emotional regulation, working memory, attention regulation, etc.), individuals with ADHD may find themselves in this position more frequently than neurotypical individuals.

Why do you feel the need to be dishonest?

Common themes I hear:

  • “Yes, I’ve finished my chores.”
  • “Of course, I know how to do that.”
  • “No, I don’t remember you telling me that.”
  • “I’m certain I responded to that e-mail last week.”
  • “Trust me, that shirt is the perfect color for you.”

I recently read an article in Attention Magazine exploring the thought that fibbing may not be a character flaw at all, but an impulsive, fear-based response to a real or perceived threat.

“Yes, I’ve finished my chores.”

They know they were supposed to finish the dishes before we go to the gym with our buddies, but the gym sounded like more fun at the time.  The lack of impulse control kicks in and off they go!  They are sure they will have time to do them before Mom and Dad get home, but the time management process fails, and they don’t leave the gym in time to get the chores done.  When Mom calls to make sure the chores are complete, they fib because they know the dishes were to have been done before going to the gym,   and now it’s too late to complete the task. They prefer to fib the moment due to the perceived threat that Mom’s going to mention how disappointed she is in the moment and again when she gets home.

“Of course, I can help with that project.”

This situation comes up a lot with my clients, especially in the workplace.  The breakdown is over-commitment to time or expertise.  Trying to people-please, they commit to doing projects they don’t have time for or don’t even know how to do.  They are positive that they can figure it out and are too embarrassed to ask for help.  Then what happens?  They don’t follow through. Co-workers get upset.  Their reputation is tarnished.  They committed to the project due to a perceived threat that if they didn’t, people wouldn’t like or trust them, but it backfired, and  now everyone is upset.

“No, I don’t remember you telling me I had soccer duty.”

They forgot, again, to pick up Johnnie from soccer.  The breakdown was in forgetting to write it down or set a reminder on their device, and now Johnnie just called in tears because he’s been waiting for someone to pick him up for an hour.  The coach had to stay late yet again and indicated that if it happens one more time, Johnnie won’t be able to be on the team.  Johnnie is upset.  The coach is frustrated. Their spouse is livid.  Rather than admit that they forgot, they deflect responsibility as a response to a real threat that Johnnie won’t be able to play soccer.

“I’m certain I responded to that e-mail last week.”

The amount of e-mail a person gets these days is astounding!  It’s almost impossible to keep up, let alone distinguishing between important, not important, urgent, or not urgent.  Prioritization is a real challenge for someone with ADHD because all the e-mails may carry the same weight, so frequently they respond to the wrong thing at the wrong time.  Sometimes the e-mail load is so overwhelming my clients don’t open their e-mail boxes or, in extreme situations, intentionally delete e-mails they have ignored for too long or don’t know how to respond.  Insinuating they’ve answered correctly or that it is somehow someone else’s fault, could be in response to a perceived and real threat that they are unreliable.

“Trust me, that shirt is the perfect color for you.”

A small, but not insignificant, fib to a question that may be very important to the other stakeholder is in play here.  “What’s the big deal about telling someone something looks good on them even if it doesn’t?”  Well, if this person didn’t trust your opinion, they would not have asked.  Not telling the truth in response to what appears to be an insignificant question to you, is a breach of trust in response to a perceived threat that they may not like you if they tell the truth.

What should we do when we are in the moment between fibbing and truth-telling?

Pause.  Take a breath.  Be honest.

Don’t let the lack of impulse control, attention regulation, and emotional regulation get in the way of creating a healthy, honest, and respectful relationship.


Cindy Jobs, COC, ACC

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Level I Certificates earned in Chronic Disorganization; ADD; Client Administration; Time Management; Mental Health; and Hoarding.

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