If you didn’t get diagnosed with ADHD until adulthood, you might’ve grown up with many damaging messages:
You’re not good enough or smart enough.
You can’t do anything right.
You also probably grew up with many hardships, including a poor academic record, parental disapproval and frequent punishments, according to Terry Matlen, ACSW, a psychotherapist and author of Survival Tips for Women with ADHD.
You might be seen “as spacey, wild, purposefully difficult or obstinate and [receive] a lot of negative feedback from others,” said Lidia Zylowska, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in adult ADHD and penned the book The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD.
Those messages and experiences inevitably follow you into adulthood. How do you stop from beating yourself up over them?
As an adult, you probably struggle with additional problems and challenges. You might experience poor work performance, such as “not getting projects done on time, arriving late to work, not getting along with co-workers or your boss”; positions that don’t complement your abilities; romantic relationships that sour, Matlen said.
Even if you did get diagnosed in childhood, you still might’ve struggled. You might’ve had to contend with stigma due to your diagnosis or acting differently from your peers, Dr. Zylowska said. Kids with ADHD can have trouble making friends, and bullying is common, she said.
So, it’s not surprising that most people with ADHD have a negative perception of themselves. “The person with ADHD may…see themselves as an outcast, damaged or ‘not as good as everyone else.’”
But you don’t have to resign yourself to a lifetime of self-bashing, criticism and negative thoughts. Fortunately, you can learn to feel better about yourself. Here’s how.
1. Get treatment.
If you’re not receiving treatment for your ADHD, seek professional help. ADHD “improves remarkably with appropriate treatment,” Matlen said. Effective treatment usually includes medication and psychotherapy and/or ADHD coaching. Here’s help on finding a good therapist.
2. Remember ADHD is a disorder.
Remind yourself that ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that produces disruptive symptoms, such as inattention, distractibility and impulsivity, which affect all areas of your life. It is “not a character or personality flaw,” Matlen said.
3. Pay attention to your inner dialogue.
Many people don’t realize that they have a negative dialogue playing in their heads all day, every day, said Carol Perlman, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in ADHD and developed a cognitive behavioral therapy for adult ADHD. It’s this dialogue that can trigger negative feelings and sink your sense of self – all without your awareness.
Observe “how often you have judgmental, harsh thoughts about yourself in one single day,” Zylowska said. Doing so will help you challenge and change them.
Remember that you don’t have to “buy into these thoughts,” Perlman said. They are not facts, and you can learn to develop another more positive perspective.
4. Challenge distorted thoughts.
There are various types of unhelpful thoughts that can exacerbate how you feel about yourself, according to Perlman, also co-author of the therapist guide and workbook Mastering Your Adult ADHD. One example is black-and-white thinking, she said: “I either do this all right now or it’s not worth starting at all”; or “I’m a terrible worker” (instead of the more accurate statement: “My performance is variable”).
Another problematic thought pattern is catastrophizing, or when we believe that something is much worse than it really is. We essentially make a situation into a catastrophe. For instance, your boss’s negative feedback becomes “He thinks I’m a bad worker, and has zero confidence in me. I’ll probably get fired.”
Monitor your mind for these unhelpful thoughts, Perlman said. “Take a step back and challenge those thoughts. Is there evidence that supports this is true or not true? Might there be a more helpful way to look at the situation to help me feel better about myself?”
5. Develop a more compassionate and supportive inner voice.
Practice viewing yourself in a more supportive and positive light. If you’re not sure what this looks like, think about “what [you’d] say to your friend if they were beating themselves up over something,” Zylowska said.
6. Have a stress management plan.
“The more stressed a person is, the less they are able to step back and assess a situation, or manage their feelings,” said Jennifer Koretsky, a senior certified ADHD coach and author of Odd One Out: The Maverick’s Guide to Adult ADD. “The mental ‘path of least resistance’ takes over, and the self-judgment goes on loop.” She suggested working with a counselor or coach to help you create your individual plan.
7. Keep a success journal.
Koretsky asks her clients to write down five successes they experience every day. “Successes can be small.” For instance, you might jot down that you made it to an appointment on time, or kept your cool when your kids were driving you crazy, she said. “Focusing on what you’re doing right starts to shift your thoughts about yourself, and makes you aware of the good, which we never pay as much attention to.”
Perlman has her clients do something similar: “Create an accomplishment list of strengths and positive qualities.” It can be tough to do, and might take several weeks or months. Ask your friends and family for help. Perlman suggests clients “review this daily to offset negative feelings you might have in the moment, especially if something comes up that challenges your self-worth.”
8. Harness your strengths.
While ADHD “leads to difficulties with self-regulation of attention, emotions and behavior [it also might] lead to potential strengths in some contexts,” Zylowska said. “For example, many adults with ADHD credit their ADHD for being ‘big picture, innovative thinkers.’”
“Are you a natural leader? Use that skill to better your work and social connections,” Matlen said. “Do you love to write? Start a blog or consider writing that book you’ve always fantasized about.”
9. Engage in pleasurable, positive activities.
“Engage in activities that bring you joy and a sense of mastery, such as hobbies. Such positive experiences often help develop a positive sense of self that can carry over to other activities or settings,” Zylowska said.
10. Surround yourself with supportive people.
“Surround yourself with people who celebrate who you are, and let go of toxic relationships,” Matlen said. Initially, you might’ve picked people who tear you down, because that’s what you thought you deserved, she said. Again, remember ADHD is not a deep-seated flaw, but a real neurobiological disorder. “[F]ind a team of professionals, a group of loving, caring individuals who want to see you succeed.”
Over the years, you might’ve gotten very used to bashing yourself, even seeing yourself as a failure. While you can’t undo a sinking sense of self overnight, you can learn, gradually, to feel better and chip away at your negative thoughts. We hope the above tips help you start the process.