Many women with ADHD live with a painful secret: “Shame, unfortunately, seems to be the name of the game, for many women I have worked with who have ADHD,” said Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach.
Even women with advanced degrees in demanding, high-powered positions feel incredibly overwhelmed once they get home, stressed out by all the household details, she said. “They feel like they are living a lie — that their accomplishments are simply due to good luck.”
Even for women who understand how ADHD makes daily life difficult, one minor mistake or overlooked task can send them reeling from humiliation — “like simply forgetting to sign their child’s school-related paper in time.”
This triggers a barrage of negative, cruel thoughts: “Oh no! I’ve done it again. What is wrong with me? I’m such an idiot!”
In childhood, girls are taught that we must keep a tidy home, cook dinner every night, do laundry, entertain, take care of the chores, raise well-behaved children and work full time, said Matlen, author of the forthcoming book The Queen of Distraction: How Women with ADHD Can Conquer Chaos, Find Focus, and Get More Done.
For women with ADHD these expectations — however unrealistic and unfair — can amplify their shame and sink self-esteem. This happens particularly when women become parents because there are so many additional responsibilities, she said.
When they can’t keep up, they start feeling guilty. They berate themselves for not being what they perceive as good enough mothers. They worry their kids won’t learn certain skills, such as time management. They regularly compare themselves to other moms, for whom parenting and other motherhood-related responsibilities seem to come easily, she said.
“Women are taught to be a stabilizing force in the family. If she falls apart, then what? So she continues to live with her painful secrets of feeling inadequate, unintelligent, incapable.”
Many women with ADHD also have been told that ADHD isn’t a “real” condition, said Matlen, who also has ADHD. They’re told they just need to work harder, but “Telling a woman to try harder is like asking someone with a hearing impairment to listen better.”
Letting go of shame and feelings of inadequacy is a process that takes time. Matlen’s seven tips can help you get started.
1. Connect with other women who have ADHD.
According to Matlen, “Women with ADHD have much in common and feel much better when they see how it affects others and how they manage.” She suggested joining online groups and support groups in your area.
Matlen has created a range of websites for women with ADHD:
- www.QueensOfDistraction.com: an online group coaching for women with ADHD.
- https://www.facebook.com/groups/womenWithADD/: a Facebook group for women to connect and share information and resources.
- www.MomsWithADD.com: a Facebook group for moms with ADHD.
She suggested these other great websites:
- www.SariSolden.com: Solden penned a groundbreaking book on women with ADHD. Her website is for both men and women, but lots of women are drawn to her site.
- http://www.addiva.net: a site for women, especially who are middle aged and up.
To find other groups, Matlen also suggested trying Facebook and typing in the search box: “women with ADHD.”
2. Attend ADHD conferences.
“A lot of the issues surrounding shame and inadequacy are due to feeling like you’re the only one who has difficulties with organizing, time management, etc.” But you’re not the only one. Conferences help you connect with other women with ADHD, and learn important insights into how ADHD affects you, she said. Matlen recommended the ADDA conference and CHADD conference.
3. Revise negative thoughts.
Matlen stressed the importance of doing the internal work of dealing with negative thoughts and replacing them with positive thoughts. She shared this example: “I may not be great at remembering people’s names, but I know how to draw, paint, comfort people who are hurting, etc.”
4. Focus on your strengths.
“I’ve seen so many women’s self-esteem take a huge pounding as they forget or dismiss their strengths,” Matlen said. Remember to celebrate your abilities and the things you’re good at.
5. Channel your ADHD into positive pursuits.
If you’re impulsive, channel that into being playful and pursuing creative outlets, such as painting and dancing. If you’re a dreamer, Matlen said, start a journal to capture your ideas. Instead of fighting your ADHD, accept that it’s part of your neurobiology — not a character flaw — and reroute it into healthy, enjoyable activities.
6. Be picky about the people in your life.
“Reach out to people who celebrate your strengths and stay away from negative people,” Matlen said. If you’ve been too ashamed to tell anyone you have ADHD, consider sharing it with people you trust who aren’t judgmental, she said.
7. See a therapist.
It’s crucial to work with a therapist who has a solid, compassionate understanding of how ADHD affects women, Matlen said. “There may be years of struggling with low self-esteem, low self-worth, depression [and] anxiety that need to be teased out in the context of ADHD.”
Therapy also can help you realize that you’re a “perfectly capable woman who happens to have an ADHD brain,” Matlen said. Because you are.
Matlen recommend these additional books for women with ADHD:
- Women with Attention Deficit Disorder by Sari Solden, which Matlen called “the Bible for women with ADHD.”
- Understanding Women with ADHD by Drs. Patricia Quinn and Kathleen Nadeau.
- ADHD According to Zoë: The Real Deal on Relationships, Finding Your Focus, and Finding Your Keys, by Zoë Kessler (who pens this excellent Psych Central blog).
- Moms with ADD by Christine Adamec.
- 100 Questions & Answers About Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) In Women And Girls by Dr. Patricia Quinn.
- Confessions of an ADDiva: Midlife in the Non-Linear Lane by Linda Roggli.
- The ADHD Effect on Marriage: Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Steps by Melissa Orlov (for both men and women).