ADHD in Women

ADHD, Women, and the Danger of Emotional Withdrawal

ADHD and emotional withdrawal — pulling away from friends, strangers, and loved ones alike — often go hand-in-hand. Withdrawal is a coping mechanism many women with ADHD learn from a lifetime of rejection, disappointment, and bullying. Breaking this unhealthy habit is not easy — but your relationships may depend on it.

Little girl facing away from the camera and looking toward the water, symbolizing ADHD and emotional withdrawal in women
Photo by Gyorgy Bakos

My husband keeps talking, but I am not listening. I am turning away from him. He has said or done something completely innocent on his his end — commented about the need to do the laundry, said he was too tired for sex, teased me gently for a crush on some movie star — and I am finished. You see, my ADHD comes with a dose of rejection sensitivity, or rejection sensitive dysphoria (RS), which can lead me to (mis)interpret things as a referendum on my (now-perceived) general horribleness as a human being.

The stew of guilt and anger, shame and misery can be totally overpowering. So I turn away. I curl into myself, cut myself off emotionally. I know it’s not a healthy coping mechanism. But at times, it’s the only one I manage.

Emotional Withdrawal is A Learned Behavior

Girls with ADHD often learn emotional withdrawal at a young age: for women, ADD and emotional withdrawal often come hand-in-hand. 

We can be slow to pick up on the social cues other girls learn with ease. We’re daydreamy and spacey, rarely anchored firmly in the here and now (probably because the here and now means forgotten papers, missed deadlines, and people demanding why we didn’t do better). Our disorganization itself can make us a social pariah as other students seek to distance themselves from the “bad” kid. We often blurt out impulsively at inappropriate times, which can, as others have pointed out, attract the attention of a bully.

[Self-Test: Do You Have Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria?]

So, as if social ostracism from the “mean girls” weren’t enough, girls with ADHD often find themselves being actively bullied — and back in the grand old 1980s and 1990s, no one did much about it other than tell us to suck it up. If it were a boy doing the bullying, some authority figures might have said, “Oh, he’s just doing it because he likes you.” (Setting the stage for us to conflate abuse with healthy relationships later in life).

Often, we were our only ally. Our teachers and parents might have dismissed our complaints as tattling, or brushed them off — like mine did — with something like, “If you learned to act like everyone else, this wouldn’t happen to you.” We learned to blame ourselves for our own ostracism; we weren’t worthy of membership in the social groups or the popularity other students enjoyed.

So we cut ourselves off. We learned not to care, because caring hurt too much. When the teasing started, when the bullying began (again), when spitballs flew, we retreated inward. It was the only coping mechanism we had.

We Carry the Emotional Baggage of ADHD Into Adulthood

Emotional withdrawal involves bottling up your emotions. It involves cutting out the people who could help us, because we’re so used to rejection that we’ve learned to anticipate it. Because we’ve learned to disconnect from others, we develop other unhealthy coping mechanisms.

According to statistics compiled by ADDitude, girls with ADHD are 3 times more likely than are girls without the condition to be treated for a mood disorder before they are properly diagnosed with attention deficit; a full third of us have comorbid anxiety disorders, and half of those — meaning one-sixth of women with ADHD — have contemplated suicide. We have a 5.6 times higher rate of bulimia, and a 2.7 times higher chance of developing other eating disorders. And while it’s more common for men with ADHD, some of us may turn to alcohol or drugs as a form of self-medication.

These are pretty dismal circumstances. And many of them stem from our need to “stuff” our emotions — or shut down how we feel in order to cope with the world around us. We’ve learned to anticipate constant attack, so we’ve developed unhealthy coping mechanisms — some of them blooming into full-blown psychiatric disorders — in order to function in a neurotypical world. We’re always afraid of placing a foot wrong, of missing a social cue, of forgetting an important deadline. And all the planners in the world can’t help us.

[Free Download: ADHD and Intense Emotions]

This Is Why Women with ADHD Withdraw

We pull away. We especially pull away, most dangerously, from those we love, because they are the most likely to cut us the deepest. Some studies have suggested that the rate of divorce in couples where one of more partners have ADHD is twice the rate of the general population. Part of this may be due to the effect of medications on sex lives, on inattentive behaviors, on “chore wars,” and on time-management failures. But as one woman says, “I’ve thought about leaving many times because I can’t take the criticism… He thinks he is helping me to be a better person” when he notes her ADD-related shortcomings, but she mostly ends up feeling “unloved.”

How Can We Address Emotional Withdrawal Positively?

  1. First, recognize that you withdraw from people and situations as a coping mechanism. This can be difficult to admit, since it’s the only way you’ve coped for so long. But recognition is the first step. Learn to say, when you turn away from your spouse or friends, “I am turning away and curling up in this situation. I am shutting down.” That takes a lot of serious work. It means you have to step outside your emotional responses and realize, first, the what of the thing thatś going on. If you simply succeed in saying to yourself, “I am emotionally withdrawing right now,” that’s a great first step in the right direction.
  2. Take the (admittedly scary) step of verbalizing what’s happening. It helps to memorize a script to go along with it. This can be something simple: “I have ADHD. I learned to withdraw as a coping mechanism. When you did x, it made me feel like I have to withdraw to protect myself.” This doesn’t mean that you do or don’t have to withdraw. It means that you are letting your partner (likely your spouse) know what’s happening. He or she won’t feel as if they are to blame, because you’ve grounded it in your own learned behavior, and you can hopefully work on some reassurance and help together.
  3. Next, sit down and make a list. Instead of withdrawing, what would you rather have happen? Maybe you’d rather have validation that your feelings matter. Maybe you’d rather have verbal assurance that you are loved just the way you are. Maybe you would like a hug. If you recoil from that, or if you’re not ready for it, maybe you’d like to have your hand held instead. Brainstorm a whole list of behaviors on the part of your partner that could help you feel more safe, and then share it with him or her. Don’t place blame; instead, offer constructive advice on how to help you with emotional disassociation.

Pursue Professional Help

Are you in therapy right now? You should be. We’ve seen that women who “stuff” their feelings, who suffer from painfully inappropriate emotional responses, can spiral into a whole host of negative outcomes.

A good cognitive behavioral therapist can help you come up with more coping mechanisms to help you deal with your feelings. You’ll learn to change your irrational thought patterns – in this case, the idea that offhand remarks or input from other people negate your self-worth – to more positive ones, and to cope when the negative thoughts arrive: to deal with them, not brood on them or stuff them.

There are many ways to find a good therapist. You can start with Psychology Today’s great tool to find therapists in your area, and then use ADDItude’s guidelines on what to look for in a good therapist or doctor, and whether you should see an ADHD coach or a therapist. Someone who offers CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy, a kind of CBT), along with a specialty in ADHD, is preferable. These professionals can help you learn to stop your emotional withdrawal and learn healthier, less dangerous coping mechanisms that can enhance your relationships, rather than sabotaging them.

Emotional withdrawal can hurt your relationships, poison your marriage, and, through toxic coping mechanisms, sabotage your life. But you can release yourself from its grasp. Emotional withdrawal is a behavior many women with ADHD have learned through a long life of rejection, fear, and bullying; it can take time, therapy, and help to get through it. It’s important to have a strong support network in place (including, if possible, an understanding spouse), and a good therapist.

But most of all, you need a strong commitment to change. Without that, you’ll be stuck in your old rut of withdrawal: and that doesn’t help anyone, least of all yourself.

[Slideshow: 10 Therapists Who Do More Harm Than Good]

10 Related Links

  1. Hey, I’m all for supporting women in women-specific issues and the disadvantages they face, but I don’t think it’s fair you the described symptoms and struggles in this article are brought up only in the context of women. As a male, the experiences you’ve described are what I’ve faced throughout my entire childhood, including disapproval by teachers and my parents (who did not believe ADHD was a real disorder and refused to take me to treatment until I fell into full-on depression and drug abuse at 16 (they would actually deny the symptoms I described to my regular doctor which led him to believe I didn’t have ADHD and was just trying to get Adderall, which led to me blaming myself for my symptoms and becoming even more insecure). In reality, I’ve had the symptoms of ADHD for as long as I can remember. Now in my first year of university I still struggle very much with my mental health after having to go through all that in childhood, and cannot get past irrational self-hate, the RSD resulting from the smallest everyday things, and my major depression disorder when I’m off medication – to the point that I’d spend most of the day in bed. I’ve read many similar accounts by about as many men as women on the /r/adhd subreddit. I think if you brought up the very real issues you described as being possible for both men and women, the article would have turned out better, by helping a greater audience understand themselves, versus leaving some feeling unaccounted for.

    I’m not commenting out of anger or personal offense, I think at times all of us are capable of unintentionally leaving others out through too broad generalizations, and conveying ideas in ways in which we’re not aware of them potentially being hurtful/dismissive to some. My intention is in that I believe my point is important to mention, especially in discussing such serious issues with the potential of being very personal, like to many of the readers of this site, myself included, and indicatively you, the author. Whatever your thoughts may be, I appreciate the consideration.

    1. My husband has been very unsupportive, stubborn, hard headed, self absorbed, his way or the highway, Etc. He knew I had ADHD. He even would contradict himself though, and refused to allow me to get tested, diagnosed or treated for it for years. His,excuse was our insurance would not cover it and it was far too expensive.Yet he would ridicule me and bring it up all the time, I did not fight for it until I was 47. And then I found out that our insurance and my SSDI would cover it. I proved it to him. I was the one who fought for getting help, I received it.It is NOT just my ADHD or fear of rejection anymore. I am now standing up for myself. I am now rejecting the constant negativity from him, and others.Its not imagined. Yes, I used to withdrawal, and most of all of what was mentioned in this article, absolutely applied to me or described me. Until I got help. I did not seek out mental therapy this,time. I was referred to and diagnosed by a neurological psychologist. He helped me understand the physical reasons for ADHD. How the ADHD brain is wired differently from an atypical brain. Why it causes the symptoms, why it is not just unhealthy learned behavior, emotional disorders. Why medication is used. It is to help the brain function the way it should, by providing the brain with the stimulation, the chemical process that the brain is not doing on its own normally. The world is NOT set up for those of us who have ADHD or ADD. So we have to muddle through it the best we can. I was born in 1969. When I was growing up this was not even heard of. It was called being hyper, being a brat, having ants in your pants, too much sugar. Etc. Corporeal punishment, humiliation, ridicule, Etc. Was the way it was handled in my childhood. Mean kids. Mean adults. But I survived it all. Fought it all my life. I received treatment at age 48. I am not blaming anyone. Just stating the facts. I am an exception to the rule. I did my own research. I had to fire 3 primary physicians because they refused to listen to me…in fact one tried to tell me I was bipolar after talking to me for only the first 5 minutes of my first appointment, and he had my husband in the room too, as it was his first appointment and decided to exam us both. That set me up for failure. He and my husband basically ganged up on me and ignored me,yet,they both talked about me, in front of me, as if I was not capable of comprehending and did not know what I was talking about, feeling, experiencing, Etc. AND then they both refused to discuss it further. Neither the doctor, nor my husband were qualified to even make a such diagnosis. It was the most unprofessional, rude and unbelievably degrading and worst experience I EVER had. Then, the doctor refused to refer me to anyone qualified to test and determine what I already knew, I had. I went to his wonderful nurse practitioner and achieved a lot of support and treatment of my other issues and then, when she went to him on my behalf and he STILL refused to refer me to the correct professional, I IMMEDIATELY replaced him. Now, I have the most wonderful Doctor! And his staff is equally incredible. My husband and daughter also now go to him. I had to fight my husband, my family, and so many roadblocks for 16 years, to get the help I desperately needed and deserved. Our kids were officially diagnosed with ADHD by their extraordinary pediatrician who went above and beyond to make sure they truly had it, when they were in grade school. She even said off record I had it. I am now reprogramming my brain, by getting rid of old behaviors, thinking, Etc.I am honest with myself and others. I don’t whine and sit on my butt. I get up, do my homework and get it done.I love my husband, despite it all. I am proud of myself. Things are SO much better. Even my husband has done a 80% turn around.I know men and boys can also suffer just as bad, if not worse, as girls and women. My own son did.I got him treated, and my daughter too. Total transformation. Thank you for the opportunity to voice my experience. I do hope it helps others.

  2. “We’ve learned to anticipate constant attack, so we’ve developed unhealthy coping mechanisms — some of them blooming into full-blown psychiatric disorders — in order to function in a neurotypical world.“

    Some of them? I think that totally discounts the existence of what might be considered “just normal coping” in these circumstances. I think “shame on additudemag.com for publishing this.”

    1. I don’t understand why saying someone’s developed unhealthy coping mechanisms and *of those* unhealthy coping mechanisms some might even be considered disordered is automatically saying that they obviously have no healthy coping mechanisms. Your getting offended over nothing.

  3. Mostly my husband is very supportive and wonderful. He does occasionally get upset with me, and I don’t blame him. But, he’s always there for me when I’m feeling down or rejected.

    I remember how difficult growing up was, and how often I was compared to my very nice, pretty, smart girlfriend. One time I actually had an adult say, “why can’t you be more like Julie?”. Boy, did that hurt. I’ve had people tell me “everyone things you’re spacey,” which is so darn helpful.

    I went to a large high school, and I hardly knew anyone. Of course, I have a some nice memories, but I went to one class reunion, and that was enough.

    Every so often someone decides to go after me on Facebook, which is always a surprise. I don’t feel I’ve said anything to deserve it, and when I try to defend myself, it just gets worse. Right now, I’m taking a break, and unfollowed a group where I got the most recent “lecture.” Having people decide they need to “correct” me really hurts my feelings. I’m not mean or pushy, just sharing my thoughts.

  4. I’m sorry, but it sounds like you were bullied as a child, and developed borderline personality disorder as an adult. Every single symptom you just ascribed to ADHD can be associated with BPD, and may not present in individuals with the former, but most definitely will manifest in people with the latter. It is, ofcourse, entirely possible to have both. They are often misdiagnosed, and sometimes co-morbid, but this article just perpetuates misinformation in a harmful way, and should not be a website devoted to the ADHD mind. It reads more like a journal entry written that might appeal to many white women of a certain age, at certain stages in their lives, in certain parts of the world, but isn’t really relatable to the rest of us at all. I won’t even get started on critiquing the poor writing style etc., but the content is just so troubling. If there are (m)any other posts like this on the website, I’m probably going to have to unsubscribe to it now.

    1. WOW! Judge much? Sharing one’s experience doesn’t mean it applies to “all”. Knowing some aspects of the disorder applied to me gave me pause to know *I’m not the only one* & cut myself slack! I’ve always appreciated how this site was a place of acceptance, caring and understanding. If you don’t share the same values, perhaps it isn’t the place for you. P.S. If you’re going to criticize someone’s grammar, you’d better be prepared to use spell check yourself.

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