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 and emotional withdrawal stems from my 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.

Studies show what we’re up against, too. Teenage girls with ADHD are more likely to struggle with social, attentional, and organizational difficulties; have poorer self-concept; experience more psychological distress and impairment; and feel less in control of their lives. Women with ADHD are also at greater risk — by 2.5 times — for major depression compared to women without ADHD

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 complications stemming from ADHD and sex, inattentive behaviors, “chore wars,” and 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 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]


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Updated on September 29, 2020