Ask the Experts

Q: “What Does ‘Be Yourself’ Mean for Adults with Fractured Self-Esteem?”

Therapists and coaches advise adults with ADHD to ‘be yourself,’ but what if that means risking social guffaws, relationship harm, and further injury to your self-esteem? Advice for adults with ADHD apprehensive to reveal their authentic selves.

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Q: “When you say, ‘be yourself,’ what exactly does that mean? I’m 50 years old and I have never understood that phrase. What does ‘being yourself’ look like? How do social norms, the expectations of others, and the need to prevent my flaws and shortcomings from damaging relationships (personal and professional) come into play in the process of trying to ‘be myself?’ – NoName

Hi NoName:

At first glance, this question seemed very straightforward. For me, ‘be yourself’ means to be unapologetically you. However, while thinking about how to respond, I realized that this simple, two-word phrase can convey many ideas that can be overwhelming or confusing. Let me try to break it down.

I say “Be yourself” because I don’t want those with ADHD to feel they need to alter or ‘fix’ their personality. Years of working with students with ADHD has made me very sensitive to this. Granted, all relationships and interactions navigated at work, school, or home provide various degrees of challenge. But successfully navigating those challenges should not require you to try to be — or, more precisely, pretend to be — someone else.

“Being yourself” is less a look than a feeling. It means understanding what makes you tick. I found it interesting that you only mentioned “flaws” and “shortcomings.” But those don’t paint a complete picture of you or anyone else. I’m sure you also have many strengths and skills. So, when I say “Be yourself,” it means to embrace all of you — identifying and celebrating your strengths, while also acknowledging your weaknesses.

Let me try to provide a real-world example. I had an adult coaching client whose ADHD behavior tended to manifest as impulsivity; he often interrupted people in conversation and in meetings. He was so concerned that his ADHD traits would damage his reputation and chances for a promotion that he became a wallflower, rarely contributing, providing feedback, or affirmatively engaging with colleagues. Matt’s performance reviews were generally positive, but he was miserable at work because, by playing the wallflower role, Matt was hiding the fact that he was also very smart and processed information very quickly. He was also one of the wittiest people you’ll ever meet. However, Matt’s misery bled into other areas of his life.

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He became so focused on eliminating the potential damage wrought by his impulsivity that he hid his intelligence and quick-witted personality. In essence, his true self.

For Matt, “Be yourself” meant letting his friends and colleagues see the best parts of his personality while also learning to be more patient in meetings, picking the appropriate times to speak up and contribute. When admonished for the occasional interruption, he quickly apologized and acknowledged that it was sometimes hard for him to contain himself, especially when he had a great idea based on something he just heard. It meant recognizing that his impulsivity was part of him but didn’t have to define him.

I like to think that’s truly being yourself.

Be Yourself with ADHD: Next Steps

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