Why Women with ADHD Feel Disempowered — And What We Can Do About It
Life as a woman with ADHD can be… messy, to say the least. That messiness may lead to criticism and judgment — both real and imagined — from the people around us, often sparking deep feelings of shame and fear. Here are 5 ways to overcome those negative emotions — and rediscover the power you’ve lost along the way.
How Does ADHD Affect Women?
For far too many women with ADHD, day-to-day life is a perpetual source of shame. We’re ashamed that we’re always late, ashamed that we can’t keep our houses clean, ashamed that the people around us seem to have everything figured out (spoiler: they don’t). Mixed in with that shame is often fear — we’re afraid that another screw-up or attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) snafu will cause our carefully cultivated facade to unravel.
These feelings are disempowering — they very literally rob you of your power, your joy, and your sense of self. They’re also a large part of the reason so many women with ADHD struggle with a mood disorder, anxiety, and low self-esteem, in addition to ADHD symptoms like inattention or impulsivity.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can take concrete steps to confront your shame and fear, and to ease their vice-like grip on your life. Read on to learn why women with ADHD struggle with these tough feelings, how they manifest, and what you can do to get your power back.
Why Women with ADHD Feel Disempowered
Life with ADHD can be a little messy — both physically and mentally. For many (if not most) women with ADHD, life has been messy since birth. But while the neurotypical world accepts that infants and young children will be messy, it grants far less leeway to adults — particularly adult women, who are further burdened by society’s unfair expectations and unspoken rules.
Since childhood, we’ve heard criticisms and felt judged by the people in our lives. Unlike boys, who are often socialized to deflect criticism onto other people (“It was my friend’s fault we got in trouble, not mine” or “My teacher is just mean, that’s why she failed me”), girls with ADHD tend to internalize criticism. We assume we’re at fault for every bad thing that happens to or around us.
As girls grow into women, we take on additional roles — roles like wife, mother, caretaker, teacher, maid, chef, and nurse. Women everywhere are expected to take on these roles without complaint, so when those of us with ADHD struggle to keep up, we often feel like failures. We ask ourselves, “Why can’t I do this? Everyone else can — they’re must be something wrong with me.”
How Many Women Deal With Their ADHD
When these shameful questions and painful feelings rattle around in our heads, day in and day out, we tend to respond in one of two ways:
- Perfectionism: “If I just try harder and do everything perfectly,” we reason, “then I won’t feel like a failure.” But “perfection” is a myth, and striving to achieve it only leads to disappointment. In some cases, it can lead women with ADHD to eschew risks or give up on projects before they’re even begun — after all, if the end result won’t be perfect, what’s the point of even trying?
- Apologizing: In other cases, we respond by seeking penance from the people around us, apologizing for every perceived slip-up and loudly lamenting our many faults. Women with ADHD who seek forgiveness for existing imperfectly are buying into the belief that there’s something wrong with us, or that we’re broken beyond repair.
How to Live More Authentically with ADHD
Instead of apologizing or striving for impossible perfection, try these five strategies to manage those negative feelings and re-empower yourself:
- Pay attention to the voice in your head — and tell it when it’s wrong. Women with ADHD can get so accustomed to self-deprecating thoughts that we hardly flinch when they arise. But even when we don’t consciously hear them, the negative effects of these thoughts remain. Shine a light on these thoughts, confront them, and refute them whenever possible.
Next time you make a mistake, listen to your thoughts. If you catch yourself thinking, “I’m so dumb” or “I can’t do anything right,” push back. Remind yourself that, regardless of the end result, you did the best you could under the circumstances. Identify a lesson learned that could help you avoid future mistakes. Then, make an effort to dismiss the negative thought.Your internal monologue won’t improve overnight, but acknowledging negative thoughts — and then politely showing them the door — will help you develop self-awareness and regain some of your lost power.
- Follow the 5×5 rule. Do you tirelessly berate yourself for tiny mistakes? If so, try to follow the simple “5×5 rule:” If you won’t remember it in five years, the mistake is only worth five minutes of your thought and time. Spilled a glass of red wine on your friend’s carpet? Neither of you will remember that five years from now, so don’t dwell on it for days and days. Allow yourself to feel shame, anger, or fear for five minutes — then do your best to let it go.
Of course, letting go of anger isn’t easy, and won’t be possible every time. Instead, think of the 5×5 system as a goal — not a rule you must follow without fail.
- Reframe your symptoms. Researching ADHD helps many women feel in control of their symptoms, but constantly reading about the negative impacts and outcomes of attention deficit can be draining. If you’re overwhelmed by ADHD horror stories and often-sobering ADHD statistics, try reframing your most challenging symptoms as positives. Impulsive? That means you’re spontaneous. Easily distracted? That means you notice thing that other people miss while their heads are down working.
This doesn’t mean these symptoms will stop impacting your life or causing challenges. But making an effort to identify the positives of your ADHD — instead of dwelling solely on the negatives — will help you figure out your strengths, your quirks, and what systems and strategies will work best for you.
- Reignite your dreams. What did you want to be when you were a little girl? How about when you were a teenager, or an idealistic young adult? We tend to lose sight of these dreams as we grow older, but they’re a part of us, and they can help women with ADHD become their best selves.
Search your past for some of your forgotten dreams, and take small steps toward making them a reality. This doesn’t mean quitting your job and trying to become a professional ballerina! It can be as small as checking out a library book — perhaps you’re still interested in marine biology after all. It can mean signing up for a recreational sports team, or planning a vacation to an exciting new location. Whatever you do, do it to open up a path toward new opportunities and help you realize your full potential.
- Work on living authentically. Women with ADHD wear masks to hide ADHD personality traits. We put on a smile and say everything’s fine when we’re screaming on the inside. Hiding our true selves is exhausting, but we often feel like we don’t have a choice.
Living authentically — without masks or endless apologies — is a process. For some, therapy (or the help of a life coach) is needed. For others, acknowledging the whole of themselves, warts and all, is enough to help them feel more powerful. Whatever path you take, know that you don’t need to be “fixed.” We’re amazing, authentic women, and we’re more than our mistakes or our ADHD symptoms. Trust the process, trust yourself, and trust your power — it’s been inside you all along.
Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.