Emotions & Shame

You Are Not the Sum of Your ADHD Challenges

The ADHD brain gravitates toward black-or-white, all-or-nothing thinking. The problem is that human beings are complicated and contradictory. As a result, many women with ADHD ping-pong between extreme perceptions of themselves — bad or good, dumb or smart, motivated or lazy. This reactive, extreme thinking leads to low self-esteem and should be replaced with inward thinking and a healthy dose of self-compassion. Here, learn how to reframe your view of yourself.

low self esteem adhd in women
low self esteem adhd in women

Like many girls with ADHD, you grew up thinking you were either smart or dumb, happy or sad, nice or mean. Perhaps one day you felt strong and confident, but the next you became overwhelmed, even paralyzed by your ADHD symptoms and negative thoughts again. Perhaps you still do.

Changing perspectives and fluctuating moods are not unique to the ADHD brain. We all have periods of irrational thinking and moments of clarity. Sometimes we yell at a person we love and we feel bad, but we can be kind to a stranger. We are different at different times, even in the course of a single day.

This is normal, but to the ADHD brain these human inconsistencies are upsetting and confusing. Why? The ADHD brain tends to think in terms of drastic polarities — motivated vs. lazy, creative vs. boring, organized vs. a mess. Your brain feels it must pick sides. But because we are forever changing and vacillating, this psychological tendency keeps us flip-flopping from day to day, relegated to reactivity instead of intentional thought and action.

The good news is it’s possible to be more intentional in our thoughts and actions, and to allow for more gray space in our view of the world. We can learn to rewrite the stories we tell ourselves, but not without first understanding who we are — and acknowledging that we are not the sum of our ADHD symptoms.

Replacing All-or-Nothing ADHD Thinking with Wholeness

Healing means “restoring to wholeness.” In order to heal, we need to be able to hold all of who we are in one image that embraces a diverse set of characteristics. That means no longer over focusing on only our challenges or only our strengths.

[Take This Test: ADHD Symptoms in Women]

When we overemphasize one aspect of ourselves and dismiss the rest, we engage in reductionism. We reduce ourselves to one oversimplified or exaggerated attribute. Moving into a more complete narrative requires that we distance ourselves from reductionism and fill in the whole picture of ourselves.

Step One: Stop Trying to ‘Fix’ Yourself

As a clinical psychologist, I see many women with ADHD who are extremely self-critical — in part because they’ve been fed a continuous diet of shame. They’re so ashamed of their challenges they believe it’s not possible to live well with ADHD unless they “fix” themselves.

They succumb to unhealthy if/then thinking: When I get organized (or improve my time-management skills or become more productive…) then I’ll be happy (or take the class I’ve been putting off or feel good about myself, etc.). They pour so much every day into trying to manage their challenges that they start to believe it’s not possible to be happy unless they fix their brain and fix their ADHD symptoms. The thing is, that’s pretty backwards.

You are much more than your ADHD. ADHD plays into who you are, certainly, because interacting frequently with your brain-based challenges can’t be completely avoided. There will always be the question, “Is it me, or is it my ADHD?” But those two pieces – you and your ADHD — are unique, but intertwined. They combine to form the whole person. Accepting that we can’t fully separate our brains and our bodies is a step in the right direction.

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Step Two: Adopt a “Yes, and…” Ethos

My “radical” approach to healing considers the whole person in a way that acknowledges an individual’s strengths, plus their need to manage their symptoms. I teach my patients with ADHD how to say to themselves, “I am able to pursue some of my dreams and passions and improve my self-care,” or “I’m able to do these things even though I still struggle.” This break from unhealthy black-or-white thinking allows my patients a way to move forward and to formulate a whole picture of themselves. I call this the “yes, and” space.

I love this quote by Geneen Roth, a writer and teacher, known for her insights around eating disorders: “I’d tried versions of not fixing myself before, but always with the secret hope that not fixing myself would fix me.”

The quote sums up what I think is the hardest part about living with a chronic condition — trying to find the fix. And then recognizing — at least in our minds — that we need to surrender because there is no fix.

It’s okay to struggle with this idea and to have periods where you wish you your ADHD would just go away. But true healing emerges only through the process of reminding yourself that people don’t need fixing. Once you accept that it’s OK and normal to experience strengths and weaknesses simultaneously, you begin to approach managing your challenges with some self-compassion — and that is the key to doing the hard work of real change

Step Three: Understand Who You Are

You know your ADHD challenges very well. In fact, you have probably over focused on them throughout your life. Drawing an authentic picture of the whole you means giving equal weight to your strengths or the dreams that reflect your values. But many people are blind to these areas or find them difficult to access.

Below are several prompts to help you reflect on and assess various aspects of your life with ADHD. Read through these questions and jot down what comes to mind:

Assessing Your ADHD Strengths

  1. What do you do really well that seems to come naturally to you?
  2. What could you teach or contribute to others?
  3. What skills or talents have you developed through the years?

Assessing Your ADHD Challenges

  1. What are your most challenging ADHD symptoms?
  2.  Describe the issues you confront in daily life or in moving forward because of these challenges.
  3.  How does ADHD show up in your life, even with treatment?

Assessing Your Personal Attributes

  1.  What makes you you?
  2.  How do you respond to the ups and downs of life when you are at your best?
  3.  What endures within you that makes the difference for you?
  4.  What do you most appreciate about yourself?
  5.  How would you describe yourself if you were a character in a book?
  6.  What special qualities have you always had that you still have—perseverance, a sense of humor, compassion, creativity?

Step Four: Follow Your Own True North

We talk about the importance of values a lot, but rarely use them as a guide. For women who are buffeted by the push and pull of the ADHD brain, it is critical to look inward and return to an internal compass to know what we want our lives to be about.

When you feel you’re going in circles, pause and remind yourself who you are and what’s important to you. Following your internal compass, your values — not the distractions of ADHD — will guide better choices when you feel lost or emotionally overwhelmed.

Once you know what you value, you can write a personal mission statement (see below), just as you would if you were running your own company. After all, you’re running your own life.

Step Five: Write Your Personal Mission Statement

Ask yourself the following questions. Use honest answers to compile your personal guide and start living by your values and strengths:

  •  What is most meaningful to you?
  •  What do you stand for?
  •  What do you want your life to be about?
  •  What are your core values?
  •  What do you want people to know about you?
  •  When you look back on your life, what would you like to say about yourself?

Answers these questions on a cheat sheet designed to help you act on your values if you’re too tired or challenged to think through a situation in real time. You might write your values and mission statement on a card and post it near your desk, carry it in your wallet, or write it in your phone to remind you of what you’re all about.

Article derived from A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD: Embrace Neurodiversity, Live Boldly, and Break Through Barriers, by Sari Solden, M.S., and Michelle Frank, Psy.D. Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2019 [Sari Solden and Michelle Frank] and from the 2019 ADDitude webinar with Michelle Frank titled “Beyond Shame and Guilt: Transformative Strategies for Women with ADD” 

[Click to Read: Sister. Wife. Mother. Living with ADHD.]


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Updated on July 13, 2020

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  1. This is a lovely and immensely helpful article, especially with the prompts it asks you to answer about yourself! However, I don’t understand why it’s targeted towards women only when I think all genders could benefit from this thinking. Men especially are socialized to distance themselves from their emotional needs, so they may benefit doubly so from an article on self-acceptance.

  2. “I don’t understand why it’s targeted towards women only when I think all genders could benefit from this thinking…..”,me too.

    WHY?

    …and another thing: I’m a man (hetero) and I’m very close my emotional needs…too much generalizations, stereotypes etc.

  3. I’ve learned that every time there are distinctions between men and women with respect to ADHD I more closely align with the descriptions of women with ADHD, and yet I’m a guy. It’s kind of amusing but it’s just one more example of how I just don’t fit in.

    That said, I’ve been really trying to accept myself for who I am, to embrace both my benefits and challenges. This article is very good timing.

    One thing working for me is to spend time every day thinking about what I’m thankful for. There is a spiritual aspect to having ADHD (or maybe everyone has this) that has helped me. Namely, there is a spiritual reserve that is increased as I think good thoughts and is decreased as I struggle with the typical challenges of ADHD (losing things, time, memories, focus, ….) Further, the polarities of how I respond to challenges depends on how much spiritual reserve I have. It doesn’t prevent me from losing my keys or showing up late, but it sure makes it easier to deal with the repercussions. Yep, I lose stuff, but I also make some beautiful things that few others will even attempt. And yes, there are some goobers in those things, they aren’t perfect, but neither am I. Who wants perfect anyway? The really great characters in good books are far from perfect.

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