The Emotional Side

Self-Compassion: The New ADHD Treatment

New research shows that practicing self-compassion allows individuals with ADHD to be more successful in managing symptoms and to flourish in ways they may not have believed possible.

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Reviewed on May 10, 2019

Whatever the challenges we face, we handle them better when we see them accurately. Whether life feels easy, difficult, or anywhere in between, effective strategies depend on an undistorted picture of the details. When we are mired in reactivity, anxiety, or self-doubt, we stay in the same old ruts — in our mind and in our actions.

Attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) amplifies those stressful emotions and self-doubt, yet precise solutions rely on seeing it accurately. If we underestimate the consequences of ADHD, or deny that someone has it, we can’t manage it fully. That clear-sightedness starts with seeing ADHD as affecting overall self-management skills, not focus or behavior specifically.

ADHD Symptoms Undermine ADHD Care

ADHD hinders the ability to meet goals in any situation; it is not just a “school” disorder. ADHD also gets in the way of itself, since strategies for managing ADHD are often undermined by its symptoms. Knowing these details about ADHD may steer decisions about what to do next.

Living with ADHD often affects self-perception. ADHD may mean chronically setting the best intentions and falling short. Friends and family say you should know better or work harder, but you are already doing what you can. Children with ADHD often get mislabeled as defiant or disinterested.

Such negative feedback takes a toll, leading some individuals to doubt their ability to handle their own ADHD. Plans for managing ADHD require sustained effort and problem-solving skills. As with any challenge, overcoming ADHD requires resilience. To be resilient, we must identify with our strengths, and also recognize our imperfections, as we learn. Because of ADHD’s negative effect on our self-perception, sustained resilience may require an ongoing practice of self-compassion.

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Self-Compassion Builds ADHD Resilience

The idea of self-compassion is straightforward. We don’t mentally treat ourselves nearly as well as we would a close friend or child. That situation has real-life implications, potentially eroding our self-image, confidence, and overall happiness through the years.

Self-compassion is a reality-based antidote for self-criticism and perfectionism. We learn to value self-improvement and take responsibility for mistakes, but without inner heckling. Research shows that self-compassion improves how we feel, problem-solving and persistence, and how we treat others. It builds resilience when facing the effects of ADHD, too.

Maybe you spilled a cup of coffee on the papers you brought to an important meeting. What are your first thoughts? Typically, you might think, “I always screw up, nothing ever works out, what an idiot I am.”

Now try this. Imagine watching your closest friend do the same thing: important meeting, coffee spills, papers ruined. What are your reactions to your friend’s blunder? “It’s fine, everyone does it! Take a minute, it will all work out.” With practice, we can shift that kind of compassion onto ourselves, the way we would approach a struggling friend.

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There’s a misperception that a perfectionistic and critical attitude keeps us motivated. Research shows otherwise. Perfection is impossible to achieve. Striving for it wears down motivation, leaving us no room to fail and recover. As we would tell anyone else, to succeed requires the desire to improve, and also the space to stumble, reorganize, and move forward again.

A strong mindset relies on a belief that our effort matters. How would we advise a child? You made a mistake. Now what can we do next? This patient view leaves more room for progress, problem-solving, and long-term effort. With practice we cultivate a more balanced view of ourselves, our lives, and our ADHD.

Self-Compassion and Evidence-Based ADHD Care

How do mindfulness and self-compassion support someone with ADHD? They help us realize that self-image and self-doubt are not hardwired mental traits but habits that can be changed. A typical self-compassion practice has three parts: observing what is going on right now (mindfulness); connection with others (often called “common humanity”); and actively developing and building a healthier self-perspective.

Mindfulness means seeing life as it is. Otherwise, we get caught up in denial, fear, or anger, shut down or lash out. Being “mindful” doesn’t mean all is OK. It also means accepting when we are unhappy — perhaps admitting we are overwhelmed by our kids or don’t know what to do. Take it all in — nothing to fix yet, but this is how things are for me right now.

Connection with other people helps build resilience. Our struggles, with or without ADHD, often make us feel separate and unique in our failings. It seems that we are the only person who screws up or whose child fails a class or misbehaves. ADHD is common. With or without it, we all wrestle with something. The second part of self-compassion practice is reminding ourselves that everyone (or every parent or everyone with ADHD) has struggles. We benefit from a sense of community.

The last aspect to the practice is to start treating ourselves as we would a best friend. It’s not that we’re perfect or don’t need to fix something, but we can push back against the irrational voice of self-criticism. We focus on better intentions for ourselves: “May I be strong and kind to myself in this moment.” Without striving to make anything magical happen, we remind ourselves how we would treat a friend in the same situation.

Research suggests that self-compassion practice can be profound for anyone. With ADHD, the practice of self-compassion builds a foundation that allows for positive changes while navigating whatever else ADHD care requires. Self-compassion allows individuals to flourish in ways that they may not have believed possible. And that is exactly the point of the practice.

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DIY Self-Compassion for ADHD Minds

The following exercise can be used in two ways. As with all of mindfulness, the broader intention is to build traits through repetition. We practice so that a new way of thinking is ingrained. One approach is to set a timer for several minutes (anywhere from five to 15 minutes will do), and follow these instructions:

1. Start by sitting or lying down in a comfortable posture. If sitting, aim to remain alert and upright. Either close your eyes or shift your gaze to something non-distracting.

2. Take a few deep breaths. Gather your attention, which may be caught up in self-recrimination, fear, joy, worries, or anything else. For now, focus on the movement of your body with each full breath.

3. Next, with each inhalation, observe it all. You might say to yourself, “This is what my experience is right now. Or “This is how it feels, for better or worse.” Then consider, “Everyone has moments like this.”

4. With each exhalation, set an intention: “May I find strength and kindness for myself right now.” Use any phrase that feels natural, something you would say to comfort a friend.

5. You will get distracted almost immediately. That’s what our mind does. Treat that distraction in the same way — it happens, no need for frustration, come back to take the next breath.

6. Continue in this way for a few breaths or until your timer goes off.

Alternatively, in any moment, you can reset your perspective. For a few breaths, remind yourself: “Right now, amid this stress, may I remain solid, grounded, and kind to myself.” That becomes easier over time, especially when combined with regular meditation practice.

Mark Bertin, M.D., is a developmental pediatrician in Pleasantville, New York, and author of How Children Thrive and Mindful Parenting for ADHD. He is an assistant professor of pediatrics at New York Medical College, and on the faculty of the Windward Teacher Training Institute. He is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Specialist Panel.

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