Ask the Experts

“I Feel Like a Loser at 21”

Young adults with attention deficit are sometimes at a loss to boost their self-esteem. Here are some ways to do it.

I am 21 years old and was diagnosed with ADHD at 14. I feel like a loser. I barely graduated college, and I have had trouble holding on to a job. Many of my friends are doing well. I feel like crap. How do I get out of the gravitational pull of low self-esteem?

Dr. Wes: You don’t have to hang out long with ADHD people to know how much the disorder can mess up how you see yourself. If you ask a person diagnosed with ADHD how he feels about himself, he will probably say that his attention deficit makes him feel like a loser. So much so in fact, that ADHD and depression often go hand in hand. That’s because, as you grow up struggling to make your brain do what you tell it to, you learn not to feel good about yourself. You get down on yourself when you’re not keeping up with the class, you feel inadequate in your relationship or at work, or you feel like you’re caught in a dead-end career path. Many tests for ADHD include a self-concept scale.

Most people call this “low self-esteem,” which, I contend, is a big part of the problem. Like so many pop psychology concepts, self-esteem started out as a useful idea, caught on with the public, and is now a cliché. Self-esteem is supposed to be a gauge of how you value yourself compared to others (attractive, smart, interesting, worthwhile, and so on). The problem is, it’s become a commodity that we’re supposed to have a certain amount of. Not having enough self-esteem (whatever amount that is exactly) gives you more reason to feel bad about yourself.

Instead, I talk with my clients about self-efficacy, not self-esteem. Originating in the work of psychologist Albert Bandura, self-efficacy is the belief you have in your ability to succeed. It affects how you approach goals, tasks, and challenges. Self-efficacy affects big stuff, like, “Am I good at school?” “Can I hold a job?” as well as the little details like, “Can I pass calculus?” or “Am I effective in social situations?”

If you believe you’re always prone to failure, as many with ADHD do, you build a reserve of shame that keeps regenerating itself, even as you try to cover it up. Many young people with ADHD cover it up by bending the truth or downright lying. When you do this with friends and family, it upsets them, making you feel more ashamed and ineffective. As a result, you care less and appear less competent. That’s the definition of hopelessness.

This process usually starts in kindergarten or pre-school. Unless your parents get you some awesome treatment, it just keeps on happening. For some ADHDERs, success may require so much effort that the easy path feels like a better alternative.

Start on the path to self-efficacy by studying what you’re good at, what you’re passionate about, and what works well in the world. If you balance those three variables, learn to set and achieve big goals one small goal at a time, and celebrate your successes, you’ll begin building self-efficacy. That feels good.

Heather: If you Google “loser,” three definitions appear without clicking on a link. One says, “Someone who is put at a disadvantage by a particular situation.” Another says, “Some one who accepts defeat.” Many of us do not need to read the third definition to know it says, “misfit.”

Much of low self-efficacy is related to feeling stigmatized, so a big part of improving how you view yourself is letting go of stigma.

If a loser is someone put at a disadvantage-in this case by ADHD — the first step in fighting stigma is thinking that you’re at a disadvantage. Does having ADHD make it harder to understand, retain, and retrieve information? Sure. Does it make it more difficult to interact socially because you misinterpret social cues or space out? Absolutely. Those seem like disadvantages if you look at ADHD only from one angle. But if you compare each of our lives to each other’s, the concept of “fair” is impossible to define.

Instead, focus on your own circumstances and on making life fair for you by finding the advantages to it. Find the perks of ADHD that make everyone else “disadvantaged” compared to you. For instance, my ADHD allows me to be more creative, more open-minded, and more appreciative of the little things in life than many of my friends. When I think about that, boom! I’ve now made my life fair to me.

If a loser is someone who accepts defeat, don’t think of your diagnosis as a defeat. It was easier for me to ignore the stigma behind ADHD because I saw the diagnosis neither as negative nor as “just a label.” I felt relieved that I could finally understand how I was different and find a way to manage it. If you view yourself negatively because of your ADHD, you accept the disadvantages brought into your life and declare defeat. The day you do that is the day you become a loser.

If a loser is a misfit, don’t allow ADHD to become who you are. I fought the stigma of being dumb, socially inept, or a loser because even though I spent so much time learning to understand ADHD and giving advice on the subject, I never once allowed ADHD to define me.

I have allowed “loser” to become a point of my own self-identity. But to me, a loser is a misfit, someone who is different from all the rest, an individual not always governed by societal norms. That’s OK with me. I’m proud to be different, to view the world from an alternative perspective. If you define loser that way, it’s OK to be one, or to be any other identifier you want to be known for as long as you choose that identity.

In the end, you can allow yourself to be stigmatized by ADHD, or you can choose to make your life fair to you.