Emotions & Shame

When You’re So Sensitive It Hurts

After a lifetime of judgment and blame, many adults with ADHD are understandably sensitive to criticism. It cuts deep and often provokes angry retorts we later regret. How to respond more calmly and ignore what doesn’t matter.

Woman with ADHD is very sensitive to criticism
Woman with ADHD is very sensitive to criticism

ADHD makes us more sensitive to criticism. Often, our first instinct is to respond defensively or angrily to outside comments that feel like disapproval. But adults with ADHD should know that doing so could sacrifice learning opportunities and the respect of others.

So here is some expert advice to help adults with attention deficit respond effectively to critiques and criticisms.

When Criticism is Valid

Acknowledge and paraphrase. After receiving criticism, adults with ADHD should first acknowledge any truth in the statement. When you think the criticism may be justified, get on the same page with the other person by paraphrasing his comments.

Learn from it. If a “thank you” or explanation seems appropriate, address it briefly, and then move on. Adults with ADHD have a tendency to dwell on the criticism — don’t! Instead focus on ways you can learn from it.

When Criticism is Inaccurate

Agree with it — in part. When responding to an inaccurate criticism, it’s often best for adults with ADHD to try “fogging” — agreeing with only part of the criticism rather than getting defensive or mad.

[Free Download: 15 Ways to Disarm (and Understand) ADHD Emotions]

Example: If someone says you are undependable you can respond with “Yes, I might be undependable at times.” Or agree with the principle behind the criticism, such as “You’re right, being late is undependable.” This technique allows you to gracefully deflect the criticizer while also brushing off their implied judgments.

Improve Your Response

Ask questions. A lot of criticism is vague and needs to be clarified before you can decide how to respond. It can be especially difficult for adults with ADHD to control emotions, but try to clarify details before you react. Stay away from “why” questioning and use “how,” “what,” “where” and “when” questions to clarify the details.

Example: If someone says that what you are doing annoys them, ask specifically how it is annoying and when it annoys.

Practice. Oftentimes people with ADHD receive so much criticism that they begin to react angrily and aggressively when criticized. Other times, adults with ADHD may become passive to others’ actions toward them.

Which ever response you have, keep in mind that practice makes perfect, and the first few attempts at responding in a new way may be awkward and not received as well as you had hoped. Hang in there, and keep trying until you become comfortable and relaxed with your new options for responding.

[Silence Your Harshest Critic — Yourself]

Stand Your Ground — Gracefully

Here are three ways to help you to stand your ground without provoking anger or setting someone up to respond defensively.

1. Broken Record Response: Calmly and slowly keep repeating in a monotone voice without particular emphasis on any one word or phrase, what it is you have to say, until it is recognized and received appropriately by the other individual.

2. Emphatic Escalation: Calmly and slowly restate your response or request, with more assertion each time you do so, but without becoming aggressive. Always remember to be polite when asking for clarification and say “please.”

3. Sensitive Listening: First acknowledge the other persons point of view respectfully and then make your point of view clear. Avoid using the word “but.” Restating the other person’s point of view, followed with a “but” negates what you just said. Instead, follow it with the word “and” to prevent the other person from becoming defensive or tuning you out.

[Stop Criticizing Me Already!]

Updated on May 1, 2018

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  1. I am going through a sensitive time. All of my intellectual understanding of my ADHD seems worthless when I feel like a failure . I look around helplessly at all that I long to straighten up yet can’t begin, again . I would hire someone to help if I could afford to . I know, poor little me. This is beyond that . I fear I am stuck.

    1. Hi Sue,

      I know this is an old post, but maybe you still check in occasionally. I also feel like I can’t straighten up, and I feel like I shouldn’t be saying “poor me” because there is so much that is good, and I know the world has infinite suffering I don’t have. But your feelings do make me want to learn more about what other people are going through. At least we aren’t alone. Even if it’s just online.

  2. Everything about me is sensitive, my skin, my teeth, my nose, whatever can be sensitive is! I buy everything on the market for sensitive people. I can’t deal with loud anything. It makes my ADHD harder, because there’s one thing I do not need! That’s to be a little more different! Right? I hide so many things that are unnecessary just to be a little normal it’s ridiculous. I’m getting too old for this people!

    1. Hi Natalie,

      That’s funny because I also have to buy sensitive toothpaste, hair stuff, skin stuff, you name it. I isolate myself to not cause friction on my skin or my heart. I am interested in learning more about what ADHD is, because I haven’t learned that much yet. Thank you for sharing. At least someone out there has experienced this.

  3. Every few months I receive more criticism at work over the way I am. It is very difficult to not feel like it is personal, especially when the idosincracies of others are allowed to just be let go.

    I believe I receive far more criticism than others do, and it seems to be forming a pattern. In the past I have taken this criticism on board and have tried to change but this has caused even more stress on me trying to get everything right in fear of receiving more criticism. Because I was late by 2 mins on the shop floor one day, I was pulled up about it. Now I run around getting stressed every morning and often leave the house without breakfast as I fear that I will be late. Because sometimes people take what I say the wrong way, when my comment was innocent, I am now fearful of saying the wrong thing and second guessing what someone might take offence to. I was given more responsibility as a supervisor yet sometimes I find it difficult to read when I am meant to deal with a problem myself, or when I am meant to take it to my manager. This has lead to people feeling like I have undermined them. All of this is leaving me exhausted to the point of not enjoying any other part of my life. I don’t want to draw, I don’t see friends, I don’t partake in other activities that bring me joy because I feel so tired and depressed. My anxiety is through the roof and I am extremely unhappy.

    I don’t know how to cope with all of this, or what the solutions are. I feel like I’m treading water all the time, and the minute I’ve grabbed hold of the life raft and I’m about to pull myself up, someone pushes me back in.

    1. Hi Becca,
      I feel like I am reading an exact mirror of my soul when I read your efforts to not upset people, get it all ‘right’ and not enjoying any other parts of life. I am not sure how to proceed, but reading your story at least makes me feel like I am not alone. Thank you for sharing.

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