Emotions & Shame

10 Toxic Thoughts That Are Holding You Back

We are our own toughest critics. And negative self-talk can lead to serious health consequences, so it’s got to stop. Here are 10 of the most common “toxic thoughts” that are sabotaging you — and what you can do to break free.

Negative thinking in adults with ADHD
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Are You Poisoning Your Brain?

We’re all guilty of letting one minor setback snowball into an avalanche of self-deprecating, unhealthy thoughts. We are often our toughest critics, and that can lead to serious health and esteem problems if don't learn how to stop negative thoughts.

If you’re guilty of lingering or obsessing over these 10 common toxic thoughts, read on to learn how they can hurt you in the long run — and how you can reframe your thinking in a more positive and productive way.

A sad college student sits on the ground with her lapop, and wonders how to stop negative thoughts.
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'I'm stupid.'

After years — maybe even a lifetime — of academic setbacks, career stops and starts, and embarrassing social blunders, it’s easy to begin believing the terrible things strangers sometimes say. But you aren’t stupid — and endlessly shaming yourself for your missteps won’t ever change the past!

Instead, take stock of your strengths and weaknesses, and figure out where you thrive. Okay, so you’re not great at math. So what? Focus on the fact that you’re a killer cook, or a captivating public speaker, or a caring and empathetic listener. Focusing too much on your shortcoming will sap the energy you need to really shine in what you are good at.

A panel of judges hold up perfect 10 scorecards, a reminder for adults with ADHD to stop negative thoughts and focus on positives
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'If I do everything perfectly, I’ll be happy.'

This one is dangerous for two reasons: Trying to be “perfect” often leaves people with ADHD paralyzed, terrified that if they move forward at all they’ll make yet another mistake. In addition, your idea of “perfection” is often based not on what you want for yourself, but on what you assume others want from you.

Letting go of a “perfectionist” mentality will benefit you on both counts: You'll realize that "good enough" is just that — good enough — making you more able to recognize your own successes. Plus, your idea of success will more closely align with what you actually want — making it all the sweeter when you finally achieve it.

A man lays on his back with his hands under his head and wonders how to stop negative thoughts
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'I should have done X instead.'

Particularly if you were diagnosed late in life, it’s easy to dwell on "what could have been" — particularly, what you could have done differently or what you might have accomplished with better treatment and understanding. Don’t torment yourself over past choices or actions. Right or wrong, they’re over and done — and they can only affect your future if you let them. If you want to make positive changes, look forward instead of backward — and think of how you can do things differently now.

A man faces away from his desk and stares at the clock, wondering how he can stop negative thoughts
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'I’ll start tomorrow.'

As Shakespeare once wrote, “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace.” Procrastination is the downfall of many adults with ADHD — we keep putting things off until tomorrow when, in reality, there are a million tomorrows. There's only one today, and only you can make it count. If you can make any amount of progress toward a goal — no matter how minuscule — do it today. Your stress will fall as your self-esteem inches upward.

A man and woman both look upset on the couch, after an argument about how to stop negative thoughts
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'No one understands me.'

When you totally write off others, assuming they’ll "never get you," you close off one of the most powerful pathways for healing and support: friendship. Feeling eternally misunderstood can make you defensive, pushing away the people closest to you when you need them most.

Instead, give the benefit of the doubt to your best friend. If your friends and family seem like they’re not understanding you, assume they’re trying their hardest. Ask them what they don’t get, and try explaining yourself in a different way. In most cases, these people don’t want to hurt you — they just haven’t figured out what you need. Help them along when you can — and accept the fact that no relationship will ever be perfect.

Rain falling on a wooden figure, a metaphor for when negative thoughts cloud your day
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'My ADHD is to blame for my unhappiness.'

Your ADHD is not who you are — it is simply one facet of your complex and multi-layered personality. If you blame all your misfortunes on this one tiny puzzle piece, you’ll limit your sense of self-worth and your personal goals. The non-ADHD grass may look greener, but remember: Even neurotypical people have facets of themselves they don’t like. Learn to love the grass you have — and to take responsibility for your own future.

A boxer laying on the floor of the ring after losing a fight. He is weighed down by negative thoughts.
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'I’m a loser.'

Too often, adults with ADHD view themselves as perpetual “losers” — inadequate fumble-bums who will never learn from past mistakes to get ahead in life. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy — if you never expect to succeed, you never will! Even if you haven’t found the success you’re hoping for yet, don’t assume you never will — only those who have completely given up on themselves and their futures can rightfully be called "losers."

A zoomed in view of the definition of the word never. Assuming you'll never get what you want is an example of a negative thought.
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'I’ll never get what I want.'

This is akin to saying, "Well, nothing I do matters, so I may as well not even try!" — which takes all the responsibility off your shoulders and excuses you from throwing in the towel when things get a little tough. Instead of letting the world pass you by, take an active role in your own happiness. Whatever you desire — whether it’s a stronger relationship, a more fulfilling job, or a change of scenery — make it your responsibility to achieve it. If you’d like, you can enlist the help of a friend or coach, or break down the goal into smaller steps. But never say never — or it never will be.

A zoomed in view of many adults with ADHD pointing fingers at each other. Blaming others is an example of a negative thought.
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'I’m always getting taken advantage of.'

Blaming someone else for your problems is viscerally satisfying — by pushing away the blame, we can also push away the deep-seated shame we feel for having ADHD-fueled problems in the first place. But this is a double-edged sword — for one, it often drives away the people closest to us; for another, blaming someone else for our failings doesn’t actually fix them!

It's imperative for adults with ADHD to learn how to be wrong; as successful businessman George Soros once said, "There is no shame in being wrong — only in failing to correct our mistakes."

A woman leans against a stone wall, resting her head on her knee and wonders how to stop negative thoughts.
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'My ADHD makes this impossible.'

ADHD can make some things harder, it’s true. But assuming that the obstacles it creates are impossible to overcome puts you at a perpetual disadvantage. Instead of giving up on a challenge made harder by your ADHD, own it. Come to terms with it. If you need help, seek it. If you need accommodations, ask for them. With proper treatment and support, you can achieve all kinds of greatness — just look at Michael Phelps, Channing Tatum, or Lisa Ling!

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