Emotions & Shame

The ADHD-Friendly Guide to Asserting Yourself

A lifetime of ADHD mishaps and mistakes may have left you hesitant to stand up for yourself. But not knowing how to ask firmly and clearly for what you need can result in missed opportunities and unnecessary struggles. Here’s how to up your confidence and put yourself on the path to assertiveness.

A woman with ADHD standing up for herself with a megaphone
Cartoon woman with yellow megaphone

I help others diagnosed with ADHD stand up for themselves, but I have to “walk the walk,” as well. It’s not easy to do. I worry about sounding bossy or controlling, but others respond favorably when I am gentle and kind.

We live in a world where everyone is rushing and wants you to get out of their way. A grocery store checkout line is a good example. Over the years I have lost several credit cards because I felt rushed by the cashier, who started ringing up the next order before I put my credit card back in my wallet. I no longer rush because someone else is in a hurry. I stand my ground and take as much time as I need to put my card away, make sure I have my phone, if I laid it on the counter, and zip my backpack, so nothing falls out. I haven’t lost a credit card since I started doing these things.

Stand Up for Yourself

Self-advocacy skills are essential for adults with ADHD, at home and at work. Not knowing how to ask appropriately for what we need and want can result in missed opportunities and unnecessary struggles. When we stay silent about not having our needs met, we may build up resentments that lead to impulsive words that we regret later. Many of us have been criticized so much throughout our lifetimes that we react angrily when we are criticized, or become passive instead of speaking up calmly and assertively.

[Life Is Too Short for Shame]

Building self-advocacy skills starts with self-acceptance and self-awareness of our ADHD pitfalls. Inattention, impulsivity, and/or hyperactivity interfere with doing what others seem to handle easily. Identifying what we are good at and what we need help with is the first step. Do we need an accommodation at work that will help us perform better? Do we need to divvy up household chores, so that we are working from our strengths and not our weaknesses? Do we need to learn how to say no if we tend to people-please? Are we afraid to delegate? These are all good questions to ask when learning how to be more assertive.

Here are two of my clients who learned to stand up for themselves.

“I Can Do an Even Better Job”

Joe loved the creative parts of his job. He was the team leader for a design group, and had to keep track of many details and work orders. He struggled to delegate, manage, and prioritize the many projects underway. Joe brought up the idea of implementing a color-coded “ticketing” system that prioritized work orders, but his boss dismissed the idea due to the cost of the software and the time involved in training everyone to use it. Joe didn’t pursue it further. He remained silent and went back to work.

Joe and I decided that it was time for his suggestion to be heard and, possibly, implemented. We listed the reasons why it would benefit Joe’s performance and the overall operational efficiency of the company. The second tactic was to use sensitive listening skills combined with consistently firm responses, to be sure he was being assertive without being too aggressive or blunt.

[Silence Your Harshest Critic — Yourself]

Joe arranged a meeting with his boss to persuade him to acquire the software. Joe first used sensitive listening skills by calmly repeating the objections his boss raised to purchasing the software. This assured his boss that he was being heard. Joe countered each objection with a corresponding advantage that we had rehearsed.

Joe practiced his responses in a monotone voice, sticking to the facts without getting emotional. We agreed that if his boss said, “It’s too expensive,” Joe would say, “Yes, the software is expensive, but it is designed to save time and money in the long run.” Joe convinced his boss to purchase the software by being well prepared, keeping calm, and repeating the facts.

“I Get Defensive When You Call Me Names”

Jenny was tired of having her feelings hurt by her family. When she felt hurt, she would say, “Why do you always put me down?” or “You’re always being mean to me.” This made things worse.

I gave Jenny a handout on the ABC’s of communicating clearly and gently (see “The ABC’s of Communicating,” below), and we began practicing. We made sure she gave specific examples and avoided making judgmental statements. Jenny got better results when she calmly told her mom, “I feel hurt when you call me lazy. Please express your concerns without using that word. I get defensive, and I don’t think either of us wants to get into an argument.” This opened up a constructive dialogue about Jenny’s housekeeping skills, and helped her avoid arguments and hurt feelings in the future.


The ABC’s of Communicating

I feel             A            when you             B            , and             C            would be a great solution.

A. Always start with an “I” statement. It’s less defensive than starting with “You make me feel….” State clearly and accurately how you feel. You may feel angry, hurt, or sad.

B. Tell the person what he or she did to make you feel that way. Do not be judgmental by saying, “When you are mean to me…” Instead, state exactly what it is that she did, such as raise her voice or use a label you don’t like.

C. Tell the person what it is you expect him or her to do the next time, so she doesn’t have to guess.

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  1. I can relate to the defensiveness in my response to criticism. I work in an extremely toxic environment and after 5 years of being accused of things that aren’t true it’s only made my anger more fierce. I am going to attempt to keep quiet when my boss attacks me because it’s a no win situation anyway. I only make matters worse. I am attempting to stay serene in the crazies and I have to remember that it’s not always me. I believe in sticking up for myself but I go from saying I’m sorry 20 times to frustration and defensiveness and anger. I’m trying to find a place where I don’t react to the crazies but respond. Big difference.

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