The people we interact with can greatly shape our lives, even the extent to which we engage in negative self-talk. From time to time, our minds can fill with self-sabotaging, glass-half-empty thoughts about everything from abilities to appearance. For someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder however, such thoughts may be more constant than that of a neurotypical person.
“People with ADHD often grow up hearing comments like ‘Why can’t you stay on track?’ or ‘You can do so much better,’” says Susan Tschudi, a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Westlake Village, California, who specializes in adult ADHD. People then tend to develop character issues, she says, so individuals with the disorder grow up thinking things like, “I’m a loser” or “I’m dumb.”
“We can become what we’re told we are,” Tschudi says, adding that children are particularly influenced by people such as teachers, coaches and parents who may extend such hurtful words. However, she says negative ADHD comments can be experienced in adulthood too, by family members or even by people in the work environment. “The world can be a cruel place,” she says.
Furthermore, Tschudi says that the stigma that sometimes surrounds ADHD can also fuel negative self-talk. “Nobody likes to have a label put on them,” she says, adding that some people diagnosed with ADHD are also covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, depending on the severity of symptoms and inability to function effectively as a result. She explains that people may struggle with the ADHD label as it is, only to potentially face another one – being a part of the ADA and now carrying a label as “disabled” – which may compound frustrations and lead to increased negative reactions for others who misunderstand the disorder.
Sue West, a productivity and ADHD coach based in New Hampshire, says that negative ADHD self-talk can create frustrations on the productivity front. She says people may wind up with thoughts such as “I feel like I never finish anything. Good ol’ 80 percent done – what’s wrong with me?” They also berate themselves saying, “I know I can do more. Why can’t I live up to what I know I can do?” or “Why do I keep doing the same stupid thing? Repeating the same mistake?”
A good handful of the ADHD people Tschudi sees are succeeding professionally, yet negative thoughts still persist. “Some of my most successful clients have ADHD – mostly entrepreneurs,” she says. “But even these people often have feelings that they’ve missed out or haven’t lived up to their potential, as if they can’t enjoy their success because they think there’s something missing beyond their grasp.”
It’s Not You, It’s the Disorder
To help people cope with negative thoughts, Tschudi engages in cognitive restructuring. This involves getting people to recognize the instant these feelings strike, then stopping to look outside themselves. Modifying thoughts in an effort to ultimately improve feelings and behaviors is a helpful way to combat such negativity. “Saying, ‘Darn, there’s that ADHD acting up again’ allows people to own it, not as a fault, but as an externalized issue,” she says. Tschudi, the author of “Loving Someone With Attention Deficit Disorder,” also encourages the non-ADHD person in a relationship to understand that it’s the partner’s ADHD interfering, rather than directing frustrations at the significant other.
West adds that when a spouse has knowledge about a partner’s ADHD, it keeps everyone “on the same page” and there’s less room for misunderstandings. “Sometimes a non-ADHD partner is a standard you’re trying to live up to,” she explains, saying that doing so isn’t fair because it can create unnecessary pressure. “Would you force yourself to write with your left hand just because your partner did?”
Positive Mantras, Turning to a Friend
West also agrees that it’s helpful to find ways to acknowledge and manage these thoughts as they occur, rather than letting them simmer inside. She says some short-term solutions may include finding a positive mantra such as “you can do this,” calling someone who believes in you (and will take the time to listen) and learning as much as possible about how your particular ADHD symptoms affect you – including what you might be able to improve upon in the future. “It’s different for everyone,” she says. “Turn these specifics into solutions and strategies, habits or routines to manage the symptoms.”
Putting a positive spin on negative thoughts works too. “Turn the statement around,” West says. For example, when thoughts like “Good ol’ 80 percent done – what’s wrong with me?” surface, she says to think back to another instance when a task was finished, reminding yourself that you’ve seen things through to completion in the past and are capable of doing so again.
Always Remain Educated About ADHD
Longer-term tips to overcome negative ADHD self-talk, according to West, involve making it a practice to “take care of your ADHD,” which includes remaining educated about the disorder. “If you’re newly diagnosed,” she says, “this will validate your feelings, which helps you to set them aside and figure out what will work for you – the practical habits which are ADHD-friendly.” Similarly, Tschudi tells her clients that becoming an ADHD expert is key, encouraging reading and “learning everything they can about ADHD.” She says understanding that ADHD is the way the brain processes things is essential – this way, others can see it as an externalized issue.
Negative thoughts, Tschudi says, can make people with ADHD continually think they are “less than” neurotypical people or wonder what’s wrong with them. “It impacts so many dimensions of a person’s life,” she says. West adds that people who are diagnosed as adults may – understandably so – have engaged in negative self-talk for a long time. “If you’re undiagnosed for too long, that usually means a lifetime of struggles and it doesn’t take long to beat yourself up about why you can’t do this or that,” she says. West says that’s why a diagnosis often creates a sense of relief and understanding, causing people to often say, “Finally, I understand so much about my life now.”