How Being Misunderstood Impacts ADHD Brains

A defining feature of ADHD is its early onset — and the criticisms, punishments, and frustrations that also begin at a very young age.

Yes, ADHD is a constellation of inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive symptoms accompanied by academic, professional, social, and other life impairments. But perhaps most importantly, ADHD is a web of deeply rooted memories and stories. These memories hold a long history that inform our perceptions of ourselves and our capabilities. They are hard to shake and may warp our self-esteem and understanding of who we are.

How Our Sense of Self Takes Hold

Ask anyone with ADHD, and they will recount all the times they’ve been told – indirectly or directly – that they are stupid, flakey, spacey, unreliable, unbearable, overly sensitive, a trouble maker, or something of the sort.

After all these years, I still remember the time my elementary school teacher, in front of the class, told me that my statement was a “non-sequitur.” I also remember scoring “far below my potential” on my exams. My report cards in middle school noted that I often “daydreamed,” had a “poor attention span,” “forgot my books,” performed “erratically,” and “lacked motivation.” At the time, I was puzzled. How could my good intentions have led to such poor outcomes?

Experiences and memories like these blend seamlessly into our beliefs about ourselves; they form a central part of our self-identity at a young age. Shame, inadequacy, doubt, and failure — common themes in the narratives of adults with ADHD — are consequences of these labels. These labels, oddly enough, appear just as we are learning that we are also creative, spontaneous, fun, dynamic, perceptive, and so on. But it’s the critical messages that take hold.

ADHD symptoms continue to press into these early self-esteem wounds as we age. We mature into adults navigating ADHD’s emotional outbursts and sensitivity without the self-confidence to believe we have the positives and strengths needed to endure.

[Essential Reading: ADHD and the Epidemic of Shame]

The Consequences of Being Misunderstood

Individuals with ADHD will also tell you that those early labels didn’t feel accurate. That underneath all of the criticism was a core experience of being misunderstood. “I know I’m smart, but I made so many errors and couldn’t concentrate while reading.” “I know I’m a good friend and I care about people. I just forgot to text back, or showed up late.”

Being repeatedly misunderstood causes people with ADHD to deeply misunderstand themselves and their situations. Feeling deficient and mistrusting yourself from an early age makes it extraordinarily difficult to properly evaluate yourself as an adult.

  • There is a continual internal vacillation. “Am I smart? I know I am. A lot of evidence shows that I am. But what about all of those times I wasn’t? Yeah, maybe I’m really not.”
  • And a persistent layer of doubt. “I can do this. I’m gonna go for my goal. But what if I mess it up? I probably will mess it up somehow.”

People with ADHD are also skilled at re-writing the plot line back to those old memories. Take the pandemic: millions of people have lost their jobs due to it. For many, the virus is an obvious and concrete explanation for the job loss. For someone with ADHD, even a global pandemic can’t stand up to a lifetime of feeling inadequate. It doesn’t take long for a new story about the job loss to creep in —“I couldn’t cut it. I just didn’t do my work well enough.”

This wavering and misunderstanding can get in the way of taking risks or simply trying something new. It interferes with others knowing and understanding us. It’s always there, and it’s exhausting. During the time of writing this article, I myself have ridden a tsunami wave of excitement, confidence, uncertainty, and fear about whether I am worthy or capable of being a published author (even though I am a published author already). I almost gave up before finishing it.

[Click to Read: ADHD Is Not My Fault — But It Still Makes Me Feel Like a Failure]

How to Heal & Develop a Sense of Self

Being misunderstood obviously has self-defeating consequences, so what can we do about it?

1. Build an Initial Awareness of Your Habits

You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge. It’s critical to recognize your unique and specific experiences — the ones that left you feeling misunderstood and that caused you to misunderstand yourself — and how those manifest in the present.

  • What are your early memories and stories of being inattentive, hyperactive, impulsive, or otherwise ADHD?
  • What are the stories you tell yourself about the messages you received? At what times and situations do you notice self-criticism, doubt, inadequacy, or fear of failure popping up?
  • What do you tend to do when these occur? (e.g., avoidance or over-working)? Practice self- monitoring without any judgement or interpretation to get to these answers.
  • Pay close attention to yourself throughout the day. Listen to the self-talk in your head.
  • Notice your emotions, physical sensations, behaviors. Write your observations in your phone or a journal.

Through awareness and monitoring, you’ll notice those seemingly automated thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that influence your perception about yourself. Recognizing these negative tendencies can lead you to intervene before they weigh you down.

Remember, your self-criticism and doubt are mimicking those early life memories when you were misinterpreted. That doesn’t make it truth. Step back from it. Don’t go down the hole. Perhaps even say to yourself, “You’re not evaluating yourself properly.”

2. Take Inventory of Your Strengths

What have you been told (directly and indirectly) that you’re good at? Where do you thrive? ADHD likely endows you with some of the very best parts of yourself — and what others like most about you. What are those qualities? Ask your friends, family members, partner, co-workers, or other important people in your life what they see you do well.

It’s critical that you recognize these strengths and believe them. If you can only list your strengths without deeply believing they are true, then stop at this step and work on this.

3. Reframe Memories & Stories

Revise the stories you tell yourself in a more kind and empowering light. Events can’t be rewritten, but how we interpret or make meaning from them can.

For example, someone who often got into trouble growing up might say, “I’ve always been a problem” or “I let people down.” One way to revise could be, “As a kid with hyperactive ADHD in a traditional school environment and without proper treatment, I wasn’t understood. I was punished a lot, but I’m not actually a problem. ADHD makes it harder for me to control my impulses compared to other people, but everyone makes mistakes. That doesn’t mean there is something wrong with me. And on the flip side, that same part of me is what helps me to be an out-of-the-box thinker!”

Share your ADHD-related stories and experiences with others you trust. Talk about how those early memories made you feel and how they shaped the way you view yourself to the present. Without awareness and understanding, the people in your life will be severely limited in their ability to encourage, support, or simply understand why you might be thinking, feeling, or acting a certain way.

4. Practice Self-Compassion

To be misunderstood and to misunderstand yourself is a common and completely understandable part of ADHD; you are not alone. How could you not develop self-doubt when you learned to mistrust yourself at such a young age? Be kind to yourself and avoid engaging in self-blame or frustration. Try saying, “Huh. That is so interesting. I’m doing that thing again where I fill my head with doubts. It makes sense that it happens.”

Build a foundation of wellness, balance, and competence in your life to boost the presence of stable thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The following is a list of suggestions – start slowly and attend to the areas that would help you most (perhaps focus on one strategy per week, or at whatever pace is realistic and manageable for you to be successful). Most importantly, be gentle and gracious with yourself as you work to make changes in your life.

  • Engage in activities that you enjoy and do well regularly – writing poetry, hiking, fixing or playing a guitar, solving a puzzle, playing a sport, etc.
  • Maintain a sleep schedule. Go to sleep and get out of bed at the same time each day. ADHD can make sleeping more difficult, but aim for 7-9 hours per night. Integrate additional sleep hygiene techniques if needed (e.g., comfortable bedroom environment; relaxing or tiring pre-bed routine; avoiding phone, computer, and other screens before bedtime).
  • Eat regularly and sufficiently.
  • Take prescribed medications. Some ADHD medications can have unpleasant side effects and be tricky to manage. What works for one person might not work well for another – collaborate with your doctor to find the best plan for you.
  • Minimize or eliminate alcohol, caffeine, and other drugs.
  • Connect with people and/or animals.
  • Practice mindfulness.
  • Integrate movement or exercise in ways that are possible for you.
  • Consider meeting with a therapist or coach, especially if you have life difficulties or would like to work through the barriers to your potential.

Above all, know that you always were and always will be so much more than the areas where you struggle. Your true and expansive story is waiting to be told.

Sense of Self for Adults with ADHD: Next Steps

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Updated on October 27, 2020

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