I’m such a mess!
I can’t do the simplest things.
Why am I so stupid?
I’m too sensitive.
Why am I so lazy?
Everyone else can do this without any problems. Why can’t I?
I’ll never accomplish that.
How does she get everything done?
Many women with ADHD wake up with these kinds of thoughts, and they follow them throughout the day.
Perhaps similar thoughts have followed you, too, for a very, very long time.
And the longer these thoughts have followed you, the more they’ve become part of your sense of self, chipping away at how you see yourself, your abilities, and your worth.
In their insightful, compassionate, encouraging book, A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD: Embrace Neurodiversity, Live Boldly, and Break Through Barriers, psychotherapist Sari Solden, MS, and psychologist Michelle Frank, Psy.D, note that individuals commonly view ADHD challenges and symptoms as character flaws or some version of “I am bad.”
This is especially common in the early stages of living with undiagnosed ADHD. You assume that your confusion, overwhelmed state, and exhaustion are a result of doing something wrong—or being wrong.
According to Solden and Frank, “Because we tend to seek confirmation of what we already believe, the layers add up over time. Living with anticipation of future rejection and judgment can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies and unhelpful, avoidant coping mechanisms.”
It can lead you to become even more overwhelmed, to shut down, to drink, to berate yourself even further. It can lead you to let others treat you poorly. It can lead you to not explore what actually works for you and helps you build a fulfilling life.
In short, how we talk to ourselves can affect everything. And what’s especially insidious about self-talk is that because it becomes automatic over time, we don’t even notice it. We just assume our minds are speaking the truth. We just assume that these beliefs are irrefutable, and failure is inevitable.
Common Problematic Self-Statements
This is why the first step in changing how you talk to yourself is becoming aware of it. According to Solden and Frank, these are common statements that women with ADHD tell themselves:
- Something is wrong with me.
- I’ll never reach my potential.
- I am a disappointment, a failure.
- I am a lazy slob.
- I am irresponsible.
- I am horrible at being an adult.
- I’m an imposter, a fraud.
The authors suggest making a list of your own self-statements. Then ask yourself these questions: When do these thoughts typically arise? Which situations are most triggering? When I think these thoughts (and they feel true), what do I notice in my body? Which ADHD challenges tend to be the biggest triggers for my critical self-talk?
The Origins of Destructive Messages
It’s also important to explore where your self-statements originate from. Because this is another way that you can realize precisely how untrue your self-talk really is. Because your self-talk has been shaped by a variety of sources—which are misguided and inaccurate.
According to Solden and Frank, “There are four major ways you might have acquired destructive messages about your differences that you have internalized…” They are:
- You Messages: direct attacks about your difficulties and differences. These messages “are the result of misunderstanding, misinterpreting, or conflicting your character with the behavior that results from your unique brain wiring. Important people in your life commonly have no idea that there is an alternate explanation for the baffling behavior.” These are common client examples: A teacher of a teen once said, “The world won’t accommodate you every time you find something difficult.” A professor of a student who had an approved request for academic accommodations told her, “You’re smart! You don’t need accommodations, you just need to be more disciplined.”
- She Messages: comments that people make about women who have similar challenges and differences as you have, such as, “I really thought she had her stuff together!” “Her office is so messy it gives me anxiety!” “I can’t believe Danielle forgot the white-elephant gifts. It’s like she doesn’t care about anyone but herself.” “Don’t bother getting there on time, she’s always late.” These can lead you to wonder and worry about yourself, sparking fears like, “What do they think about me? …I take meds too—would they date me if they knew? …What if they knew what my kitchen looked like?”
- Duh! Messages: well-intentioned advice that still feels dismissive, belittling, and invalidating. It implies that you’re lazy or stupid because you didn’t think of this simple, supposedly effective solution yourself. And, ultimately, it communicates “a lack of acceptance of your differences” and little understanding for the complexity of ADHD. Examples include: “Why don’t you get in the habit of leaving 10 minutes earlier?” “It’s just about staying consistent and sticking to a routine.” “Oh, it’s not as hard as you think! Try ___________.” “Everyone gets distracted these days!” “You’re so smart. You just need to think more positively!”
- Absorbed Messages: messages from society, school, work, ads, magazines, social media feeds about what girls and women “should be able to do well and naturally.” You regularly compare yourself to what others are accomplishing and how successfully they’re able to function—which only adds to your ADHD shame.
Take some time to consider the messages that’ve shaped your self-talk and beliefs about yourself, and what you can and cannot do. Might those sources be mistaken?
Finding What Works for You
Once you identify your destructive self-talk and its various sources, it’s easier to understand the truth: These beliefs are not based on facts. And once you realize that, you can refocus on finding strategies that honor your differences and harness your strengths.
As Solden and Frank write in A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD, “We believe that the goal of ADHD treatment should not be to get over, fundamentally change, or otherwise contort who you are, but to move toward your hopes and dreams, to deepen your relationship with your authentic self, and to use your strengths and voice to create spaces and relationships that work for you.”
The authors further note, “Medication, therapy, coaching, and other ADHD-friendly interventions will make it much easier to be more of who you really are—not less. This is the true goal of any treatment. Strategies and organizational help should make life easier for you and calm your inner distress, but they should not be approached as a way to fix ‘damaged goods’ or turn you into someone other than yourself.”
Because you are not damaged, and you are not broken. You don’t need to be fixed, and you don’t need an overhaul. Instead, explore your hopes and dreams and the strategies that can help you to achieve them. Instead, focus on creating your own definition of a meaningful life.
I hope you’ll start today.