When I posed a question recently about where in life a negative mindset challenges you most, I got some similar answers. Eileen said:
A negative mindset challenges my ability to think I am capable.
And Shawn added:
I am generally a very positive person, at least on the outside. Inside I have spent years aware of the difficulties in my life that ADHD has contributed to and constantly felt less or “broken”.
These negative “beliefs” about ourselves are common among adults with ADHD. Years of feeling different–or of having your differences pointed out and/or criticized–create a false belief that being different is bad, and that there is something wrong with you because you are different.
As a result, we go through early life desperately wishing that we could be just like everyone else. That we could pay attention in class without squirming around or zoning out. That we could easily find those homework assignments. That we could get the rules of the game as quickly as the other kids in the neighborhood. That our parents would stop telling us to clean our rooms when, to us, they seemed totally neat and organized! And so on.
We become aware of these ADHD differences and try even harder to “fit it,” never quite succeeding. And as time goes on, we just notice more and more differences that lead to challenges. We procrastinate on studying for high school exams. We can’t seem to get to work on time. We forget birthdays. And so on.
So the bad feelings build. We look at ourselves and we see only differences and challenges. We often blame ADHD rather than try to understand its affect on it. We don’t stop to think about the things that we do well, or the skills or talents that we have. They are overshadowed by all the negative feelings that we have about ourselves. We become obsessed with “doing better” and then we become obsessed with hating ourselves when our best efforts fail.
There is plenty to say about why those best efforts often fail and how to approach change in ADHD-friendly ways (for example, the Life Skills section of this blog offers plenty of coaching help), but for now we’re simply going to focus on the idea of mindset. It’s easy to see how this negative mindset is perpetuated. It’s easy to see why we feel broken or incapable of succeeding at our goals. What can be harder to see is why this mindset is flawed.
While the “different = bad” mindset still prevails in our culture, it’s changing. Teachers are now being trained not only to respect learning differences, but to cater to all learning styles. More and more parents are valuing their children as unique individuals. And even employers are becoming receptive to accommodating their employees’ preferences for working environments. Slowly but surely, the world is beginning to understand that people are different and that’s okay. We all know this intellectually, and now we have to start embracing it emotionally. We have to realize that–ADHD or not–we, too, are allowed our differences and that these differences do not make us bad people.
One strategy that can be helpful in changing a negative mindset and shedding the idea that you are incapable or broken is to notice your self-critical thoughts whenever possible, and distance yourself from them. Then ask yourself, “Would I be this critical of a friend? Would I say the same things to a friend that I say to myself?” If you have a child in your life (your child, a niece or nephew, or even just a favorite kid in the neighborhood), it can be even more helpful to think about how you would feel if you knew that child was telling her or himself the same things that you are telling yourself.
Your Thought: I’m late to work again! What is wrong with me? Why am I such a failure that I can’t even get to work on time?
What You Might Say to a Friend: It’s okay! I know you feel disappointed but you’re not doing it on purpose! Is there something that you can change in your routine to help you leave on time? Would you benefit from getting some outside help for this challenge?
Your Thought: I’m so stupid! I can’t believe I forgot an appointment today! Everyone must think I’m an idiot.
What You Might Say to a Child: I don’t think you’re an idiot. I think you’re great! You just made a mistake. Making a mistake doesn’t mean that you’re stupid. Everyone makes mistakes.
It can be hard at first to catch yourself as you experience these negative thoughts, and it can be even harder to detach and imagine what you would say to another person in the same situation. But it can be done! Through your compassion for other people, you can begin to build compassion for yourself. From there, you build resilience and a more rational, balanced view of your differences and challenges. ADHD becomes a part of what makes you who you are, rather than a bad thing that you’ve been cursed with.
No one goes from being a negative thinker to a positive thinker overnight. But a rational, balanced, and realistic view of yourself as an individual is, at least, neutral ground. This may seem like a small change, but it can help you shift from feeling broken and incapable of success to feeling like a normal, everyday person who sometimes has challenges. Just like everyone else.