ADHD and Low Self-Esteem

Rick Green

Students talk“I had goals and ambition and big dreams.  But after so many setbacks, I’ve kind of given up.  My self-esteem can’t take any more hits.”

Sound familiar?  This painful lament is common among people who have been living with undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  I’ve had these thoughts myself.

“Everyone says I’m smart.  Unfortunately, I’ve messed up so many times, at this point I have zero self-confidence.  Hard to hear that I’m so smart when I feel so dumb.” 

Small wonder the diagnosis is so transformative.  But finally having an explanation of why you’ve had to work twice as hard as others and only produced half the results, is just the starting point.

It takes time to dismantle these beliefs and find a more balanced, realistic assessment of your strengths, assets, abilities, positive traits, skills as well as your weaknesses, liabilities, and disabilities.

As Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo assert in their landmark book, You Mean I’m not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy?!, making this self-assessment, “is central to your recovery.  Since your ADD can’t be cured, your goal shouldn’t be to eliminate your deficits.  Instead it should be to Identify, accept and manage them.”

The challenge, with ADHD? Your appreciation of what you do well, and yes, what you do not, has been skewed by having to make your way in a complex world with all these hidden deficits, gaps, failings, and impairments.  You may be painfully aware of your ‘faults and weaknesses’ but have had no useful explanation.

Young man looks down

What Does It Mean to Have Low Self-Esteem?

Our self-esteem, our sense of being worthy and capable, is crucial to success, however you define it.  In fact, if you feel worthwhile, competent, confident in your abilities, and aware of your shortcomings, I’d say you’ve achieved a great success.

Nathaniel Branden defines two elements of Self Esteem:

  1. I am confident in my ability to think and cope with the basic challenges of life.
  2. I am confident in my right to be successful and happy, being worthy, deserving, entitled to assert my needs and wants, achieve my values, and enjoy the fruits of my efforts.

Those two elements are worth reading aloud several times a day, even though they may sound hollow, insincere, or even arrogant to you at first.

Without self-confidence, we won’t even try things.  Or we’ll approach tasks with a kind of reverse confidence, â€œI’m sure I’ll screw this up.  I always do.”  It’s true, you have in the past, but that was before you had an ADHD diagnosis.  Now you may be able to see why things went south.

The definitive work, for me, on Self-Esteem is Nathaniel Branden’s masterpiece, Six Pillars of Self-Esteem.  He calls Self Esteem, â€œthe immune system of consciousness…a fundamental human need… the experience that we are appropriate to life and to the requirements of life.” 

A band on stage

Raising Low Self Esteem

Every book I’ve read on personal development, especially those on Self-Esteem, stresses the importance of having a realistic and healthy belief in our abilities.  Not arrogant.  Not blindly optimistic, but realistic.  As in,

“When I was 17 I wanted to be a rock star.  Now I’m 57.  So I’m letting that one go.  On the other hand, if I start practicing again, regularly, I could be a much better guitar player.”

Growing up with undiagnosed ADHD meant I’d suffered all the familiar hits that you’ve probably experienced too.

My parents and teachers were as frustrated with me as I was.  The difference is that they never called me stupid, weak, or a loser.  Only I did that.

Rick Green's grade school report card

I Always Felt Like I Was Capable of So Much More

One of my elementary school report cards suggested that I was â€œUnderachieving.“  Boy, was I ever.

Generally, my teachers used more encouraging phrases, â€œRicky is bright and capable of more, if…” Always “If.”

  • …”if he were more careful and didn’t rush.“
  • …or “if he paid more attention to lessons.“
  • …and “if he didn’t fidget or play with things.”

Unfortunately the same numbingly useless advice was offered year after year, â€œTry harder.  Be neater.  Listen more.”  It never seems to have occurred to anyone that I was trying my hardest.  If I’d had a cast on my leg, everyone would have understood why I didn’t win relay races.  Accommodations would have been provided.  Expectations would have been more realistic.  A cast is visible.  ADHD is not.

When I was stumbling my way through school, ADHD was not yet a diagnosis.  So no one could have thought to ask, â€œHmm, could it be that Ricky is low in certain neurotransmitters, like Dopamine and Norepinephrine?”  Instead I bought into what others said, or implied, “I am not bright, not hard working, not capable…”  All things I am NOT.  Which left me wondering “What exactly am I?”  Short answer, â€œDoomed.”

The years pass by, and I pass into high school.  I “get by”, and I “manage.”  I even earn a post secondary degree.  Barely.

I go out into the world and do all kinds of things and still cling to the knowledge that I’m dumb, lazy, weak-willed.

With ADHD undercutting your good intentions, you can be forgiven for feeling like a constant failure:

“I have some amazing ideas, but I never finish anything, never see things through. In my heart I feel like I have so much potential, but I’m always underachieving.”

Photo of Rick Green surrounded by fogBlog author Rick Green

An ADHD Diagnosis Affects Self-Esteem

For me, the turning point came 25 years after I graduated from university, when one of my children was diagnosed with ADHD.  Being a responsible parent…okay, a sporadically responsible parent… I am upset and concerned.  Very protective.  â€œMy son is fine!  He’s very bright.  He’s not hyperactive.  I don’t want him labelled.”

I go looking for proof that he is in fact “normal” to refute the school board’s obviously flawed assessment.  After a few hours of reading about ADHD, I am in shock.  Clearly, this is REAL.  And it is far more complex than I ever imagined.

“And OMG, I think I have ADHD too.”

Everything I read or hear about ADHD describes my daily experience of life.  â€œOften loses things… Interrupts… Poor listener… Unable to relax… Forgetful… Overly sensitive… Restless…  Day dreaming…”

It turns out the list of potential symptoms is long, and no one has them all.  There are some common traits, but very few universal ones.

In short order an ADHD specialist confirms I’ve been living with this covert saboteur for almost 50 years!

My diagnosis becomes a gateway, a turning point, offering a logical explanation that makes sense of my struggles and ‘character flaws.’  Relief!  Shock!  Followed immediately by, â€œNow you tell me?!  Dang!  If I had known about this I could have done so many things differently, avoided so many disasters, I would be been rich, famous, perhaps the Pope, or something.”

Regret.  Every person I’ve met who has been diagnosed, whether 18 or 80, wishes they had received this explanation earlier.  I get stuck in What Ifs.  Ruminating on my baffling failures.

Paul Wender, in his book ADHD: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children and Adults (2000) mentions a patient who was a baseball fan, â€œWhen your life is characterized by no hits, no runs, and plenty of errors, you do not have a terrific view of yourself.”

It takes me a while to stop feeling bitter or nostalgic for what might have been but never was, “Do I really want to wear Papal robes?  Probably not.” 

My therapist points out that I have spent 47 years struggling with ADHD, do I now wish to spend five more years bemoaning that fact?  No.

Those of us who get this diagnosis can count ourselves lucky—the majority of adults with ADHD remain undiagnosed, blind to what is subverting their best intentions and sincere efforts.

Yes, it’s true, in some school jurisdictions childhood ADHD is over-diagnosed, but not in adults.

So, I move forward.  I’m glad to have this insight.  Now I know what I’m up against.

yoga pose planking

Self-Esteem is Built on Success

Like most folks who’ve suddenly discovered that they have this “disorder,” I want to know more about ADHD, to know everything that is known…and I want to know it NOW.

New tactics, or tweaks to old habits, and things start to turn around.  Fewer screw ups.  When things do go awry I am able to figure out why, what was missing, or which symptom tripped me up.

Every day I make more connections, explanations for what until now I thought were bizarre quirks or moral failings.

Many people with ADHD tend to have a short attention span but can hyper-focus and be very productive when interested 

Really?  That might explain why I have never finished a novel or a screenplay, yet produced thousands of comedy skits for radio, stage, and television.

Until my diagnosis, I’d assumed anyone could write eight comedy skits in one day, but ‘real writers’ create plays, novels, and movies scripts.  Now I know better, I know my strengths.

All those nascent movie scenarios and screenplay writing ideas were moved off my computer to a floppy disc, â€œJust in case,” and never looked at again.

Discarding all that work is actually a relief.  Letting go of a burden. What I’d always seen as a failure loses it’s emotional weight.

artist paints in studio

No Longer Feeling Like a Failure

Those unfinished films are NOT proof I’m a failure, any more than me NOT moving to Lithuania to become a chiropractor means I’m failure.  That’s just not my thing.  Zero interest.  And people with ADHD can be very ‘interest driven.’

By understanding my particular ‘flavor’ of ADHD, my main symptoms, suddenly my past failures make sense.  â€œOf course I never finished that course, it wasn’t interesting...”

My focus becomes managing the most disruptive traits and playing to my strengths.  I really struggle with stuff that others seem to find simple and I’m late paying my taxes, again.  Do I need to try harder?  No.  I need a bookkeeper.

Strengths are key to happiness.  And success.  And we each have a unique combination of strengths.

Hell, Einstein never wrote a hit single and Taylor Swift hasn’t made breakthroughs in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics.  Not yet anyway.

Self-Esteem is built on successes, one after another, bigger wins, rising confidence.

But what if you don’t notice the successes, or dismiss them as trivial, as flukes?  A lifetime of failure and criticism, especially self-criticism, doesn’t just disappear.

ADHD Expert Rick Green

Good Self-Esteem Demands Honest Self Appraisal

Or should I say Accurate Self-Appraisal.

Self-esteem demands self-awareness, developing a realistic appreciation of our worth, strengths, and weaknesses.  Being present to reality.  Rather than lost in thoughts, burdened by a lifetime of negative beliefs.

In You Mean I’m Not Crazy, Stupid, or Lazy authors Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramundo suggest we make three lists:

  1. Things I do well
  2. What I do adequately
  3. And what I cannot or should not do

Items on your first list, things you do well, are skills to draw upon, build around, and develop even further.  Great basketball players never stop developing their natural gifts.

Items on your second list, which you do adequately to get by?  Fine. Accept that. Or spend a bit of energy and time if there’s room for improvement.  And if you don’t improve, accept it.

And the cannots and should nots?  These need to be handed off, outsourced, or replaced with a substitute.  For example, if you have an injury that will only get worse if you take up jogging, you might look into swimming, cycling, or rowing.  You might ask for simple accommodations at work, or handing off some tasks.

All three of my lists are a work in progress.  My goal is to have very little on my second list.  That means I would only do things I do well, which, with ADHD, means things I like doing it.  I know I’ll never get to that point, not completely, but I keep improving.

Author Rick Green has been awarded the Order of Ontario and The Order of Canada for his advocacy work with ADHD

Rick Green

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