(originally published January 17, 2018, updated May 13, 2021)
Maybe you found my blog because you want to learn how to be more productive as an ADHD adult. If so, then you’ll want to know that ADHD adults need self-compassion to reach their goals. Really. Because, without self-compassion, it will be much, much harder to be productive – do what’s meaningful and important to you.
Are you in? Not yet?
If not, it might be because you equate compassion with pity. And, if that’s the case, you might think self-compassion might mean you will be less productive and people will take advantage of you. To avoid this, you try not to let your guard down and continue to push yourself to prove to others you are capable.
The good news is you won’t need to engage in self-pity! But when you start to develop more self-compassion and lean into it as one of your go-to strategies you will feel more grounded, confident, have better relationships, and, yes, be more productive. Curious how you can develop more compassion to achieve these results while working with your ADHD?
Let’s get on with it then.
What Does It Look Like When ADHD Adults Are Compassionate?
And I’ll start by differentiating between pity and compassion. When you pity someone, you feel bad for them or sympathetic, right? However, you may also view them as less than. And, if you are pitying yourself because of your ADHD challenges, you may view yourself as less, perhaps, than your neurotypical peers. And this may lead to a seemingly never-ending shame and blame spiral.
On the other hand, when you exhibit self-compassion about your ADHD (adapted from Dr. Kristin Neff), you:
- are mindful of your negative emotions (ones you don’t want). That is, you can identify and “be with” your emotions. But don’t waste time and energy avoiding or running away from them.
- recognize that, while your challenges may be related to your ADHD, you are not alone in your suffering. That is, you can acknowledge others suffer as well, whether they have ADHD or not.
- are kind to yourself, even when you feel you fall short of your or other’s expectations because of your ADHD challenges.
OK, that was the cliffnotes version. Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these.
ADHD Adults Are Less Productive When They Suppress Their Emotions
When you feel “negative emotions” you may try to run away from them. While it makes sense you don’t want to feel the way you are feeling, rather than extinguishing these emotions, you likely end up magnifying them. Then they may come out sideways in ways you don’t want, and you feel worse, right?
You just can’t outrun your emotions.
Moreover, the time and energy you use doing this means your productivity and relationships may suffer. Because you aren’t using your time and energy doing what is most meaningful to you, including creating authentic relationships.
But, what if, instead of feeling shame and frustration about your emotions, you were more self-compassionate? That is, what if you accepted things will sometimes not turn out the way you want and you might have uncomfortable feelings as a result, whether they are related to your ADHD or not?
Acceptance Can Help ADHD Adults Live in Alignment with What Is Important to Them
One way to learn to live with your negative feelings so they have less of a hold over you is by learning how to use ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) techniques. These techniques can help you stop struggling with your thoughts and feelings, stay in the present moment and accept (acknowledge) your feelings, rather than trying to avoid them.
The first step is to remember thoughts are just words, sensations, and images — not reality. When you take them as reality, fuse with them, they can cause you pain. But, if you practice diffusion, you can immediately lessen the hold they have over you.
For example, you could diffuse the common thought, “I’m a failure,” with one of the following techniques recommended by Happiness Trap author, Russ Harris:
- Tell yourself, “I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.” You could even go further and tell yourself, “I notice I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.”
- Take the thought and sing it to yourself to the tune of “Happy Birthday.”
- Try hearing the thought in a cartoon character’s voice, like Mickey Mouse.
- Take 10 deep breaths as slowly as possible and notice the sensations as you inhale and exhale.
As you practice, notice how the thought has less of a hook on you. And remember the goal is not to get rid of the thoughts. Rather the goal is to lessen their impact so you can take effective action.
That’s right, having self-compassion can help you act in alignment with your values. Nice, right?!
How “Shoulds” Get in The Way for ADHD Adults
To reach your goals effectively, in addition to accepting your thoughts, it’s also important to accept yourself as you are. This doesn’t mean you can’t also learn how to work better with your ADHD. You can both accept yourself and work on managing your challenges (more on this below).
Yet over time, though you may not follow them and did not even intentionally adopt, I bet you have internalized certain rules — shoulds. Maybe they originally came from family, friends, social media, books, the internet, etc. Whether you follow them or not, they weigh on you like a ton of bricks, right?
For example, you might think you should be able to:
- socialize or network easily in large gatherings.
- communicate your ideas clearly on the spot in meetings.
- organize and execute large projects on your own.
But your ADHD might make these activities difficult to do. Yet, you keep on trying. And, when you can’t follow your self-imposed rules, you feel shame and frustration at your perceived inadequacies. And might even think of yourself as an impostor, maybe wondering when others will find out you don’t belong.
These internalized rules — shoulds are definitely not helping you reach your goals.
Using Kindness, Not Judgement, Helps ADHD Adults Reach Their Goals
One way to get rid of your “shoulds” is, yes, to develop self-compassion. According to Dr. Neff, if you are treating yourself with self-compassion, you would:
instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, whoever said you were supposed to be perfect?
To consider how you might be kinder to yourself you could start by thinking about how you treat others who are struggling in similar situations. Are you as judgmental and critical of others as you are of yourself? I’m pretty sure the answer for most of you is, “Well, no…”
But how do you treat yourself when you are struggling, make mistakes, and sometimes fail? While You might demonstrate compassion and reach out to help others when they need help, you might not be as compassionate with yourself. Rather, you might be resort to shame and blame, rather than demonstrating the kindness you do to others.
One way to counter this tendency and treat yourself with more compassion is to acknowledge when you are having a difficult time, rather than ignoring your suffering by:
- stopping in the moment.
- reminding yourself of what you’re trying to do, “This is really hard!”
- then considering what would make it easier and who might be able to help you.
Acknowledging your challenges and figuring out the workarounds is one way to minimize your shoulds.
Without Self Compassion ADHD Adults Can Feel Alone
Yet, if you feel all alone in doing this you may have a hard time sustaining these beliefs over the long run.
And, right now you may feel alone, as if you’re the only one with these challenges. You look around and think, “Why can’t I have it together like everyone else?” Though others are certainly suffering in different ways, you may not see it. And this loneliness leaves you feeling depleted, unable to fully focus and attend to what is important to you.
Consequently, because you’re not doing your best work, you may feel less than. And when you feel alone and less than, you may further isolate from others. Because you don’t want others to see the “real you.” Of course, this only exacerbates your feelings of aloneness.
As you continue to isolate yourself, not wanting others to see how broken you are (you’re not) you also may resist asking for help — help you need. Because you think asking for help is just another indication you are not good enough. So, you don’t reach out when:
- you’re stuck on a project at work.
- you can’t make heads or tails of your finances.
- your physical space is a mess, and you don’t know how to organize it.
- you don’t know how to create a plan to manage your ADHD.
Instead of reaching out, you decide you just need to try harder. But those efforts likely don’t get you any closer to your goals. A vicious cycle, no doubt.
How ADHD Adults Can Stop Isolating Themselves
The antidote so you don’t feel so alone is to remember everyone has their stuff, though you may not be able to see it. Yes, I know your challenges, at least some of them, are related to your ADHD. Ok, so, you just have different challenges than your neurotypical peers. But everyone has challenges and suffers at times. Everyone.
If you’re ready to buy into that, the next step is to reach out and find your people, people who can be supportive. When you do this and are willing to be vulnerable, be yourself, you’ll feel less alone. They might be friends, family, colleagues, and/or professionals. What do you need right now so you don’t feel alone? Is it a friend to go hiking with, an organizer to help you get your house in shape, something else?
The more you reach out the more you’ll be able to live in alignment with what is important to you. In part, because you’ll feel connected, validated and this will energize you. And, obviously, you will be in a better position to reach your goals, if you reach out to people who can help you in specific ways to do this.
Self-Compassion Includes Taking Steps to Manage Your ADHD
So, I’ve already established self-compassion is not the same as pity, and with more self-compassion you might be more willing to reach out for the help you need. Yet, you may still be wondering if self-compassion means accepting yourself just the way you are and not making any changes. It doesn’t. I can assure you that just the opposite is true. As Dr. Neff points out:
You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are.
When you develop self-compassion you will likely be in a better position to address your ADHD challenges. As you will understand you are really not crazy, lazy, or stupid! Rather, your ADHD challenges stem from a brain-based biological disorder. And, with this understanding you may be:
- willing to accept what you can’t or choose not to change.
- able to figure out creative workarounds for the challenges you can and choose to address, whether related to your ADHD or not.
- access the support you need to work with your ADHD.
No doubt, developing self-compassion is one of the cornerstones of any plan to manage ADHD.
ADHD Adults Need Self-Compassion to Reach Their Goals
I know the title of this section is a pretty bold statement. But it’s true.
Because your goal is not just to get to the finish line, get stuff done. But you also want to feel less stress and overwhelm along the way, right? And, without self-compassion, your experience in getting to the finish line will likely continue to be full of stress and overwhelm.
So, are you in?
Ready to do the work of developing more self-compassion? You can start by reading or listening to Neff’s Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.