ADHD and Low Self-Esteem

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, “I’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-EsteemHe calls Self Esteem, “the 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 “Underachieving.“  Boy, was I ever.

Generally, my teachers used more encouraging phrases, “Ricky 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, “Try 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, “Hmm, 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, “Doomed.”

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 fog
Blog 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.  “My 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.  “Often 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, Now 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, “When 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, “Just 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.  “Of 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.

COMING UP:

In my next blog I’ll talk more about moving forward—a process which leads to the ultimate question, “What parts of me are truly me?  What weaknesses and strengths are mine?  And which are ADHD symptoms?  Where do I end and where does my ADHD begin?”

In other words, “Exactly Who Am I?!”

And if I do get my ADHD managed, who will I be then?

How Has ADHD Affected Your Self-Esteem?

In the meantime, I’d love to hear how ADHD has affected your self-esteem?  

  • What did you believe about yourself? 
  • Was there evidence to the contrary that you or others dismissed?
  • Were there particular events of people who undermined your self-confidence when you were growing up? 
  • How did having undiagnosed ADHD erode your self-confidence and what did you do? 
  • And where are you at now
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Author Rick Green has been awarded the Order of Ontario and The Order of Canada for his advocacy work with ADHD
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3 Comments

  1. Avatar
    sari7ta August 20, 2020 at 1:23 am

    super

  2. Avatar
    janettepadinis August 25, 2020 at 8:36 pm

    I see this in my 18 year old son, however he was not diagnosed with ADHD but he shows So many Of the characteristics that you write about and what teachers say etc
    The problem that I have now is that he can’t understand why he is the way he is and he apparently doesn’t have ADHD – so he won’t ever have that chance to start looking at it From a positive perspective, he fights everything that I present to him in regards to dealing with ADHD. I’ll have a look at this book that you reference and keep chipping away, he’s got so much potential and I’ve just watched it shrivel up over the years due to him not understanding and findingWays to work with his strength. It also doesn’t help that his strengths are in gaming and he has a father who is adamantly opposed to gaming and puts really tight restrictions on it. I’d be interested to know your opinion on encouraging a strength in this gaming area?

  3. Avatar
    kmustang August 29, 2020 at 11:38 am

    janettepadinis,
    This is long, but my hope is you’ll find a tidbit or two. Since I don’t know you at all, I went kind of “no, duh” level because I don’t know what you know. Please forgive me.
    I’m no expert, but I’m a recovered World of Warcraft addict. Depending on what types of games he plays, there might be some “real world” application for some of the skills he’s been developing. I just turned 55, and let me tell you that I am wildly grateful that WoW didn’t exist when I was in school. I don’t think I would have made it. I can see why parents hate it so much, but I can tell you it’s not all bad. My nephew just turned 13, and he’s in the gaming trap. All he wants to do is play computer games. Nothing else interests him. And it’s no surprise, games are designed to deliver regulated dopamine hits. They are literally addictive.
    This TED talk is now 10 years old (egads), but I think it might interest you:
    https://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_gaming_can_make_a_better_world#t-533164
    I don’t have an answer for you, but I have a few ideas. I haven’t discussed any of this with my brother and sister-in-law, so consider these as what they are… probably useless advice from a person who doesn’t have kids. My hope is that my thoughts will spark better ones in you. I hope that makes sense.
    I was gaming as an adult. I had a husband (who led the way into gaming addiction), a job, a house payment, dirty dishes, and we had to find a way to feed ourselves. We had a leg up here because we had to learn those skills BEFORE we dove into the gaming world. I have a strong suspicion that to teach a kid those skills in today’s world, you’ll have to use the same tools that games use.
    That means small tasks with small rewards that lead to larger with large rewards. In game terms, a “quest chain”. And many games have already given you a way in. Like other games, WoW has the concept of a “daily quest” (realize that I haven’t actually played WoW in almost 10 years, so my terminology is certainly dated. Don’t use it to sound cool…). That is a task that you do every day to earn points toward some large goal. These sorts of tasks have ADHD written all over them. You do some stupid, boring, probably annoying, activity once each day. When you complete that task, you get a small reward. When you’ve done hundreds or thousands of those little tasks you get a HUGE reward that is totally worth all of the effort.
    To me, High School is totally a daily quest line. You do lots of little tasks that you just hate to earn a degree that gains you entry into a segment of the working world, which then starts a much longer and more horrific quest chain to get you to retirement. And once you’re retired, you can (hopefully) play allll the games you want. 🙂
    So my thinking is, structure your kids’ life like those games. Each day his daily tasks are reset. Each task has its own reward, and completing a weeks’ worth merits a larger, but still fairly small, reward. Then, at some pre-defined point (a “victory condition”), he earns a big reward that he *really* wants. For example, I know many kids who wanted a dog. Their parents didn’t want to have to take care of a dog. So they told the kid that if they did their chores every day, without go having to be reminded for , they would earn the privilege of owning a dog. THAT is a daily quest line. And once you start thinking in those terms, our whole lives are built on quests, largely built on daily tasks. Saving for a house or car. Saving for a vacation. Learning skills to be qualified for a job promotion. Saving for retirement.
    Look for the tasks to lead to rewards, and create rewards for them. One of the biggest problems now is, your son likely doesn’t value the rewards he is offered for doing his daily tasks. A high school diploma doesn’t have any value for him because he doesn’t want to go work for his living. He’s a teenager so he can’t see or understand the consequences of not having a diploma. He has no reason to move out of your house and build his own life, because he’s happy enough where he is. Think about when you were growing up. What motivated you to grow up? Not having to live under your parent’s rules? Having the buying power to get a car, or your own phone so you didn’t have to share? Being able to date whoever you wanted? Listen to the music you liked, or watch the TV shows you wanted instead of what your parents or siblings wanted?
    As a society, we’ve removed most/all of the reasons kids wanted to leave home. We make life too easy for them. What I had to earn growing up, they now get for free. If I wanted to listen to certain music, I had to either wait for the one decent radio station available to play it, or I had to do something to earn the money to buy the record and a blank cassette so I could listen to it on the portable tape player that I had also had to earn the money to buy. Now any kids with internet access can stream whatever music they want to listen to for free. On their mobile phone that they don’t have to share with their siblings.
    It’s hard to take away a privilege they already have, but you can certainly stop giving him new ones. Have you seen the brilliant idea some parent had… they wrote down the list of chores that had to be completed to earn today’s wifi password? Classic. Another one controlled the charger. They had to earn the electricity to run their mobile devices. That’s gamifying their lives.
    Ok, now I’m going to switch tacts a little bit. World of Warcraft taught me a awful lot about real life. I have used so many skills I learned there I use every day, especially in dealing with people. There are industries where those “twitch skills” he has developed are very valuable. Planning and strategy to achieve those long term goals, or to break down a complex raid battle. Leadership and communication skills to coordinate a large group of people to achieve a common goal. All skills that MMO games have been teaching anyone willing to try to learn them. And some people are not willing to learn them. Others, after having to deal with those children, decide they don’t want to be “that guy”, and become better humans. It is very likely he is learning useful skills, or at least has the opportunity to do so. It would probably help him to recognize that.
    I was never interested in the “first person shooter” games, so I can’t speak to what he learns from them, but I am certain that he learns SOMEthing.
    And, honestly, I think the best thing a parent can do is find a way to join his world. Find a game you can play, too so it’s something you share and understand. Figure out why he likes it. Make it something you can talk about at dinner. You don’t have to get crazy involved, but be familiar enough with it that you can understand what he’s taking about when he tells you about some goal he’s achieved, and perhaps play with him *some* of the time. You won’t be able to jump in and join him in what he’s doing, but you can probably join him in some of his game time. It doesn’t sound like your husband would be willing to join in, but it would be HUGE if he would. Possibly the best way to get your son interested in the world you live in is to be interested in the world he lives in. It’s really no different than going to watch him play a sport, or perform in a play or recital. Think of it as you would one of those extracurricular activities, and support him in it — at least to a point. Tell your husband that if he wants a healthy relationship with his son, he’s going to need to meet him where he is, just like he did when his son was three. If you can do that, you’ll have earned (quest!) the “social capital” to get him to show some interest in your outside activities, like camping, or whatever else you like to do for fun. That’s relationship building 101.
    I’m going to stop now, this is way long enough. I hope something in there has helped. Now I need to do my morning breakfast quest… 😉

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