ADHD and Pessimism and Negativity

Yesterday, you learned how to handle SHAME.  Today, I’m tackling how to handle Pessimism and Negativity associated with ADHD.

Pessimism and negative thinking create a roadblock that conscious intent can actually dislodge like a battering ram if properly aimed. Likewise, pessimism and negativity—which may be boulder-sized due to years of failure and frustration—block your growth at every turn. If every time you have a new idea or go to meet a new person or begin to play a game you feel, “Why bother? This won’t work out well,” you constantly reduce the chances that anything will work out well.

One remedy for pessimism is to achieve some successes, but in order to gain those successes you may need to overcome your pessimism. Sounds like a Catch-22, doesn’t it? But there is a way out of the Catch-22. You can control what you think, to a certain degree.  You need to work on dismantling your pessimism. That does not mean you should become a foolish, empty-headed Pollyanna. However, it does mean you should escape the embrace of Cassandra, the doomsayer inside of you.

How to Break Down Negative Thinking

Controlling what you think is the domain of what is currently called cognitive therapy. Aaron Beck, and his student David Burns, have written superb, practical manuals on how to break the shackles of negative thinking. Also, Martin Seligman describes a method for achieving optimism in his book, Learned Optimism.

My favorite book on this topic for the ADHD audience is The Art of Living, by the Roman philosopher Epictetus, as translated and put into a modern idiom by Sharon Lebell. One reason I like to recommend it to people who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is that it is short—under 100 pages. Another reason is that it has stood the test of time, and then some. Epictetus lived over 2000 years ago. He is the true father of cognitive therapy. His basic, guiding principle is that a person should determine what he can control and what he can’t. Then work on what he can control—similar to the serenity prayer used in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Controlling What You Can

One element of life we can control, at least somewhat, is how we think. Epictetus began his life as a slave. Ordered around every day, poorly fed, beaten, and abused as a slave, he evolved a way of thinking that refused to intensify his suffering by adding to it with wretched thoughts. He was so persuasive in teaching others his methods that he was released from slavery and became renowned as a great philosopher. His words were written down by his students and compiled into one of the first and best “self-help” books ever, a book that was so useful in dealing with difficult situations that Roman soldiers often carried copies of it as they marched off into battle.

It worked for Roman soldiers, and it can work today. I highly recommend this slim volume if you suffer from excessive pessimism or persistently negative thinking.


Today’s blog post will focus on  ADHD and SHAME (the “S” of S.P.I.N”)  Tomorrow’s blog will focus on P – Pessimism and Negativity.

SHAME:  The older you get, the more shame you are apt to feel if your ADHD is undiagnosed.  Perhaps, you feel ashamed of what a mess your pocketbook always is in.  Or you feel ashamed of how late you usually are, no matter how hard you try not to be.  And, you feel ashamed that you haven’t made more of the abilities you were born with.

The shame may penetrate to deeper levels.  You may feel ashamed of your thoughts, desires, and predilections. Likewise, you may feel the only way you can be accepted is by putting on a mask. In addition, you may feel that the real you is fundamentally flawed.

Why Shame is Toxic

Such shame is toxic.  It is also traumatic.  It raises your stress hormone levels and eventually corrodes your memory and executive functions.  While your fifth grade school teacher may have planted the roots of that shame, you are now the one who intensifies it.  You imagine harsh judges everywhere, as if the world were swarming with strict fifth grade school teachers.  You project the harsh judgments you are making of yourself out onto everyone you meet.  Soon the world becomes like a huge set of judgmental eyes, looming down on you, and your only option is to hide.

With a therapist, a friend, a spouse—with someone, because it is all but impossible to do this alone—you need to talk through or “confess” what you take to be your sins.  As you do this, you will discover that they are not nearly as bad in the eyes of others as they are in your eyes.  It is all right that you have messes.  People enjoy your unpredictable remarks, and those who don’t can look elsewhere for friends.  It is all right that you are late.  Sure, it would be good to try to be on time, but as long as people know you are not just blowing them off, they can forgive lateness.  If they can’t, you don’t need them as friends, either.  How boring it would be if everyone were “normal.”  Where would Monty Python or Mel Brooks have come from?  Remember, what is strange today becomes truth or art tomorrow.

Not only does shame hurt, it also is the chief cause of a huge problem in adults who have ADHD. Shame contributes to their inability to feel good about their achievements.  Consequently, it is common for ADHD adults to be all but impervious to positive remarks.  Whatever they have legitimately achieved they feel must have been done by someone else, or by accident.

Why Adults with ADHD Can’t Enjoy Their Success

One of the main reasons adults with ADHD can’t take pleasure in their own successes and creations is, simply, shame.

  • First, they feel too ashamed to feel good.
  • Then they feel too defective to feel nourished.
  • Likewise, they feel it is practically immoral to feel proud of themselves.

Healthy pride is such an alien emotion that they have to look back into the dim recesses of their childhoods. That’s because it’s the last time they felt proud of themselves, if they can find an instance even then.

Shame prevents you from allowing your best self to emerge.  Shame gets in the way of every forward step you try to take.

  • You call a business and instead of asking to speak to the president or person in charge, you figure you’re too small potatoes for them, so you speak to an underling who can do nothing for you.
  • Likewise, you apply for a job, but instead of making a strong case for what you can do for the company, you present a self-effacing persona that is charming, but uninspiring.
  • When you go shopping for clothes, you pick outfits that allow you to recede into the background as much as possible.
  • You shake hands, but have trouble making strong eye contact.
  • Similarly, you want to ask a question at a lecture, but fear that your question is a stupid one.
  • Even when you have a bright idea, you don’t do anything with it because you figure it must not be that good if you thought of it.
  • You do all the work on a project, then don’t speak up when someone else gets credit for what you’ve done.
  • Finally, when someone doesn’t call you back, you assume it was because they found you lacking in some way.  And on, and on.

How to Override Your Feelings of Shame

Try as best you can to override your feelings of shame.  When you shake hands, make eye contact and give a strong handshake, even if you feel second-rate.  Furthermore, when someone doesn’t call you back, assume they’re simply too busy. Then give them a call.  If, indeed, they do find you lacking and reject you, don’t internalize their judgment.  Look elsewhere.  You don’t want someone who rejects you, anyway.  And remember, rejection in one place is just the first step on the way to acceptance somewhere else. That is, of course, unless you let that first rejection stop you.

It is heartbreaking to watch an adult contribute wonderfully to the world, only to feel every day as if she hadn’t.  Likewise, it is painful to watch an adult work hard and do much good, only to feel as if someone else had done it.

To allow the adult who has ADHD to take deserved pleasure and pride in what he has done, he needs to detoxify the shame that has plagued him for years.

How to Detoxify Your Shame

To detoxify your shame, you need to engage in a deliberate, prolonged process.  It will take some time.  But it can and should be done.  As long as you feel intense shame, you will never feel the kind of joy in life that you have every right to feel.  You will stay stuck in a painful place. Instead, with someone else’s help, you can work toward accepting and enjoying your true self.

If you struggle with this issue, you should try to get rid of the people in your life who disapprove of you or don’t like or love you for who you are.  It’s  important to get rid of or avoid the people who are overly critical of you rather than accepting of you.  So get rid of the harsh fifth grade school teachers in your life—and within yourself.

Getting rid of that which is within you will be a lot easier if you get rid of the ones who surround you.  Your shame has allowed them to stay.  You have felt that’s what you need—daily reprimands, daily belittlements, daily control.  But that’s the opposite of what you need.  It’s your shame that’s let those people into your life.  Your determination not to be ruled by shame any longer will send them away.

What You Need

  • Acceptance
  • People who see the best in you and,
  • want to help you develop that.

As you surround yourself more and more with people who see more good in you than you see in yourself, then you will start to feel less afraid and less ashamed. As a result, you will dare to feel proud, a little bit at a time.

 Check back tomorrow to learn about Pessimism and Negativity.

If the fear of feedback prevents you from advancing in your career and in your relationships, read this blog post on Fear of Feedback.


ADHD and S.P.I.N. Cycle

HOW TO AVOID THE S.P.I.N. CYCLE OF ADHD: I often compare the ADHD mind to Niagara Falls, both wonders of gargantuan movement and energy.  The trick to making use of the energy in Niagara Falls, and to doing well in life with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD,) is building a hydroelectric plant.  You need to hook the energy up to some contraption that can turn it into a useful product.

Whoever makes your diagnosis could say to you what might have been said to someone who lived next to Niagara Falls all her life but never understood how to deal best with a waterfall.  “This waterfall is an insurmountable obstacle if your goal is to paddle.  But, if you will change your plan, I can show you how you can turn this waterfall into something wonderful.  This waterfall can generate enough energy to light up millions of homes.  People will pay you for all that electricity.  You just need to throw away your paddle and build a hydroelectric plant.”

When treatment begins, you are on your way to building that plant.

Treating ADHD may seem as difficult as building a hydroelectric plant—but it can be just as successful.  You need to know some of the major pitfalls.

After an initial burst of improvement at the beginning of treatment of ADHD, there is usually a leveling off.  This may be followed by long, frustrating periods during which the person with ADHD—or the entire family—feels stuck. It’s as if they are simply spinning their wheels instead of making the kind of progress they should be making.  S.P.I.N. happens in people of all ages, but it is especially a problem in older adolescents and adults.  With children, the natural forces of development, coupled with the influence of parents and school, usually prevail and the child progresses.

However, when the diagnosis is not made until late adolescence or adulthood, prolonged periods of going nowhere can stultify treatment.  As one woman wrote to me, “I know you know this already, but there are some people who stubbornly resist help, who are caught in patterns too deeply rooted in the subconscious to be freed from.  Sometimes I wonder if I am one of those.  So don’t bet your money on this horse.  Remember, you can’t save everyone, kid.” I refer to these periods of being stuck “spinning,” based on an acronym, S.P.I.N.

The term sums up the usual causes of getting stuck:

  • “S” stands for Shame.
  • “P” stands for Pessimism and Negativity.
  • “I” stands for Isolation.
  • “N” stands for No Creative, Productive Outlet.

Getting unstuck often depends on reversing the influence of some or all of the components of S.P.I.N.  You can do this with a therapist, a coach, a spouse, a support group, a friend, a pastor, a relative, or all of the above.

Check back tomorrow for suggestions on how to handle the SHAME associated with ADHD.

If you think you may have ADHD, learn about getting a diagnosis here.

Watch Dr. Hallowell’s YouTube video on The Negative and Positive Traits of ADHD


ADHD – Changing the Shame and Fear

The greatest learning disorder of all is fear.

Getting rid of shame and fear are key!!  Kids, and this includes kids with ADHD, Dyslexia or any Learning Disorder, need to feel emotionally safe in the classroom and at home.  My own childhood experience with difficulty reading shows how a supportive environment can illuminate a child’s life. As a first-grader, I had a great deal of trouble learning to read. I simply couldn’t decode words on a page. At that time, before we knew much about ADHD and dyslexia (I have both), poor readers got a simple diagnosis: They were “stupid.” The treatment plan was to “try harder.”

Fortunately, my first-grade teacher was a wise woman. Mrs. Eldredge didn’t know why I could not read, but she did know what to do about it. At each reading period, she would come over and wrap her arm around me. That simple sign of encouragement was tremendously reassuring. With her beside me, I knew none of my classmates would dare make fun of me. It’s incredible that a seven-year-old would sit there, day in and day out, and demonstrate his incompetence. But I did. Such was the power of Mrs. Eldredge’s arm.

By the end of the year, I wasn’t much better at reading. But, I was the most enthusiastic reader in the class. (Dr. Hallowell shares his memories about Mrs. Eldredge’s arm in this YOUTUBE video.)

So how do we help our children get rid of the shame and fear of ADHD?

First, there is no substitute for a parent understanding the child’s mind and conveying that over and over again to teachers! A child needs an advocate after a diagnosis of ADHD and too often testing results get “filed away”.

Spend time talking with your child about his or her classroom and social experiences to learn what is going on in the classroom and at school. Family dinners are a great time of the day to discuss what’s going on at school and how your child feels.

Become a partner with your child’s teacher. Don’t go in with a set of things you “want” from the teacher. Go in with the goal of creating a relationship that will support your child. Consider helping out in class. Treat your child’s teacher as the professional he or she is.

Consider talking with your teacher about having a home to school notebook for quick comments on daily basis and easy communications.

Finally, remember that you are not alone! There is a tremendous community to support and help you. A few places to look, depending on your needs:

The Hallowell Centers in Boston MetroWest, NYC, SF and Seattle.

Understood. org provides expert advice available for all parents of children with learning and attention issues – an incredible resource that is entirely free of cost.

Calm and Connected: Parenting Kids with ADHD, 7-Session Parent Coaching Workshop Series led by ADHD Parent Coach, Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M, ACAC.

ADHD for Teachers

Learn more about managing ADHD and other forms of distraction, by listening to my weekly podcast series, DISTRACTION!

More ADHD Resources here.