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Low Self-Esteem: The Side of ADHD You Don’t See

Reading time | 4 min

In our society, we’re constantly told to celebrate who we are. We’re told to practice self-care and self-love, and to put ourselves first and make time for ourselves. There are sections in bookstores, video series, and songs on the topic. We’re told you can’t love anyone else until you’ve learned to love yourself.

Now, I hate to interrupt the love fest, but it simply isn’t that easy for all of us. When you have a chronic illness of any type, whether it’s ADHD, depression, anxiety, or any physical ailment, you’re at war with your body. Every day you get up and wage war against your symptoms. Some days you win, and some days you lose. That part is normal. Unfortunately, what is also normal is that your illness can affect how you start to feel about yourself. How can you be your own best friend when sometimes you feel like your worst enemy?

Low self-esteem is something that many of us with ADHD internalize from years of living with the disorder. It’s very difficult and unpopular in a world that is fixated on self-love, self-care, and self-esteem to admit that sometimes you have a hard time even tolerating yourself. For many years, I thought I was the only one who struggled with this, but it turns out that it isn’t just me.

In order to illustrate that point, I am sharing with you not only my experience, but also the experiences of others in the ADHD community.

Low self-esteem can make you feel unheard

Spending your life feeling unreliable, undependable, and irresponsible doesn’t make you feel great about yourself. Many people with ADHD start to show symptoms during childhood. In a world where you’re expected to be quiet, sit still, and focus, you can easily be identified as a ‘problem’.

At least I was.

As an only child in a house full of adults, I was often lonely. I was always full of ideas, so I would talk — a lot. “Shut up, René,” became a bit of a catchphrase around the house. Because of this, I learned to be quieter. My thoughts didn’t slow down, but I learned to stop sharing them because I thought nobody wanted to hear them. When you feel like your words don’t matter, it can make you feel very isolated.

Tip: Do you feel unheard by the people who care about you? This might sound strange, but my suggestion for this is to talk to them. For so many years, I was convinced that nobody cared about what I had to say. I had internalized that message and believed it to be true. By communicating more with the people I care about, I learned the opposite: They very much want to hear what I think.

Low self-esteem can make you doubt yourself

For those of us living with ADHD, we can learn to believe things about ourselves that aren’t true. I had a conversation with one of my friends with ADHD, Lashonda Andrews, who had this to say about the impact ADHD has on your sense of self:

“ADHD has always made me second guess my talents and abilities. Although someone may tell me I’m smart, creative, or give me compliments, my ADHD immediately shuts down the notion that those words expressed are true.”

Tip: Here’s how to raise your self-esteem, courtesy of Lashonda: “Through meditation and positive affirmations, my self-confidence has increased exponentially. Whenever self-doubt tries to creep in, I replace those thoughts with positive ones. It’s tough to overcome 30 years of negative thinking, but I’m getting there.”

Don’t let others determine where you should be

I hated school as a child, and part of the reason that I hated it so much was because I was always told that I wasn’t working at the level I was capable of. Every report card declared it, and my parents were always disappointed in me. When you’re living with undiagnosed ADHD, it’s terrible to be constantly told that your best isn’t good enough. This only leads to issues with performance and perfectionism that can last way into adulthood. (Trust me, I know.)

I asked my friend Arletta for her input on how to deal with criticism from others. Here’s what she said:

“I hate when people say I am not working to my full potential. I make a lot of small mistakes, and sometimes that makes people think I'm less intelligent than I am. In turn, it makes me question my own intelligence. This has made me less competitive at work.”

Tip: Arletta’s advice on how to cope with and overcome low self-esteem: “I have learned to laugh at my own mistakes and not take them personally all the time. This is not an overnight change. Learning to rebuild your self-esteem after years of negative messaging takes time. The most important tip that I can give you is to be gentle with yourself, and give it time to come together. Each day that you bolster your confidence is a day that you will trust yourself more. You can do this.”

The takeaway

You’re not alone. It can be difficult to acknowledge that low self-esteem is related to your ADHD, and it can be even more difficult to overcome it. Over time, though, you can find ways to rebuild it. While it takes time and patience, it’s possible to learn to love yourself again.

ADHD-US-NP-00025  AUGUST 2018