Once considered a childhood condition, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) has become a much more common diagnosis in adults. In this series, I’ll cover misconceptions about ADHD as well as challenges and advantages it gives those of us who have it.
“I’m so ADD,” says a coworker.
I cringe. Really?!? I think.
I want to ask (cue hint of sarcasm): “Aside from being a little scatterbrained from time to time, do you also:
- Have periods of near-obsessive focus on things that interest you?
- Suffer bouts of depression and anxiety on a regular basis?
- Deal with a guilt complex or rejection dysphoria?
- Struggle with tasks that require fine motor skills?
- Seem to have a deeper range of emotions and more trouble regulating them than most people?”
“ADHD is not an attention deficit . . . it’s an attention difference.”Mason, Oren, M.D. and Tamara Rosier, Ph.D., “Face It–People with ADHD Are Wired Differently,” ADDitude Magazine, 19 Jan 2022
I could go on, but that list comprises some of the most common experiences of people with ADHD, including the “inattentive” type formerly known as ADD. And technically, the name is a misnomer; ADHD is not an attention deficit, or at least not completely—it’s an attention difference.
In this post I’ll talk about some common misconceptions about ADHD, what ADHD is from a biological standpoint, and one of the five frustrations people with it face.
What ADHD Is Not
A misconception about ADHD is that it simply means someone is “scatterbrained.” People think it just refers to someone who tends to forget things, like where they put their keys, or they have trouble focusing in meetings. When they think of the “hyperactive” component, they may include the idea of someone who is fidgety.
While all of those behaviors can be part of the syndrome, there is much more to it. Which is why, to get back to my intro, I cringe when someone uses it to laugh off when they realize they misplaced something or lost focus. I know they mean no harm, but it feels like they are trivializing the difficulties I’ve faced in life and don’t really understand people like me.
What’s up with that? Just being too sensitive? No—we’re talking about a physical, anatomical difference in traits, like the differences between blond and brunette, blue and brown eyes, and so on.
Not convinced? Stick with me.
ADHD–a Biological Difference
Those of us with ADHD grew up in a world organized by neurotypical people (people without ADHD, autism, etc.). That presented us with some unique challenges. Life is hard for us in ways that people without ADHD not only don’t seem to understand but unfortunately, often criticize us for.
I’ve heard different statistics over the years, but if memory serves me correctly, by the time a child with ADHD reaches age 13, she has gotten EIGHT TIMES more negative responses to her behavior than a neurotypical child.
Because while understanding of the condition has grown, a lot of us still have gotten feedback that, no matter how politely put, is some version of, “Try harder,” or “You just need to be more responsible,” or “Why can’t you just be more organized/neater?” (Usually this last one comes with unsolicited advice about how to do it, such as: “You should organize your socks like this. It’s how I do it—it’s easy!”)
Not to mention that as children, and sometimes even as adults, we tend to misunderstand—or just completely miss—social cues. To this day, I have to tell people: “If you want me to do/not do something, you need to tell me. I don’t get hints.” We’re also more prone to, ahem, expressing our emotions. Strongly.
As I’ve learned about my condition, there are times when I wish I could tell people, “If you could see everybody’s brain and how it worked, you wouldn’t get as annoyed with us.”
Because from an anatomical perspective, the brains of people with ADHD are actually shaped differently. It’s not just “all in our heads,” except in the most literal sense. The way our neurotransmitters function is different, too. In other words, to quote an article by ADDitude Magazine:
“ADHD is not a difference in behavioral preference. Instead, ADHD appears to be partially attributed to a difference in how the brain is structured. What may look like behavioral choices — laziness, sloppiness, and forgetfulness — are likely due to differences in brain structure (emphasis added).”
Frustration 1: Rejection Dysphoria/Guilt Complex
Still, even knowing this, friends, family members, and coworkers get frustrated.
And we ADHDers—can I coin this term? We ADHDers can sense the frustration. Many of us respond to a lifetime of this messaging from our social circles by developing:
- a deep, ever-present guilt complex, which pushes us to try harder and harder, resort to people pleasing, give up on relationships in despair, constantly apologize, etc.
- rejection dysphoria—a sensitivity to rejection that feels other people’s irritation at a much higher level than neurotypical people. We can even perceive that someone is annoyed with us when they’re not.
I’ll never forget a pastor who, when I was confiding about losing track of my keys or other things all the time told me, “You just need to be more responsible.”
We wear those things inside of us all the time: the frustrated sighs of a family member who finds coffee grounds on the counter after you’ve made coffee for everyone and didn’t realize you spilled some, the shame of your emotional meltdown at the office when your boss pushed too hard one too many times, the panic of realizing you have a project due TOMORROW that had sort of slipped you mind.
We’ll get into some of why it’s harder for us ADHDers to stay neat, organized, and on time, but for now, let me say that most of the time, it’s not because we don’t try. In fact, for most people with ADHD that I’ve known, we try really hard in many areas of life. REALLY HARD.
Often our trying tends to go one of two directions:
- We try so very hard that we’re constantly going. We have to prove that we’re NOT lazy, irresponsible, or inept.
- We give up. We get criticized and slapped down so often that we don’t see the point of trying anymore.
Sometimes, we oscillate between the two extremes, burning out from chasing our tails to prove ourselves, then descending into lethargy and low levels of motivation.
How to Deal with It All?
There are medications and supplements we can take. Regular psychotherapy has been a lifesaver for me. It:
- Helps me understand how my brain works,
- What my emotions are truly telling me,
- Helps me develop strategies for getting past the feelings of rejection and guilt, and
- Helps me figure out ways that work for me to not lose track of deadlines and objects.
I’ve found that surrounding myself with safe people who understand and are patient does wonders for me as well.
Oh, and by the way—ADHD is not all bad. While I’ve focused on misconceptions and difficulties today, I’ve also learned that for every frustration ADHD has put in my path, there’s a secret superpower I can access as well.
In the next couple of blogs on mental wellness, I’ll cover not only four more frustrations people with ADHD face, but five awesome traits I’ve learned to take advantage of.
Have questions? Let me know! I look forward to continuing the conversation next time.