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3 Common Negative Core Beliefs of People with ADHD

Here’s why and how to neutralize them.

Key points

  • Negative core beliefs are unhelpful, harmful, absolute “truths” about yourself, your worldview, and your perception of others.
  • Individuals with ADHD tend to report a few common negative core beliefs such as "I never do anything right."
  • People can learn to challenge their negative core beliefs with internal questions and replace them with neutral or positive beliefs.
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The idea of negative core beliefs stems from the late Dr. Aaron Beck, the originator of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Negative core beliefs are unhelpful, notably harmful, absolute “truths” about yourself, your worldview, and your perception of others.

Every individual (diagnosed with ADHD or not) struggles with at least one or more of these harmful comprehensions of self, others, and the world. Dr. Aaron Beck and his daughter, psychologist Judith Beck, profess that these beliefs originate in your formative years in an attempt to derive meaning from challenging and often painful life experiences. Below are some of the most common negative assumptions individuals with ADHD tend to report, their suspected origins, and questions used in CBT to assist in shifting or “neutralizing” the negative core belief.

1. "I’m Not Smart Enough"

Since ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder, ADHDers have struggled with academic performance issues since childhood. Regardless of it being noticed by teachers or parents. Many people with ADHD are also diagnosed with specific learning disorders with math, writing, or reading impairments. According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, approximately 20-30% of children with ADHD have a specific learning disability. From a young age, they’ve compared their performance with that of their peers and likely noticed that they put forth substantially more effort to perform similarly or to “keep up.” ADHDers may have begun to see that their peers answered questions faster. They decided that “smart kids answer questions quickly” or “smart kids finish the test first.” Consequently, the seeds for “I’m not as smart” began to take root.

Collectively we have to break the association between processing speed and intelligence. No scientific evidence supports that people with faster processing speeds are more intelligent. In fact, it’s not uncommon for people with slower processing speeds to be highly intelligent. We need to be cognizant that ADHD is not a problem of knowing what to do. It’s a problem of doing what you know. It’s a disorder of performance, not ability or aptitude.

Questions to challenge this negative core belief: Am I downplaying my strengths? Am I only focusing on areas that I need to improve? Am I expecting more of myself than I would other people?

Replace with: I haven’t figured it out yet, but I can learn anything with time.

2. "I Never Do Anything Right"

ADHDers tend to engage in terms of “all or nothing,” it’s likely a product of perfectionism. Again, another maladaptive coping mechanism for shame. The response to this statement is typically, “Is that even possible?” If you were to reflect on every day of your life thus far, have you gotten everything you’ve done wrong? No one is “always” or “never” anything. It’s simply an error in thinking. Even if we were to entertain this core belief and assume that from the moment you were born, you’ve gotten everything you’ve ever done “wrong,” that doesn’t mean you can never get anything right now or in the future.

Name one thing you were proud of or complimented on in the past year. More importantly, take a moment and reflect on where or when this belief originated. Repeated criticisms about behavior and performance at school, home, or work are the likely suspects.

Questions to challenge this negative core belief: Are there examples where this situation has not been true? What other factors besides myself affected the outcome? Does this apply to all cases, or am I generalizing? Am I using a double standard? What would I say to someone that I love who went through the same thing? Would I have more compassion for them? Can I learn something from this situation to help me do it better next time?

Replace with: I’m allowed to make mistakes. It’s the best way to learn. Change is difficult, but it’s possible.

3. "There’s something wrong with me"

This one is painful. To its core, it insinuates that one is “defective” or “flawed.” It simply oozes toxic shame from a therapist’s perspective. This core belief likely resulted from having ADHD symptoms and behaviors that were misunderstood and misconstrued by parents, teachers, partners, friends, colleagues, and bosses throughout their lifetime. Every ADHDer struggles with feeling chronically “different.” It’s important to note that this negative core belief is most likely the main reason for “masking,” or covering up and hiding symptoms by mimicking the behaviors of neurotypicals to be accepted or “fit in.”

If an ADHDer feels that “If I show people the real me, I’ll get rejected,” masking behaviors to dull the pain of shame set in. This negative core belief is also prevalent among ADHDers without a formal diagnosis. Issues with inattention, hyperactivity, forgetfulness, impulsivity, consistent feelings of overwhelm, and social issues may lead them to conclude that they are inferior, unwelcome, inept, and incompetent. Ultimately, this leads to low self-esteem, poor self-concept, and low self-worth.

Questions to challenge this negative core belief: Am I confusing a thought or feeling with a fact? Do I have any positive qualities? Does everyone have it together all the time? What are the consequences of thinking this way? How is it helpful to believe this about myself? Does this belief take me closer to or further away from my personal goals?

Replace with: Everyone is a work in progress. I do not need to be fixed; I'm not broken. It’s okay to feel like I don’t have it all together all the time.

More from Kailey Spina Horan, Ph.D., LMHC
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