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How Stress and Self-Sabotage Interfere With ADHD Happiness

Learn 6 practical tools to feel calmer, confident, and more productive.

Key points

  • Reduce stress by identifying patterns of self-defeating behaviors and choosing healthier alternatives.
  • Decrease the feelings of shame and self-doubt that you've carried around for years by setting realistic, achievable goals.
  • Create rebuttals to the negative, critical voice in your head to lower its volume and influence.
  • Use a growth mindset and develop the ability to focus on the power of "yet."
Source: excentric_01/iStock
Source: excentric_01/iStock

Do you notice that when you feel stressed from work, school, or relationships, some of your ADHD symptoms get more intense? When we are stressed, our ​​weakest executive functioning skills are hit first. This means that you may feel flooded by anxiety or anger, or you may panic about estimating and managing time. Perhaps you distract yourself with everything but the task that is actually stressing you out.

When people with ADHD are activated, they are often plagued by self-sabotaging, negative internal talk that prevents them from believing they can do things. It can be conscious or unconscious and can keep folks from setting, working towards, and reaching goals. It holds them back from doing what they want to do.

Low self-esteem and unfounded beliefs about being deficient, not good enough, incapable, or unintelligent can contribute to self-sabotage. These deep-seated, limiting core beliefs fuel fears about performance and can result in procrastination or avoidance. If left unchecked, this can lead to general anxiety, social anxiety, and depression. That’s why it’s so important to counter negativity with encouragement, support, and self-love.

Feelings of shame and self-doubt often surface early on for those with ADHD.

The shame about not being able to succeed at school or handle tasks as well as others starts early in life and continues into adulthood. Children with ADHD feel “different” from their peers, which may fill them with increasing feelings of nervousness, doubt, and uneasiness. Over time, personal vigilance grows into anxiety about messing up and not measuring up.

Embarrassment and shame may lead to a desire to avoid that insecurity and pain at all costs. This makes people especially susceptible to tension from upcoming due dates for projects, final exams, and friendship issues. Often folks develop judgmental ways of thinking and unhelpful behaviors to avoid this discomfort and hold onto them well past whatever usefulness they once served.

These internal patterns demonstrate self-sabotage that may be conscious or unconscious. Take a minute right now and reflect on whether you are negatively affected by any of the following and notice an increase in stress when they occur:

  • Avoidance: Staying away from people or situations that cause discomfort
  • Procrastination: Putting off getting things done because of a fear of failure
  • Fixed mindset: Believing that you can’t change and your abilities will not improve; blaming and shaming yourself for mistakes you may have made
  • Exercising control over others: Attempting to control others’ behaviors or situations that seem uncertain and provoke your anxiety
  • Pleasing others at your own expense: Making choices to be accepted or liked by people, even if they go against your values or better judgments; depending on others for validation and approval
  • Engaging in risky behaviors: Harming yourself through substance abuse, gambling, sexual promiscuity, cutting, eating disorders, etc.
  • Using “compare and despair” to your own detriment: Looking at what others do and comparing yourself negatively to them
  • Perfectionism: Trying to control outcomes as a way to manage anxiety; "letting perfect be the enemy of good enough"; needlessly getting caught up in the weeds or building obstacles where they don't need to be; looking for the one perfect solution instead of taking steps forward, even if not under ideal conditions.
Source: Douceflleur/iStock
Source: Douceflleur/iStock

Even though it may seem like self-sabotage and its related stress is a lot to deal with, it is possible to manage and even overcome these self-defeating tendencies. Some approaches, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Internal Family Systems (IFS), or Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), are longer-term treatments that can be very helpful. But there are several tools and mindful awareness exercises you can practice at any time to help reduce these limiting beliefs and thinking patterns day-to-day. Try these steps of the Turn-It-Program to make the changes you hope for:

1. Establish healthier alternatives to limiting beliefs, negative self-talk, and safety-seeking behaviors.

Practice mindfulness by focusing on being present and aware of your thoughts instead of letting preoccupation and worries about what other people think about you distract you. Pay attention to what’s happening around you in the present moment instead of the noise in your head.

Sometimes we find ourselves being pulled into a cycle of negativity, worry, predicted failure, or harsh self-judgment. In these cases, reverse course by slowing down and identifying any negative beliefs. Recall positive outcomes that have occurred before, and remind yourself that they are possible again. Encourage yourself to power through. Aisha, age 34, says: “If I get stuck, I sometimes do better if I can commit to starting and working on a task for 15 minutes. It is good to negotiate with yourself and build in rewards for following through."

2. Identify phrases of self-sabotage, and create rebuttals.

When your “negative brain” tells you, “You’re not good enough, so why bother?” train your “positive brain” to answer, “Don’t underestimate yourself—give it a try and see what happens!” Create your own list of encouraging phrases to use when you want to cut the negative self-talk short. Remember, you are not your thoughts, but you are the one who is aware of them. You can choose not to believe them or push them back with the power of positive thinking. This takes work and a lot of practice, so expect yourself to stumble and have setbacks.

Forget about “compare and despair” and looking sideways at what others are doing. Instead, look at where you’ve come from and where you want to go. Sam, age 27, says: “When my brain is working against me, I find ways to increase dopamine or just rest if that is really what I need and eliminate the perceived judgment of other people.”

3. Set small behavioral goals that are low-risk experiments to build confidence.

These are learning experiences that test or defy those negative self-beliefs. Take a measured risk based on previous successes. For example, if you are anxious about attending a social gathering, set a small goal for yourself, such as “I’m going to smile at new people.” Once you’re comfortable with smiling, take it up a notch with a goal such as “I’m going to talk to 1-2 people standing alone,” or “I will focus on the conversation in the moment and make a reflective or topic-related comment.”

Afterward, assess how the situation went and how you felt. Did you have conversations that may have been awkward but weren’t damaged by them? Write a journal entry or voice memo about your experience and what you learned from it.

4. Adjust your expectations to include the natural stumbles of being human; separate your ADHD brain from your character.

Because of your ADHD, your thoughts may have a tendency to run away from you, making them harder to get back and control. Train your attention to move away from negativity and internal noise. We can’t turn off these thoughts entirely, but we can lower the volume on them and see them as background noise.

You’re only human, so you will make mistakes and feel awkward from time to time. Your ADHD brain may make things tougher to manage, but you are still a good, worthy, and capable person who has a lot to offer. Yvonne, age 30, says: “ADHD doesn’t make me less of a person or less valid. It makes me a different sort of person who is still valid and valuable.”

5. Use a growth mindset approach.

Shift away from trying to prove your worth to others using false comparisons or judging yourself as less than. Transition from seeing yourself in a negative light to practicing compassion and kindness toward yourself. We are all works in progress, learning and developing at our own speeds. Believe in the power of "yet." Isaiah, age 24, says that he tells himself: “I may not be able to do this yet, but I am learning.” Practice kindness and patience towards yourself.

6. Try healing meditation.

Picture yourself at a beautiful spot outside. Visualize the face of someone you really love. What encouraging words would this person say to you? How would these words comfort and encourage you? Write these down, and meditate on these images.

Find a few words that you can pull up whenever you need to heal or empower yourself. Toni, age 33, says: "After I did this exercise and I saw my Nana's face, I wrote down something that she used to tell me. 'When someone says something mean to you, it's more about them. See if anything rings true and let go of the rest. Don't take on their negativity 'cause it will just bring you down.'"

Source: santypan/iStock
Source: santypan/iStock

Living with ADHD means experiencing moments when you’re aware that you are struggling or have messed up, but you don’t necessarily know why or how to fix it. This can develop into persistent worry, overwhelming stress, and defeating behaviors that may overpower you at times. Focus on building up your reserve of positive experiences, and, in turn, you’ll begin to minimize those pesky negative thoughts. Be kind to yourself today and every day.

Go back to basics: improve self-care by eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly. These are all powerful antidotes to self-sabotage and, together, will help you feel calmer, productive, and more confident.

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