This is the truth about ADHD and self-trust: it doesn’t exist.
ADHD adults don’t trust themselves at all.
In fact, our self-concept begins to erode pretty early in life.
I struggled to do my calculus homework every day of my junior year.
I’d stare at lines of notes in my own handwriting as if another version of me had copied all of this down, and now the real me couldn’t figure out how to translate it.
I’d do the homework assigned, trying to follow my notes. Sometimes I’d get frustrated and quit half way. Other times I’d get through it, but when I checked the answers in the back of the book half of them were wrong.
My guidance counselor suggested I wasn’t trying hard enough because I was in a gifted program. Nobody ever explained what the hell, “gifted” meant.
No matter how hard I worked I couldn’t master calculus. And I wasn’t at all confident in my ability to do so.
I was working twice as hard as others for half as much reward.
Throughout our lives people say things like, “consistency is key.”
My other favorite is, “You need to apply yourself.”
WE HAVE ADHD. Stop telling us to try harder and be more consistent!
People are starting to talk more about the issue of ADHD and self-trust. But I really wanted to understand more about why this happens, and why so many of us live with low self-esteem.
I know what low self-esteem feels like, but I wanted to learn more. So I sought out the leading expert in ADHD thinking and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – Dr. J Russell Ramsay. Listen to the first part of my interview below.
The first question I asked was, “Why do so many of us suffer with low self-esteem and low confidence?”
First, Dr. Ramsay pointed out that the effects ofADHD are quantitative, meaning the symptoms are ongoing throughout the lifespan. With another mental health diagnosis, a person might experience a more pronounced but isolated period of altered mental state.
ADHD never ends, it shows up every day and in every area of our lives.
The demands of life only increase as we age, but our executive function challenges remain. This leads to recurring setbacks and a general underlying sense of frustration.
ADHD and self-trust
The longer we go without diagnosis and treatment, the more intense the underlying frustration and lack of self-trust becomes.
The long-term impact, and the erosion of our sense of personal agency, is what leads to the lowered self-concept.
Dr. Ramsay goes on to explain that the social consequences in terms of lack of career success, and failed relationships reinforce these feelings.
Think about this the next time you see someone raging in a Facebook group.
A lifetime of ADHD struggles leaves us with a negative sense of identity, satisfaction, and a perceived lack of options.
This is why you feel stuck in your life.
You know you’re capable of more. But you’ve never been able to make the right choices and take the required actions to become the person you are inside.
When you feel like you can’t control your own mind, you reach for things you can control.
Anxiety in adult ADHD
As Dr. Ramsay explains, anxiety is an emotion that can trigger avoidance or approach.
Anxiety is a great motivator. But over time, we need more and more in order to function. This is a common coping mechanism in ADHD.
Over time, anxiety evolves into another mountain to climb, and can become another obstacle to doing the things we want to do. Our thoughts become distorted by anxiety.
Using myself as an example…
Anxiety has inspired some of my best work. But my anxiety has also made me so inhibited in certain situations that I often fail to perform the essential functions of running a business.
I’m constantly questioning my ability to talk about my work and what I do, because I’ve had mixed results from my previous attempts. This produces a feedback loop of negative thinking, fear, and inaction.
This cycle perpetuates my lack of self-efficacy.
Personal agency and self-efficacy
Personal agency is the belief that you can do things that will have a positive effect on your life.
Self- efficacy is the belief that one can follow through and make things happen by intention. Like my desire to create a community for ADHD women.
Self-regulatory efficacy is defined as, “the belief in an individual’s ability to organize and carry out the basic steps necessary to effect change.” (52)
ADHD adults are often lacking in personal agency, self-efficacy, and self-regulatory efficacy.
Self-regulatory efficacy is your belief that you can do all the grunt work, all the steps required, to get to a desired goal.
You’ve probably heard of ADHD referred to as a, “reward deficiency.”
Life is NOT rewarding and fun all the time. We want the positive outcome, but the work of getting there is uncomfortable. Learning to manage discomfort is a huge factor in getting things done and feeling good about your life. (self-regulatory efficacy)
We don’t trust ourselves to work toward a long-term goal, no matter how great it is.
This leads to the main cognitive theme of ADHD, self-mistrust.
ADHD and self-trust
One of the most common statements I hear from ADHD women is, “I can’t trust myself to —.”
Our brain protects us by adapting in situations where we aren’t safe. So if someone who was supposed to love you abused you, certainly you will not trust anyone who gets close to you.
Trauma survivors direct their mistrust toward other people.
With ADHD, we have taken actions, or failed to take actions, that have resulted in us hurting ourselves.
Been there, done that, f-cked it up, not doing it again.
Unfortunately, low self-trust can also lead to self-sabotaging behaviors and what Dr. Ramsay calls distorted positive thoughts.
Examples of distorted positive thoughts include:
Being impulsive is part of who I am
I work best at the last minute
I know this sucks me in, but I’ll just check social for a minute
We don’t trust ourselves to follow through, so we rationalize ways to avoid starting something new.
Emotions play a large part in task initiation and motivation toward desired behaviors.
Emotions help us to select what we are going to do, but our executive functions also play a role.
We make a quick, unconscious cost-benefit calculation of the time, effort, and energy costs associated with any particular action. (20)
Researchers refer to this as behavioral investment theory. You can learn more about it in Dr. Ramsay’s book. (affiliate link. See my full disclosure)
Executive functions allow us to sacrifice the pleasurable, immediate experiences in order to work toward more long-term rewards. So we can choose to engage in a course of action despite the discomfort.
We face the decision to delay gratification over and over again. It starts in school and progresses to retirement and healthcare planning as we age.
With ADHD, we often reflexively determine that the task in front of us is a bad investment because our EF struggles make it seem too difficult and unattainable.
This leads me to question of whether it’s our thoughts, or our emotions that are really driving our actions. (Or inaction).
Choosing your thoughts
The concept of choosing your thoughts is accurate but misleading, according to Dr. Ramsay.
Early CBT practitioners acknowledged the role of automatic thoughts, as do today’s therapists.
Much of the running commentary in our brains is just out of our awareness.
Sometimes this mental chatter becomes negative and gets in the way of us doing the things we want to do.
The idea with CBT was to train people to notice their automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), and ask themselves questions to work through them.
This is known as cognitive modification.
Cognitive modification is not the same as changing a lightbulb. Taking out one thought and putting another one in.
There are various methods of reframing, examining, and working through negative thought patterns.
Cognitive modification can be hugely helpful for ADHD brains. Looking at our thoughts should become something we do more routinely, even if we only do it by ourselves.
Dr. Ramsay also introduces Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. (ACT)
With ACT, rather than trying to change the content of the thought, you begin to notice it, acknowledge it, and learn that you are not mandated to follow it.
You rework the argument in your brain when it comes up instead of trying to change it.
First thought is not always the best thought when it comes to ADHD, so you might want to consider how you can reframe it.
ADHD and self-trust is sticky business.
Most of us don’t really trust ourselves. If we did, there wouldn’t be so many books on getting things done with ADHD.
It’s exceedingly difficult to build a positive self-concept while also trying to deal with the symptoms.
But the news isn’t all bad.
Understanding your thoughts and emotions, and learning new ways to think about ADHD and self-trust, is a huge leap in your battle for self-acceptance and self-compassion.
The more you learn, the more you’ll start to trust yourself despite your mistakes.
Next time, I’ll break down why it’s so damn hard to get things done with ADHD. And give you some guidance on turning intentions into actions.
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