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Reinterpreting ADHD Self-Criticism

ADHD can throw a wrench into your ability to have a positive relationship with yourself. One reason is that if you don’t understand how your struggles relate to symptoms of ADHD (for example, if you haven’t yet been diagnosed), it’s tempting to interpret your experiences in terms of character flaws. You decide that the source of your problems is that you’re lazy, incompetent or not trying hard enough.

Learning to cope with ADHD involves moving past this moralistic interpretation of your symptoms and learning to see them more objectively, as symptoms of a mental health condition to be accepted and worked with rather than moral failings to be overcome through sheer force of will.

In practical terms, that means taking the emotionally charged criticisms and judgments you make of yourself and reinterpreting them more scientifically in light of the ADHD symptoms they involve.

For example, take the classic ADHD self-reproach:

  • “I’m lazy.”

Depending on the situation that’s leading you to make this unnecessary self-judgment, there are different ways to reinterpret this sweeping statement more accurately and scientifically.

If thReinterpreting Self-Criticisme fundamental question is about your ability to self-motivate, you can recognize that people with ADHD typically have a larger gap in their ability to stay motivated in situations that are understimulating vs. situations that are inherently rewarding, and that they are more prone to boredom. So you could reinterpret this statement by saying: “I have more trouble motivating myself to do tasks I don’t find interesting and I am more averse to a lack of stimulation than most people.”

Or maybe the problem is that it takes you a long time to complete certain tasks, making you feel less productive. In this case, a way of reinterpreting “I’m lazy” might be: “My inattentive symptoms and deficits in my ability to sustain focus for extended periods of time make it so that certain tasks take longer for me than for other people.” Again, this is a much more nuanced, useful and scientific statement than the broad and overly general “I’m lazy.”

Sometimes, our self-criticisms come from the way we think other people see us. An example:

  • “I’m annoying.”

This self-reproach often comes when we make inappropriate comments without thinking, interrupt others or miss social cues. Once again, it’s an overly general statement that can be reinterpreted by looking at the specific ADHD symptoms involved.

Here, the culprit is often impulsivity, a hallmark ADHD symptom that involves the tendency to do things on impulse without thinking or planning adequately. In social situations, this might mean making a comment before thinking through all the implications of what you’re saying or before it’s even your turn to speak. So a more accurate way of reinterpreting “I’m annoying” might be: “My high impulsivity sometimes causes me to say things before I’ve finished thinking through how my words will affect others.”

The problem with sweeping statements about character is that they’re overly broad. They’re an indictment of who you are as a person, and yet they don’t actually tell you very much at all. Perhaps the broadest of all is:

  • “I’m a failure.”

If you make this statement to yourself, there’s a good chance you have a situation such as losing your job or dropping out of school in mind – or multiple such situations. As with any other unhelpfully general self-criticism, the trick is to trace these events back to the specific ADHD symptoms involved.

So you can start by reinterpreting this statement as: “I have ADHD, a disorder that has interfered with these areas of my life…” Then, for the areas of your life that led you to think “I’m a failure,” go back and reflect on the specific ways ADHD symptoms have affected those aspects of your life.

The important point here is that ADHD, by definition, is a disorder that impairs your ability to function in multiple parts of your life. If your ability to function has been impaired, it doesn’t mean you’re a failure – it means you have ADHD!

These aren’t the only counterproductive self-criticisms ADHDers have been known to make. If you can think of more ADHD self-criticisms and ways to reinterpret them more accurately, please comment below!

Reinterpreting ADHD Self-Criticism

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on education, learning disabilities and technology. He received his B.A. in 2014 and was diagnosed with ADHD at the beginning of his college studies. Neil also works for a music education non-profit and hopes to help create an education system that can better serve students with ADHD.

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2018). Reinterpreting ADHD Self-Criticism. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 7, 2019, from


Last updated: 21 Jul 2018
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