Over on the All Psych blog, I just wrote about the idea that having a psychological “need to contribute” may be key in adolescence. You can read the post if you’re interested in details, but a one-sentence summary is that contributing to their communities both in informal ways (like supporting their friends) and formal ways (like participating in community organizations) helps teenagers develop a sense of autonomy and identity and ultimately improves their long-term mental health.
After writing that article, it occurred to me that having ADHD can seriously interfere with this need to feel like one is making a contribution. The loss of productivity, disorganization, and dropping of commitments that often result from ADHD symptoms all make it harder to attain a sense of making a significant contribution to your community.
This is true not just for teenagers but for adults too. For example, if you join a community organization but then fail to meet your responsibilities, you aren’t going to feel like you’re adding much. Similarly, it’s hard to derive a sense of meaning from your work if you are constantly struggling with your symptoms to achieve basic productivity.
In some cases, people with ADHD might feel not just like they aren’t making a contribution but like they’re actually becoming a burden. This can happen when inattention, missed deadlines, and so on create extra work for other people.
So what can an ADHDer do to achieve a sense that they are contributing to whatever community they find themselves in? The obvious answer is to seek treatment and find ways of managing one’s symptoms.
Beyond that, though, I think it’s important to realize that the contribution you make might not be the same contribution someone else makes. Ideally, we have a society where everyone contributes in their own way.
With that in mind, consider what unique strengths you bring and what contribution you can make with those strengths. Many people with ADHD find, for example, that a particular strength they bring is creativity. In friendships, you might feel that some of your hyperactive quirks interfere with your ability to contribute, but don’t overlook other strengths such as having a great sense of humor that also make a valuable contribution in their own right.
The point is that contribution is partly about self-discovery. When you feel “useless,” chances are it’s because either you haven’t yet identified the ways you can make your most powerful contribution – or, quite possibly, because you are contributing in ways that you’re overlooking.
In both cases, the problem is in having too narrow a definition of what “making a contribution” is. The contribution I make to my community isn’t necessarily the same as the one by my friend or my coworker, and that’s exactly what makes it valuable!