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Past, Present and ADHD

The way we look at something can change depending on whether we’re looking back in time at it or it’s happening in the present. Time can give us new insight into a situation, or it can make things that we once thought were important seem more trivial. But time can also make us wish we could go back and change our behavior.

When people with ADHD look at the past, no doubt there can be a lot of regret or guilt mixed in. This can happen when we reflect on the way ADHD symptoms affected our lives in the past. Missed opportunities, impulsive choices, underachievement, wasted time are all things that can be frustrating to look at in retrospect.

Likewise, getting diagnosed with ADHD can lead to looking back and wondering “what if I’d been diagnosed sooner?” There can be a sense of regret that the past would’ve been different if ADHD had been recognized earlier.

PastThere’s no quick answer on how to come to terms with the costs of ADHD symptoms in the past. But there are a few things I’ve found helpful.

The first is to dive headlong into the problem-solving process of how you can cope with your symptoms in the present. That means finding the adjustments you can make going forward to manage your symptoms and restructure your life to fit with your unique brain.

So talk to a therapist, get treatment, try different coping strategies, and figure out what changes you need to make in your life to accommodate your ADHD symptoms. Everything you can do to actively cope with your symptoms in the present will create a life that is more rewarding and in tune with your ADHD brain than before. The more your past struggles are a stepping stone to learning how to cope with ADHD, the less need there is to regret those struggles.

The second thing is that while you can’t change the past, you can gain a better understanding of it. After I got diagnosed with ADHD, the more I learned about ADHD, the more things I’d struggled with in the past started to make sense.

Gaining insight into the past helps because you come to understand that the things you feel guilty about happened for a reason. When you see how ADHD symptoms factored into those missed opportunities and impulsive decisions, you start to understand that the challenging aspects of life before diagnosis were not simply the result of character flaws.

That leads me to a third point I want to mention, which is accepting the past. Getting an ADHD diagnosis can be revelatory. It opens up new insights and new possibilities, so it can sometimes feel like making a clean break with your pre-diagnosis self.

However, even if you now have insight and tools to work with that your pre-diagnosis self didn’t, that stage of life with ADHD is still part of your story. The way I see it is that the imperfections, failures, and ADHD-related challenges of the past can serve some larger productive purpose. Ideally, those struggles build a sense of empathy and better understanding of ourselves. And ultimately, they led to the present. Even if being in the present now means having the tools to go forward and cope with ADHD more effectively, in some way it’s the past that got us there.

I’m sure that not everyone with ADHD thinks about the past and the present in this way. In fact, one of the things about coming to terms with how ADHD has affected your life in the past is that it’s a personal process. That process is one that depends on your individual story, so you are the expert, although working with a therapist can be helpful. If you have any other perspectives on how you think about ADHD symptoms in the past and the present, please feel free to share below!

Image: Flickr/Chris Ford

Past, Present and ADHD

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2019). Past, Present and ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 15 Oct 2019
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