Stigma vs Symptom
It is important to separate the psychosocial consequences of societal stigma from the actual experience of having ADHD. Stigma is a result of how society or individuals see you, judges you and thus treats you. It is natural to experience some secondary problems as a result of this social bias that would disappear if society did not view ADHD in the negative.
In this post we will be looking at Stigma.
Often people with ADHD are told that their method of solving problems, of being them, or interacting with others is wrong. It only takes a few times of being told off before anyone will become a bit nervous about taking action for fear of the inevitable telling off, rejection or looks of disgust. This fear and hesitance of being judged or mistreated is often mistaken for anxiety and this can be the first diagnosis you are given, rather than the practitioner looking deeper at why you are anxious. It is important to note that if people around you had accepted you to start with, or began to accept you now, that the anxiety would fade.
There is a fair chance you are focused too much on what other people are going to think about you and seeking their approval and acceptance. Rules of thumb on this are : is your action going to hurt you or another, if so, rethink. That’s about it. Also note, some people will accuse you of hurting them in order to control you, and some people will inform you of the hurt you are actually creating. Separating these two groups is really important. Regular counselling is good at helping you create an internal rule set you can apply to navigate this.
It is okay to make mistakes. So long as no one (including you!) is hurt, then you can learn from this. If you keep making the same mistake, then that is another problem.
It is common to develop a need to be perfect in order to try to satisfy another person because of someone we thought we needed in the past who had impossible standards. Recognise who this person or these people were and realise this is driving your impossible standard now. Practice making mistakes and being okay with it.
There are many valid ways to do things and just because the person you are helping picks one that isn’t on your list doesn’t make it wrong. However that doesn’t mean that people are going to just accept that either. It can be hard for someone with ADHD to perceive how their actions are going to affect others, or why perhaps their choice is invalid for complex reasons. It is important to have built some trust and in a non-judgemental or person-critical way inform the ADHD person that there may be a problem with their choice or actions, to offer suggestions of what to look out for and suggestions on how to avoid that. The person you are helping may accept your variant, go ahead and make mistakes, or go ahead and have everything work out fine.
If the person wants to know more before acting, then by all means go in depth on looking at the assumptions and methods you have used to get to your solution and what rang alarm bells for you on theirs.
After a while of being told we are doing things wrong and receiving disgust, we may instead (or also) feel welcomed and without a place to belong. This can lead to depression, where nothing has any meaning anymore. Another path to this secondary diagnosis (which may also be your first diagnosis as this is easier to recognise than some forms of ADHD) is fatigue from anxiety, or fatigue from caring about people who don’t understand ADHD. The last most likely variant of depression is related to anxiety – in fear of misunderstanding you have learned not to act, and this non-activity looks like depression, but is actually anxiety as described above.
Disgust is a powerful force. It is an important social emotion we detect in others so we know we are conforming adequately to the group to avoid being rejected. Feeling rejected can leave us feeling worthless and without purpose. We are both biologically wired to want to fit in, and raised to believe that our family and early friends should accept us for who and what we are. Without that acceptance we can feel incredibly worthless, unlovable and without a place to feel is home.
Not all people are wired to accept others. Many neurotypical people traditionally struggle to accept variation in humans – take a look at the stigmas created by race, religion, left handedness and height. Start to recognise that some people are not going to accept you simply because they can’t and stop trying to win recognition or understanding from them.
Instead start to look for those who can and will. When you meet them, try not to be an asshole and test the boundaries of their acceptance. That leads to a self fulfilling prophecy of doom – eventually all people break. Once you have worked out a set of internal rules for reasonable social behaviour, find those who accept that and stick to it.
Also note that society is getting better. Again look to race, religion etc. In Australia racism is illegal, gay marriage is now the law, left handedness is now accepted as normal human variation and so on. It isn’t perfect, but it is progress. In a similar way, ADHD is becoming more normalised in society’s eyes.
Accept the person you are supporting for who they are, but make it clear what behaviours are detrimental to you and which behaviours you believe are detrimental to them. While love and acceptance may not have boundaries, self care does and it is important to have reasonable limits. Recognise what it is about the person you are helping that prompts them to feel isolated and unwanted and see if you can either directly accept that, or put in some agreed upon safety management plans to minimise the risk of those aspects. Accept your person for who they are.
Low Self Worth
While anxiety and depression are part of this, those have been dealt with specifically above. What is left is the illusion of low intelligence, and the risk of abuse from others.
The school system is not set up for people with ADHD, and as such it doesn’t do well to either educate or test people with ADHD. While schools are now getting much better at spotting ADHD, those who don’t have a kinesthetic component (physical movement) are often missed, especially in those who appear female. Recent research is indicating that the genes most likely linked to ADHD don’t discriminate on sex chromosomes, and better research is indicating that XY chromosomed people are often missed in being detected for ADHD.
Consider being tested on what colour ruby is. If you had been taught about crystals, or were from a high socioeconomic neighbourhood, you would probably answer “red”. If not, then Ruby is a person you know, and you would answer accordingly. The test is poor because it relies on testing what you were taught, then holding you accountable for being taught poorly. Recognising this error in testing is the reason this question was taken out of the IQ test for youth in the USA. Our school system is often not teaching people with ADHD well or at all and then blaming the student on this.
Your intelligence is not tied to your IQ score or your school marks. It is far more complex than that. IQ scores only test how well you score on IQ tests, which can sometimes have interesting results, but don’t necessarily indicate your actual intelligence. It is time to start letting go of the ways other people measure neurotypical people and start realising those tests don’t apply to you.
The real question isn’t how smart you are, but what kind of person are you? Separate yourself from other people’s judgements and start seeing yourself for what you are doing. Are you proud of yourself? If so, good. If not, adjust yourself until you are.
Trying to be accepted by others can make you vulnerable to being abused by those who wish to take advantage of you. Not all people are nice, and not all people are nasty. Most people who have grown up with ADHD have been messed around enough by others that your red flag (trouble) and green flag (safe) detectors are a bit messed up. Go and get some counselling to help learn what good red and green flags are when you judge others. Once you have identified those who have lots of red flags, start making changes to protect yourself from the ones you can’t get rid of, and get rid of the ones that you can.
When raising someone with an ADHD diagnosis, it is really important to look at the environmental messages your person is receiving and balance that with clear signs of affection, love and acceptance. Ensure you teach them about detecting red and green flags in people and then how to extricate themselves from bad relationships. By all means seek some counselling yourself or do some research yourself to learn good methods.
If the person you are helping is an adult, then support them to the realisation that their upbringing may not have given them good data. Avoid just outright contradicting their mistaken beliefs as that is more likely to prompt them to dig in their heels to protect the image they have of themselves. Instead work through the logic of where their beliefs came from and help them question the validity of that themselves. Help your person to see new ways of measuring and testing themselves without the stigma bias of the past.