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Self-criticism and ADHD: Five strategies to check in, ground, and reset when you feel overwhelmed

Executive functioning difficulties can make working towards goals a struggle for those with ADHD. But an added challenge can also be your internal thoughts.

Sighing, I finally open the document I’d been successfully ignoring for several hours. Looking through the pages, I spot my colleague's comments and a feeling of self-judgement washes over me. ‘Why am I even doing this? I’m never going to get this right!’ I stare paralysed at the pages of the project I said I would finish today.

For those of us with ADHD, research indicates that we will receive higher levels of criticism in our lives when compared with our neurotypical peers [1]. Getting distracted, acting impulsively or missing an important meeting are all moments where people with ADHD have experienced judgement [2]. One theory suggests that these external criticisms give rise to harsh negative self-talk, in which the person with ADHD (executive functioning struggles [1]) learns to speak to themselves with the same deprecating language others have spoken to them.

These higher levels of self-criticism in people with ADHD may have a flow-on effect and act as an additional barrier over and above executive functioning difficulties [2]. A study of athletes and musicians found that the amount of self-criticism measured amongst this group harmed their progress towards their goals as it shifted to focus on avoiding failure and criticism rather than moving toward positive outcomes [3].

Practicing self-compassion

So, what can those with ADHD who struggle with self-criticism do? One of the possibilities is developing a focus on self-compassion. Self-compassion is comprised of three closely related aspects: 1) being kind to yourself rather than cold and judgemental, 2) recognising that failure and suffering are not unique to you but something everyone experiences, and 3) being able to acknowledge negative experiences without becoming wound-up in the negative emotions they create [6].

But, acting on this is anything but easy, particularly among people with ADHD who often struggle with emotional dysregulation [4], [5]! Indeed, some research suggests that we can tend to see our ADHD struggles as flaws in our personality rather than fixable behavioural challenges, which leads to a counterproductive shift in focus from “that was not good” to “I am not good” [1] [5].

Unlearning a lifetime of self-criticism is hard, but a growing body of research tells us that cultivating a self-compassionate mindset is highly worthwhile. Here are just a few examples of the positive effect self-compassion has been shown to have on people with ADHD: - An increase in general mental health. One study found that self-compassion was a factor in one studies improvement in mental observed after six months of mindfulness therapy [4].

- A reduction in some of the negative psychological, social, and emotional well-being outcomes typically associated with ADHD [2].

So, what can we do to practice self-compassion and continue working towards our goals despite criticism? While everyone's journey will look different, here are some steps you might take to support self-compassion. Remember that if you are experiencing serious mental health distress, please contact a mental health practitioner or counsellor.

1. Use mindfulness to help identify when you are engaging in self-criticism

Sometimes just noticing that you are being critical can be a struggle. Especially if it has become an ingrained part of your self-talk. One of the ways to become more aware of your self-talk is to practice mindfulness. You can find more research into mindfulness and ADHD and strategies to practice mindfulness in a neurodiverse-friendly way here.

2. Reach out to people you trust

When you struggle with something related to ADHD, It’s important to know you’re not alone. Reach out to others who can listen, understand and share their struggles. This might be a trusted friend, mental health professional or someone else with ADHD.

3. Practice a grounding routine. Physically grounding routines can bring you into the present moment by engaging your senses (touch, taste, smell, sight and feel). With ADHD, you can add to this routine by using things that you find comforting or stimulating as you need. Here are some examples: - Watching an old movie or TV show you enjoy - Eat a comforting food or snack - Sit in a comfortable spot with a blanket - Use fidget toys you enjoy - Walk or sit in nature and look around - Smell something like a candle or perfume - Listen to your favourite podcaster or comedian Just remember depending on the situation, you might not want to lose track of time. So, consider a natural timer that could help you focus on how long your routine has taken. You can find out more about natural timers here.

4. Ask about expectations Understanding the expectations others have of us can help provide us with a more realistic picture of what we