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How to Succeed With ADHD When All Else Fails

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ~ Thomas Alva Edison

Having lived most of their lives with the inconsistency, unpredictability and undependability of life with ADHD, it is incredibly common for adults with ADHD to view themselves as “failures”.  Because the executive function of their brain is not always fully activated, it is in fact normal for them to fail at least sometimes, if not frequently.  Beginning in early adolescence, these typical failures can become a permanent obstacle to future successes for those with ADHD as it undermines their confidence and willingness to take future chances.

Reframing Failure Helpful to ADHD Adults

In our culture, “failing” is dreaded and is typically avoided at all costs. But what if we looked at it differently?  What if we reframed failing as part of the process needed in order to succeed?  

Having “not failed” would mean we were not taking chances, pushing our creativity, living up to our full potential.  What if we measured success by how often we failed?

For instance, had it not been for failure, we may never have known such art that gave rise to the Audubon Society or the inspiring music of Handel’s Messiah.  It was only after Audubon’s business failed in 1819 that he began traveling and painting birds.  And, after a night of deep despair over his failure as a musician, Handel unleashed his creative genius and wrote Handel’s Messiah.  Even though history is strewn with stories of success rising from the ashes of failure, failure continues to strike fear in our hearts like nothing else. There is so little tolerance for it in our culture and tremendous pressure to get it right every time.

Because we are human, with or without ADHD, we cannot help but fail.  We experience academic failures, failed relationships, failed parenting, failure at work, failure in health.  And when we do fail as part of the normal process of learning and success, the current views of failure often cause wounds that penetrate so deeply that we begin to think, “I am a failure.”  Instead of living fully, we begin to make safe choices, to settle for less than what we really want, and stop trying out of fear.

How can we cast failure in a different light, to take it out of the dark ages of disgrace and guilt, to remove the feeling of “disaster” associated with failure, to look for what it positively tells us about our well-being, strengths and values? Wouldn’t that be a relief?  Just imagine what we could all do with a little more hope, optimism and energy.  If viewed as a normal part of life, rather than a disgrace, failure can be a lever to open the door to a richer, more authentic life. Following are some ideas to help us start viewing our “failures” from a different perspective.

Failures Can Spark Our Creativity

Sometimes the experience of failure takes us out of our mindless routine and back into the essential work of creating ourselves.  When we experience failure, especially if it isn’t just a slight disappointment, it can knock us out of our comfort zone so that if we choose, it will stir up all those creative juices and problem solving strengths of our ADHD brains.  If we let ourselves, we can’t help but respond with passion, creativity and determination.

Failures Can Promote Change

Failure is a natural offshoot of ADHD adventure and risk-taking…it’s going to happen.  Growth can be a natural offshoot of failure if we allow it to be.  A great failure can be the influence that enables us to muster up our courage to take the necessary risks that will lead to positive change.

Failures Can Help Us Relate to Others

Thomas Moore once wrote: “If we could understand the feelings of inferiority and humbling occasioned by failure as meaningful in their own right, then we might incorporate failure into our work so that it doesn’t literally devastate us.” In other words, failing reminds us that we are human.  Everybody fails, even people without ADHD….even if they don’t want to admit it.  Failing helps us appreciate this vulnerability that we all share.  Increases our compassion and empathy for when others fail or seem to fail us.

Here are a few suggestions for working constructively with failure.

Acknowledge your feelings of pain, humiliation and/or inadequacy.

Laugh, if you can. A little bit of humor goes a long way in learning to accept failure.

Acknowledge your responsibility. Don’t deny the importance of the failure, but neither let it overwhelm you with guilt or self-blame. Guilt isn’t helpful, choosing to do things different is.

Forgive yourself. Forgiveness doesn’t take away the consequences or the memory of the failure, but it does soften the fall and clear a path for the next step.

Build a base of supportive people. Share the reality of your life. When you stop hiding shame and denying negative feelings, issues are quickly surfaced and resolved.

Reflect. With real curiosity, ask yourself these questions:

  • How can this failure serve me?
  • What does this setback mean?
  • What have I learned and gained?
  • How can I use this failure?
  • How can I see it in a different way?
  • What is positive here?
  • What am I really trying to accomplish?

Ultimately, failure is not about loss, deficiency and flaws. It’s about learning lessons and courageously moving on. It’s about retaining hope and the instinct for joy. The lessons of failure make us wiser, stronger and more prepared for the rest of our journey, if we take them with us. What was your best failure?

As always, let me know what you think.  I welcome your comments on this and other blog posts.

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2 Responses to How to Succeed With ADHD When All Else Fails

  1. Well said.

    Reality is only the way we interpret our life experience. It could be quite convincing, as Albert Einstein said once, but it is not reality. When you realize that, you can change the way you think about your self and your experience.

  2. Josh says:

    All this is great except if you have ADHD, you will be distracted by something else before you have a chance to do a single thing on this list, other than laugh at your failure. IMO this is a list for regular adults with no issues. This was not written by one suffering adhd without medication.

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