Unrealistic Positive Thinking Can Harm People with ADHD
Though there are many benefits to positive thinking, certain kinds of positive thinking can be detrimental to those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). I found this kind of thinking particularly harmful at the beginning of my ADHD journey, when I had not fully accepted the condition. Even now, I've found blind positive thinking and ADHD can lead to self-deprecation, anxiety, and depression.
Positive Thinking Can Lead to Comparisons
For example, the idea that anyone can do anything if she puts her mind to it is an exciting thought, but this concept can prompt comparisons between people. People might point at someone and say, “If he can do it, you can too.”
It seems obvious that everyone is different, so each person has distinct talents and abilities. Thus, this brand of positive thinking wipes out individuality. If something is harder for you than for others (and many routine tasks are more difficult for those with ADHD), the idea is that you “haven’t put your mind to it.” Growing up, I felt defective when I could not do something another person could.
How Positive Thinking Causes Problems for Those with ADHD
Again, toning down negative thoughts can help everyone including anxiety-prone ADHDers; yet, forced positive thinking can also cause anxiety. Here are a few more ways in which ADHD and positive thinking do not mesh:
- Unrealistic expectations: People with ADHD already suffer from time-blindness. They underestimate how long tasks take and sometimes have unrealistic expectations for themselves when it comes to how much they can accomplish. They are bursting with ideas. When I get inspired, I think that there are no limits--but we all have our limits. ADHDers need to learn theirs, and clinging to unbridled optimism is not always a good thing.
- No problem means no solution: If you do not accept your problems, you will not solve them. People with ADHD tend to swing between paralysis and impulsivity. Positive thinking sometimes suggests that you should change your attitude instead of your circumstances, which sometimes leads to inaction.
- Isolation: Positive thinking also puts the onus on the individual. This can be empowering but also isolating. Many find solace in communities online or in person. We are social creatures and plenty of people with ADHD enjoy finding others who understand what they are going through. There is a community of fellow ADHDers, friends, doctors, therapists, and coaches out there.
- Emotion suppression: People with ADHD tend to be emotional and thinking too positively can result in suppressing important emotions, including negative ones. Refusing to feel any pain can also dull one’s empathy, the ability to feel another’s pain.
Negative Consequences of Positive Thinking
Positive thinking rests on controlling one’s thoughts and emotions. The most helpful kind of positive thinking balances optimism and realism and allows space for growth. The less helpful kind denies reality and points to the individual as the source of all of his or her happiness and pain.
This can result in self-condemnation and even depression. It can be especially harmful to those with ADHD because of our strong emotions and impulsivity. We are often labeled as having “poor self-control.” This is a problem when we are supposed to control our thoughts and emotions through sheer willpower in order to find happiness.
Ideally, we find a balance between positivity and realism, accepting facts of ADHD and life while holding on to some kind of hope. Do you find that certain strands of positive thinking have been harmful to you? Has it held you back in any way, or do you feel that positive thinking has been extremely beneficial? Let me know in the comments.
Ehrenreich, Barbara, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Picador, 2010.
Amen, Daniel, “Your Thoughts Don’t Always Tell The Truth.” ADDitude, 2014.
Matteson, N. (2018, July 10). Unrealistic Positive Thinking Can Harm People with ADHD, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, May 25 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/livingwithadultadhd/2018/7/unrealistic-positive-thinking-can-harm-people-with-adhd
Author: Noelle Matteson
another helpful article. i appreciate you giving me language to name the challenges. time-blindness gives me better self-awareness than just having "no concept of time." it presents me with a challenge i can adapt to and find other ways to 'see' rather than feeling like I'll just be stuck this way.
I found your article extremely helpful and it very well articulated my latent feelings regarding "High expectations". However your article didn't elucidate on strategies of avoiding "unrealistic-high expectations - Positive thinking" etc.
Thank you so much, I'm glad it helped you! That's actually a great question and is something I'm still working on. One thing that helps me is writing things down. It makes me take a step back and see what I'm really feeling. It helps me clarify sometimes jumbled thoughts and express some of my excitement or fears, alleviating those feelings a bit. Just being aware of them helps me look at something more realistically, whether it's a task or an event. Thank you again, and feel free to let me know of any strategies you learn or come up with!
"The most helpful kind of positive thinking balances optimism and realism and allows space for growth." Can you expand on this please? Or give an example maybe? I'm not sure of what the helpful kind of positivity looks like. I really appreciate your article; there's a lot to take away here. Thanks, Noelle.
Hi Elizabeth--an example, in my opinion, might be when you feel really down and can only see your negative qualities. Sometimes making lists of my accomplishments and good qualities helps me, even if it doesn't seem to at first. It's not an exercise that pretends bad things don't exist, but it's balancing out that hopelessness. It's being able to prepare for the worst and the best outcomes, which is no easy task for some people. (Usually I just prepare for one or the other!) Does this make sense? Thank you for commenting!
excellent truth. It hurts more than helps..
Thank you for your comment, Suzan. :( Sorry if you have heard some condescending and unrealistic advice!