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Self-Compassion: An Important Tool in Managing ADHD Symptoms

For the adult affected by ADHD, the negative comments from a lifetime of struggling with ADHD symptoms can lead to harsh internal monologues. Self-compassion becomes a skill, as the adult learns to accept mistakes and develop resilience.

ADHD is a complex brain disorder affecting executive function. Self-esteem and confidence can suffer as people cope with challenges caused by symptoms at school, work, and in relationships. Negative self-talk can undermine the ability to lead a healthy and productive life. Self-compassion—being kind and understanding with yourself  when faced with personal challenges or perceived failings—is an important tool for overcoming an inner critic and building positive coping skills.

Self-compassion involves acknowledging emotions, thoughts and situations as they are—accepting the emotions and thoughts in the moment, and practicing acceptance and self-care. Resilient management of ADHD symptoms includes being patient with missteps, and gentle with yourself as you assess how to move forward. 

Health and negative self-talk

We now understand that our mind and emotions can affect our physical health. Recent research shows a positive mental state is linked to higher levels of health, including lower blood pressure and reduced risk for heart disease, better blood sugar levels, a healthy weight and longer life. 

Negative emotions activate a part of the brain associated with fear and anxiety, and can increase stress hormone levels, heart rates, and blood pressure. Sustained stress can eventually contribute to illness, including heart disease, stroke and diabetes. 

When a person has ADHD, it is common for her to engage in negative “self-talk,” a constant stream of thinking that is self-critical. This can lead to or aggravate depression, anxiety, or feelings of hopelessness. Learning coping strategies like self-compassion can help to more effectively manage thoughts and emotions. 

Developing self-compassion

Compassion, says Kristin Neff, PhD, “involves feeling moved by others’ suffering so that your heart responds to their pain. Having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes, rather than judging them harshly."

“Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself, ” Dr. Neff says. She is an associate professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas, in Austin.

Self-compassion allows us to be more objective about our situation, thoughts or emotions, and can help us have a more balanced perspective, she says.

According to Dr. Neff, self-compassion has three elements:

  • Self-kindness vs. self-judgment. When we fall short of expectations, either our own or from others, fail at a task or goal, or feel inadequate, people who have higher levels of self-compassion accept it as part of life. They are less judgmental or critical of themselves and the situation, which decreases stress, frustration and avoidance. 

  • Common humanity vs. isolation. Frustration can lead to a feeling of isolation, rather than recognizing we all suffer or make mistakes. For adults with ADHD, frustration and isolation can be a frequent occurrence because symptoms affect daily life. Self-compassion involves recognizing that we all experience feelings of inadequacy and suffering. Dr. Neff asks, what advice would you give a friend who is learning to manage the impact of her ADHD symptoms? She suggests using that advice for yourself.

  • Mindfulness vs. over-identification. Self-compassion involves a balanced approach, without ignoring or exaggerating our feelings. It is being mindful of our negative thoughts and emotions in the moment, and not so caught up by them, so that we are not swept away by negative reactivity. 

Practicing self-compassion can lead to lower levels of anxiety, depression, and stress, and higher levels of happiness, optimism and connection with others. 

Tips for practicing self-compassion

How can you learn and practice self-compassion throughout the day?

  • Recognize what you do well. Before you start to focus on what you want to do better, start with where you are. You are more than the impact of your ADHD symptoms. Don’t allow self-criticism to shut you down, increase your anxiety or limit your ability to figure out what to do. You have skills, behaviors and abilities that are inherent to who you are. Recognize and embrace them.  

  • Accept where you are. Practicing self-compassion will help relieve suffering, but not if we ignore our feelings or the situation that is causing pain. Accept the moment as it is, and the feelings and thoughts you experience. Recognize suffering as a normal part of life and that you are not alone in your struggles. Think about what you can do to be kind to yourself. This can involve saying phrases like “I accept myself as I am” or “I forgive myself.” Also practice other forms of self-care, such as asking for help or talking with a friend. 

  • How would I treat a friend? It is often easier to be compassionate with someone else than it is with ourselves. How have you treated a friend who was experiencing pain or suffering? What advice did you give her? Think about the tone of voice you used, the actions you took to comfort her, and what you said. How could you apply the same treatment to yourself?

  • Changing our inner critic. To change negative self-talk, we first need to notice it. Keeping a journal will help you notice patterns that are specific to you, and may remind you of certain people in your life. When you are feeling bad about something, notice what your inner voice is saying, the specific phrases, tone of voice, and feelings you have. Then, try to reframe the comments or observations. When the inner critic says something like “I can’t believe you ate junk food again, you are so lazy!” try something like, “I didn’t plan today’s meals well, but I will do a better job tomorrow.”  

  • Motivation. You may use your inner critic for motivation, thinking that being hard on yourself will help you change your behavior. Instead, practice using a kinder, gentler way to motivate yourself. What language do wise and nurturing friends, family members or mentors use with you to point out unproductive behavior and encourage you to take different actions? Practice using their tone and phrases in your self-talk.

Self-compassion is a journey

The effect of ADHD symptoms can be profound, and being self-critical can be harmful. Self-compassion can help you build emotional equilibrium and resilience while you focus on concrete next steps for managing your symptoms. 

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This article appeared in ADHD Weekly on June 15, 2017.

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