ADHD and Low Self-Esteem: Being Criticized and Believing It

February 2, 2010 Douglas Cootey

Low self-esteem caused by ADHD is very common in adults with ADHD.  Learn about adult ADHD and low self-esteem and rebuilding your self-esteem.

One aspect common to many adults with ADHD is low self-esteem. When you live your life making stupid mistakes, falling short of—or forgetting entirely—your goals, or being yelled at by figures of authority, you'll likely be a mess when you reach adulthood. If you haven't learned to laugh off the gaffes, you might either adopt an insouciant attitude over time, or internalize the criticisms. I was of the internalizing variety (Signs of Self-Stigma: Do You Stigmatize Yourself?).

I remember one job ages ago when I worked for a local newspaper as a paste-up artist. It was boring work, so I often found my attention wandering. I also had a very difficult time NOT reading all that wonderful news. I didn't know at the time that I was an information junkie.

One time, I finished a batch of pages and there were no new ones to complete, so I took the opportunity to walk around the newsroom and become more familiar with it. When I got back to my desk a few minutes later, there were pages ready to be pasted up and the editor was so angry with me he shouted and yelled, spittle flying, face beet red.

I was so used to bosses losing their cool with me, I didn't report the jerk to human resources. I thought it was my fault. This is where my ADHD induced low self-esteem reared its ugly head.

Low-Self Esteem Made Me Blame Myself

Other adults with ADHD see low self-esteem manifest itself in different ways, but my way was to blame myself. So low was my self-esteem that when I became disabled because of the side-effects of Desoxyn and Zoloft, I actually blamed myself then as well. If I hadn't been so unique and rare—such a complete loser—I wouldn't have experienced side-effects (The Pain of Self-Stigma Because of Mental Illness). I actually felt that way. It is obvious poppycock, but you can see what an insidious poison low self-esteem can be.

I wrote about my self-esteem issues on my own blog this week, but it's an important enough subject to address here, too. As an adult of 43, I look back at the poor kid that I was and wish I could give him advice.

  • I would tell him that just because he was distracted didn't mean he deserved to be yelled at.
  • Just because he makes mistakes doesn't mean he has to put up with bosses being cruel to him.
  • I would have told him to stand up for himself more often—he deserved it.
  • I would have also told him that not all jobs were optimal for him, and that he should seek out jobs that didn't expose his ADHD weaknesses.
  • Lastly, I would have told him to learn how to like himself because that's what I did later on to wrest control of my self-esteem away from the ADHD roller coaster of self-worth.

There's a lot I would tell my 20 year old self that would have made a difference for me then (ADHD: Low Self-Esteem, But You’re OK). I can't tell him, unfortunately, but I can tell my kids. I can also tell you if you need to hear it. Are you ready to believe that you shouldn't blame yourself either?

Tell me below how ADHD-conditioned low self-esteem has affected you as an adult. How did you begin rebuilding your self-esteem or do you still struggle with this?

APA Reference
Cootey, D. (2010, February 2). ADHD and Low Self-Esteem: Being Criticized and Believing It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 14 from

Author: Douglas Cootey

August, 18 2010 at 11:41 pm

I was diagnosed last year at age 25 with the help of my girlfriend's psychologist. The things she listed made so much sense to me that I laughed as I went down the checklist. I've always noticed that I couldn't focus like regular people, I've always gotten easily flustered(probably Low Cognitive Tempo), and have been shy with low self-esteem for as long as I can remember. I flunked out of college 5 years ago, believing that I was too immature(though not a partier) or not smart enough. As a result, I've worked at a stressful job that I hate for far too long.
I've really started to feel the effects of the lack of self esteem in the last year. I got on a cheap generic instant release Adderall(no health insurance) and it has helped with focus, but I've found that the shyness and low self-esteem are still on my shoulders and I lose so much weight when I take it. It has caused me to become negative, depressed, and my girlfriend finally broke up with me after a year of putting up with my ADD and that only caused me to feel worse about myself. I'm sure people say it all time, but I feel worthless and helpless and it is tough for me talk about it. I don't feel like burdening other people who likely won't understand where I'm coming from. It's really difficult to get the right treatment when you don't have health insurance or a lot of money.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
September, 6 2010 at 6:43 pm

So true, Evan. But there are libraries filled with ADHD self-help books. Check them out. They all won't be for you, but one of them will. You can accomplish an awful lot on your own without therapy or meds. The first thing you have to do is learn to like yourself despite your ADHD. Then your self-esteem will begin to mend. I've been there. I know of what I speak. Good luck.

July, 8 2010 at 11:28 am

I sure do have self-esteem issues with ADHD inattentive variety, possibly Low Cognitive Tempo. But traveling in the ADHD community appears to make it worse, as I think you regular ADHDers seem to be way less impaired than me and my variety. I did manage to get some college degrees, but that was the apex of my life, unfortunately. Slow processing speed along with the other traits made me look pretty stupid. But I'm old now, and struggle everyday to accept myself, and that is my main goal now. But I know this is a mortal sin, but I hated those Hallowell books. They never listed any of my traits, and barely said anything about my suptype. But you caught me at a bitter moment. I think we are all here for a reason, and still work to be the best specimen of my type I can be.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
July, 8 2010 at 2:13 pm

College DEGREES!?! You're doing better than I ever did. I was barely holding my act together when I became disabled. Pulled out of school and got busy being the full-time parent. You need to pat yourself on the back immediately! Haha! You're amazing. I'm sorry you never found your exact traits in the Hallowell/Ratey books. I didn't always agree with them, but their books are often still a wonderful resource. Hang in there. We all have unique challenges to overcome. And I agree with you. We are all here for a reason. The trick is finding what that reason is. Thanks for commenting.

February, 22 2010 at 11:46 am

Thanks for the opportunity to share my short story with you. I have bi-polar with maybe a little schizophrenia mixed in. It sometimes is not very much fun, and sometimes I need to use these labels to further my goals, i.e. college and work. I work with my disease and try to like myself despite the pitfalls life entails. I wish I were not so vulnerable though, as this makes my paranoia unearvinge. Thanks and god bless

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
July, 8 2010 at 2:07 pm

Susan, loved your comment. Hope you're finding the peace you deserve.

February, 19 2010 at 3:17 pm

Thank you for your help...I will do what I can. Have to work 6 days/week & do everything around the house...I am completely overwhelmed.

February, 19 2010 at 3:16 pm

I have an appt. next Friday for a physical where I will ask the doctor to help me with this. I am purchasing state run insurance...which isn't very good. I just pray that I will find people who can help my son. I don't have many choices & very little money.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
July, 8 2010 at 2:05 pm

Martha, Thanks for commenting. I hope you found the help you needed.

Douglas Cootey
February, 16 2010 at 3:46 pm

@Martha You & your boy need a definitive diagnosis. With that you can get help from school for your son’s studies. Before you get there, though, may I make a few suggestions?
1) Build on basketball. He excels at it and he needs successes in his life. Encourage him to practice more. The more he focuses on basketball and his success there, the better he’ll feel about himself. Even if he does poorly on a test, he’ll always have basketball.
2) Consider borrowing Driven to Distraction from the library, or any other books by Hallowell & Ratey. Answers to Distraction is another excellent resource that might help the two of you understand how his mind works better.
3) Read this blog. Share excerpts with your boy. I have ADHD and I used to be where your son is. Maybe something I write can help improve your outlook. All is not hopeless. In fact, just today I wrote about six things you can do to help an ADHD loved one focus on their responsibilities and tasks.…
4) School can take a healthy, bright ADHD child and pound the heckfire out of them until there is no self-esteem left. That’s why it is so crucial to not only learn to laugh at these mistakes, but to also see that just because we make dumb mistakes doesn’t mean we are dumb.
5) Look into CHADD. Sometimes there are chapters in your locale.
6) Make sure your son has a wise guidance counselor. Request a change if the counselor is just a pencil pusher.
Above all else, keep reaching out to him as you are doing. We’re all busy parents these days, but we are all our children have to rely on. You can do it.
Thanks for commenting.

February, 16 2010 at 2:01 pm

I think my 14 yr. old son may have ADD. My husband doesn't believe in such a thing. He just screams at my son out of frustration. I have tried to discuss this with my son but he refuses. He says he's just not trying & will do better. He thinks he is stupid if he has ADD even though I have tried to explain it to him. His grades have gone from bad to worse. He has the most difficult time getting up & going every morning. It seems that he cannot handle high school, this being his first year. He is very talented in basketball; one saving grace. I don't know what to do to help him anymore. I do not have the money or resources it seems. He has already failed one semester of science. He tells me that the teachers are not teaching him anything & school is a waste of time. He is a good kid...I really feel like he is not being taught the way he needs to be taught. I don't know what to do & am overwhelmed as I work full time, have financial issues & depression/anxiety myself.

Douglas Cootey
February, 12 2010 at 10:41 am

Much of modern psychology is based on blaming your parents, so you’re not out of line at all. ;)
You’ve got all the tools you need now to make a change in your life. You understand why you have low self-esteem. Now you need to determine that you want high self-esteem instead (if you haven’t already). Start with one thing at a time, changing how you think about yourself. It can be done. I know, because I’ve done it, and I’m still working on it.
Thanks for sharing that. I’m excited for you. Good luck!

February, 11 2010 at 5:20 am

I fall under practically every category related to ADD. i have always believed that my low self esteem was something i was born with. My fault for being born stupid. Was always told this growing up by my parents, that i was stupid. My parents come from backgrounds that most definitely left a mark that has jaded their abilities how to handle an ADD child. Put it this way, they don't believe that ADD exists, it's all bull in their eye. So this left me to my own devices. Never had a support net to fall in. I was a constant reminder of their own pasts and how inept they were as parents. their contempt for me grew every day. I grew up a loner, overly sensitive, emotionally unbalanced and in turn, this caused me (still does) great difficulties in making friends, staying focused on life long goals and making choices that have ultimately altered my life negatively on every level. Standing up for my self was out of the question, especially in my family. I could never question them about their decisions or reasons. Their has never been any accountability, just blame or rage for me being this way. I know it sounds that i am blaming them, but my belief about parenting is that a child is as strong as the foundation he has been raised by. Live and teach by example and this is my experience to date.
hope i made sense.

Douglas Cootey
February, 9 2010 at 2:32 pm

@Jan That is such heartening news! To take away useful tools from therapy is all that we can hope for. They’re just people. They can’t wave magic wands to make our lives better. Only we can make those improvements—by learning how we tick and implementing strategies to help us cope. It’s already paying off for you. You aren’t so low in the self-esteem department that you couldn’t voice your opinion here. Thanks for reading, and good luck!

February, 9 2010 at 12:30 pm

I also internalize. My self-esteem is still low and I'm in my fifties. I feel this is something that I will struggle with the rest of my life. Taking up for myself has always been so hard for me. I've lost a part of my life that I can never get back and suffer in my heart every single day. I've been in therapy since my early twenties and finally found two people that have helped me a great deal in the past six years. Yeah! I'm not able to see them often anymore but I did walk away with tools that I try to use in everyday life.
I'm so grateful for HealthyPlace.

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