ADHD and Adults: How to Use Your Strengths to Succeed
ADHD coach Aaron D. Smith regularly works with clients who believe something is inherently wrong with them. After all, for years, they’ve been criticized, ridiculed and reprimanded—maybe by their parents or teachers or other authority figures, he said. For years, clinicians and doctors have hyper-focused on the problems of ADHD. They viewed ADHD from a deficit-based model, versus seeing positive traits or strengths.
People with ADHD feel like ‘they are the problem’ not their behaviors.” They feel inadequate. They feel shame and self-doubt. This is especially true for people who were diagnosed as adults, Smith said. “They grew up blaming themselves, knowing something was different about them, but not having a name to call it and not receiving proper treatment.”
But whether you were diagnosed as an adult or a child, you might feel like you don’t have any talents or gifts. “It’s easy to get distracted or ashamed by your weakness and lose sight of what you can accomplish,” said ADHD coach Bonnie Mincu.
But here’s the thing: You have strengths. Plenty of them. The key is to identify them and learn to harness them.
According to Mincu, “Working on developing strengths takes less time and energy, and you end up with high level performance.” Plus, as ADHD pioneer Edward Hallowell, M.D., Ed.D., writes, “Ignoring strengths tends to extinguish them, or at best, not develop them.”
Below Smith and Mincu share exactly how you can harness your strengths.
Identify your strengths. “One way to clarify your strengths is to identify your weaknesses at the same time,” said Mincu, founder of Productivity Pathfinder program for ADHD adults. She has her clients do an exercise she created inspired by the book What Color is Your Parachute?
To start, create two columns on a piece of paper. Label the first column “Strengths/Loves,” and the second column “Weaknesses/Hates.” Next, reflect on the things you’ve loved and hated throughout the years—which can be anything, from school assignments to personal moments. Be super specific.
Mincu shared these examples: “I had to dissect a fetal pig in high school Biology class. I hated having to dissect the pig… but I enjoyed doing the detailed drawings of the dissection.” “I loved holiday dinners as a child because I got a chance to take charge of my younger cousins and teach them how to tie their shoes.”
Once you’re done, look for patterns. Typically, your loves are also your strengths. “It’s possible to hate things that you’re good at, but with ADHD, you probably shouldn’t try to spend time on things you hate. You’ll expend more energy trying to avoid it than in getting it done.”
Smith suggested completing the VIA strengths inventory, and asking friends how they’d describe you. He also asks his clients these questions: “What stimulates you? What types of activities or interests can you do for hours upon hours? When you have empty moments, how do you choose to fill your time?” (A common challenge for adults with ADHD is having too many interests. Smith covers this topic in his podcast.)
Celebrate your differences. “Be proud of anything that you do especially well, but in a ‘different’ way than other people,” Mincu said. For instance, your ADHD brain might approach problems in unique, creative ways. That is, when you’re thinking of a problem, a random thought pops into your mind. You follow the thought, and land on several viable solutions.
Spot what’s sabotaging your strengths. Explore what’s interfering with you capitalizing on your strengths and accomplishing your personal goals. For instance, as Mincu said, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a brilliant journalist if you can’t make your deadlines. Maybe you can take a course taught by an ADHD coach on whatever is getting in your way. Maybe you can hire a coach. Maybe a book on ADHD would be helpful. There’s so much great support for people with ADHD. You don’t have to go it alone.
Reframe your traits. Hallowell created the concept of “Mirror Traits,” meaning that there are positive sides to ADHD’s symptoms. For instance, “inconsistent” also can mean “shows flashes of brilliance.” “Hyperactive” also can mean “energetic.”
Inspired by this concept, Smith created his own list. For instance, inattentive is also having a highly active mind. Scattered is having many interests and possessing out-of-the-box thinking. Hyper-focused is invested. Prone to too many daydreams is creative.
This doesn’t mean glossing over your challenges, Smith said. After all, “it’s essential to reflectively evaluate situations, taking stock of the role we played in the outcomes (our responsibility in it), as well as learning valuable life lessons from failures.” However, all too often adults with ADHD view themselves and their capabilities through an entirely negative lens. When you focus on your strengths, you focus on overcoming obstacles and setbacks constructively and productively, Smith said.
Apply your strengths to all areas of your life. “Too many people try to relegate strengths to hobbies and time off instead of trying to bring those abilities into their workday,” Smith said. “Your ‘real job’ can be made more enjoyable with a little creativity and strategic planning.” And the same goes for all areas of your life.
Smith shared these examples: You’re an extrovert who loves being around others. It’s hard for you to do things for yourself. So you find someone—a friend or colleague—to keep you accountable. Maybe you work on different projects side by side. Maybe you email them every day about your progress. You also imagine yourself helping a friend or giving them advice—and tell yourself these same things when you veer away from your goals.
You’re a visual learner who loves art. You incorporate visual elements into different tasks by doing everything from taking notes in a sketchbook to doodling to help you remember.
You love sports and being active. Before doing any paperwork, sitting through a long meeting or taking a test, you engage in some kind of cardio. Maybe you run for 20 minutes. Maybe you do 20 push-ups. Maybe you take a walk. Maybe every morning you take a dance class.
You love listening to music and playing the guitar. When you’re doing tedious tasks (like your taxes), you wear headphones and listen to your favorite tunes. And maybe you also play the guitar a few times a day to energize and inspire you for other activities.
When you have ADHD, you might feel like you have zero talents and skills. You might see yourself as deeply flawed with too many deficits. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. You have strengths. Don’t ignore them. Identify them, and harness them. Give yourself the permission to get creative with how you approach everything in your life. After all, that’s likely one of your biggest strengths.
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