Updated: Apr 17
Have you listened to how you talk to yourself lately? Many of us with ADHD have a running stream of toxic self-talk going that is hard to stop. Not only is this demotivating. We're also more likely to allow others to speak to us in the same way.
Nurturing a kind inner voice is vital. For our relationship with ourselves. And for our relationships with others. Read on to learn how our own toxic self-talk fosters unhealthy relationships, how to cultivate positive self-talk instead, so that you attract people into your life who speak in the same voice. Because we deserve happy and healthy relationships. With ourselves and with others.
Shine a light on your inner voice - your ADHD chatter
First, observe how you talk to yourself. How much self-shaming and "shoulding" do you have going on? How much name-calling are you engaging in ("I'm such an idiot", "I'm such a slob," etc.)? How often do you tell yourself you ARE a negative adjective ("I'm so lazy", "I'm so disorganized") - as if this were an immutable fact such as "I'm 1.70 m tall" or "I'm the second of three siblings".
As you pay attention to your self-talk, be careful not to fall into the trap of shaming yourself for shaming yourself, adding insult to injury. Just try to be an impartial witness to your inner voice for the time being. As mentioned before, your curiosity (often an ADHD superpower) can come in handy here, allowing you to say: "hmmm, interesting how I tend to speak to myself" (reference 1).
Recognize how demotivating your toxic self-talk is to you
The next step is noticing how demotivating this inner voice is to you. Would you ever speak to anyone else like that? Imagine saying the same things to your employee, friend, neighbor, and even dog. How would that work?
What makes you think you're any different? Why on earth should cracking the whip work to shame you into tackling the things you're avoiding or make you more focused, attentive, structured, or whatever else you're struggling with?
Recognize what you're tolerating from others
The next big and often disturbing step is recognizing that tolerating your own harsh inner voice makes you super vulnerable in relationships. Are you treating yourself how you want to be treated?
Even if you don't share out loud how you speak to yourself (and many of us do, muttering "idiot", "clutz", or "stupid" to ourselves about ourselves), you're so used to your own verbal abuse of yourself that you don't recoil when others say similar things.
By not setting firm boundaries, we teach others that it's ok to belittle us, make fun of our struggles, ignore our needs, let alone grant us accommodations we often so desperately need to be our best selves.
We allow ourselves to be treated as "less than" or "junior partners". We often over-apologize, over-compensate, and try way too hard.
This tendency can lead to absurd situations. To give you an example from my own life: I was once told off very harshly by a secretary that I "Just had to organize myself better and that my personal problems were not her problem" for an issue that was a simple matter of me lacking the legal authority accomplish a task. Which this person was unwilling or unable to hear.
Way too often, we allow ourselves to be stunned into silence by the preposterous, judgmental, "just kidding" comments we've grown accustomed to (reference 2).
It's time to change.
Don't fight your inner voice - it means well
Talking about change: it's crucial that you don't fight your inner voice. It means well. Honestly.
To repeat what I've written before: that shaming voice developed in response to the negative feedback you got about your ADHD behavior. It tried to protect you from being shamed by others by berating yourself first. The inner shamer has become a deeply ingrained habit.
Thank your inner drill sergeant for its good intention and retire it. I know it's not that easy. The shamer has had free reign for decades and has built a highway in your brain.
Neuroscience says that it's super hard, if not impossible, to get rid of such a hard-wired thinking habit. What works well, though, is replacing it with a new habit. It takes time, but it works.
The key is not fighting against the old habit. Every time the shaming voice comes up, thank it, remind it that it's no longer on duty and allowed to enjoy a leisurely retirement, and then ignore it.
Cultivate a new, kind self-talk instead
Here comes the most important part: start kindly encouraging yourself in your head. Talk to yourself like you would to a frightened kitten that you're trying to get to come to you. I'm not kidding.
Imagine the most patient, encouraging, positive, caring, and compassionate voice and use it on yourself. It may feel super weird, and you will forget and slip back into drill sergeant mode. Just practice over and over and over again.
Remember, you're building a footpath that will slowly become a road and, at some point, a highway in your brain.
Raise your expectations for happy and healthy relationships
As you start treating yourself more kindly, your expectations for how you want to be spoken to and otherwise treated in relationships will follow suit.
Your boundaries will become clearer and healthier. You will tolerate less but contribute more - as an equal. Your relationships will become more reciprocal.
This isn't some kind of magic. This is just the logical effect of how you treat yourself.
P.S.: some people may not like the new healthier you, and you may choose to take drastic steps
An important word of caution, though. There are likely people in your life who quite like being able to talk to you the way they please, walk all over your needs, and cherish their perceived higher status over you.
They may fight tooth and nail to get you back to where they had you. You may end up walking away. From people. From situations. Even from jobs or committed relationships.
Make sure to talk to your therapist, counselor, coach, or other trusted professional for help with navigating any stormy weather that may ensue.
And remember: ADHD or not - you deserve happy, healthy, reciprocal relationships as equals. You're not damaged goods. You do not have to keep your toxic self-talk going. You have amazing strengths and talents that the world needs.
Further posts that may be helpful:
Judson Brewer, Unwinding Anxiety: Train Your Brain to Heal Your Mind, Vermillion, 2021 (Link to website Judson Brewer)
Resmaa Menakem, Rock the Boat: How to Use Conflict to Heal and Deepen Your Relationship, 2020 (Link to website Resmaa Menakem)