How many people do you know who could confidently list their primary strengths? How about the people you know who have ADHD? My guess would be folks with ADHD are less aware of their strengths.
How many people could list their main shortcomings? Probably many more than could list their strengths. Many people with ADHD have them all right on the tips of their tongues because they have been criticized so much throughout their lives.
Most people notice and dwell on their faults more frequently and longer than on their strengths. There are many reasons for that:
- Our brains have a negativity bias. The tendency to be constantly alert to problems or dangers was a good thing when it kept our ancestors relatively safe from predators. Our 21st century brains haven’t evolved sufficiently to lower the alarm to an appropriate level to meet today’s needs. We have to consciously choose to emphasize the positives – especially our strengths – since they don’t usually come to mind as automatically as the negatives.
- Many parents and teachers have come to believe that their jobs involve more correcting of errors than praising of successes. Their children and students internalize their voices which can continue “speaking” for decades, unless corrected.
- Some religious traditions demand obedience to particular thoughts and actions. Followers are shamed if they veer from the designated path. If people are aware of strengths, they might feel a prohibition against talking about them for fear of being criticized for being boastful or proud.
- Folks with ADHD hear criticisms and reprimands from their earliest years. Those voices become their own negative self-talk as they get older.
To counter or even balance all of this negativity, it is critically important to identify, notice, and celebrate strengths, on the one hand, and then to teach self-compassion for those times when we don’t measure up to what we or others expect of us.
One way to discover strengths is by taking the Via Character Strengths Survey. It is available free (or you can choose to pay for upgraded reports) at viacharacter.org. There is a version for adults and another for youth aged 10-17. It takes less than fifteen minutes to take the survey which gives you a ranked list of twenty-four universal character strengths with your “signature strengths” (the top five or six) prominently displayed.
We can learn about our need for more self-compassion by asking ourselves whether we would talk to any other human being the way we often talk to ourselves. Self-compassion can be learned from others when we feel their compassion toward us, and a good book about self-compassion is by Kristen Neff – Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself
ADHD treatment certainly needs to include some education about the ways particular ADHD challenges show up in each person, but that information needs to be balanced with the other side of the picture — the many remarkable strengths and intelligences each individual also has!
Linda Swanson is an ADHD Coach in Warrenton, Virginia. She and her husband, Neil, are partners at Free To Be Coaching, LLC, where they coach in person or by phone, Skype, or FaceTime. They coach students from middle school through college as well as adults of all ages, and they also facilitate two support groups for parents of children with ADHD. Linda and Neil are both graduates of the ADD Coach Academy and are credentialed by the International Coach Federation and the Professional Association of ADHD Coaches. Linda can be reached at email@example.com or (703) 508-4774.