Are You Controlled by What Others Think?
Updated: Sep 26
Living with ADHD means you've likely received or perceived a lot of criticism and ridicule in your life. This could be from teachers, friends, colleagues, managers, significant others, or even your kids.
Your response to criticism may be more intense than someone who doesn't have ADHD, because our neurobiology makes it difficult to modulate and regulate emotions. Many – most? - people with ADHD have a more sensitive nervous system, which means things can be more upsetting or can more deeply impact us emotionally.
We are NOT broken, weak, or flawed. We are sensitive.
I polled my community on Instagram and a LOT of people admitted to regularly making decisions to avoid criticism. It got me wondering how often we've made choices in our personal and professional lives out of the fear of not doing well and being criticized.
Last night in the Enclave Collaborative about how criticism influences and shapes our lives, and what to do about it. This is a huge topic, so we're just scratching the surface.
First, about our sensitive nervous system – a quick note about trauma.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event. However, a person may experience trauma as a response to any event they find physically or emotionally threatening or harmful."
Basically, anytime we get upset there's potential for the brain to initiate a trauma response. What is traumatizing to one person may not be to another person. It is not always universally considered a harmful or stressful event.
One of the subset descriptors of trauma mentions bullying. I don't consider myself someone who was bullied. I was socially adept growing up and generally well liked, but recently I saw a description of education bullying and trauma that confirmed what I've been tossing around about the trauma of being ADHD.
Here are some examples of traumas I experienced because of my ADHD:
In kindergarten, I sat a table with peers at a "listening center." We were listening to an audiobook with headphones on. I was talking. The principal walked by and yanked the headphones off me so forcefully that one of my newly pierced ears bled.
In sixth grade, my math teacher said to me in front of everyone, "Ms. Snyder your grades aren't good enough to be talking while I'm teaching." I was humiliated.
In eleventh grade, my mother was going through chemo and I was stuck in a math class I did not need to graduate. They wouldn't let me drop the class, so I slept through most of it. My teacher wrote on one of my "graded" tests in red pen that I'd be flipping burgers my whole life if I didn't apply myself in his class.
I was told countless times that I didn't need to be 'so worked up.' Often people would stop conversations with me if I cried, which I do easily in conflict. This is still triggering for me as I sometimes still can't control my tears.
Throughout my career (pre-coaching), I excelled at employee engagement, project management, and marketing strategy. I caught mistakes and helped companies avoid employee burnout. However, nearly all of my performance reviews centered on negative feedback related to small things around calendaring, following through on menial tasks that nobody was asking for. Oh yeah, and the time my boss asked me to not talk so much in team meetings so my male colleagues could chime in.
Over time, I got these messages: my talking was bad, my inability to regulate my own emotions in stress was harmful to others and a character flaw, and that to be successful I should be detail-oriented or pretend like I am.
For me, this developed into PTSD, which showed up as hypervigilance about doing things the "right" way, intense sensitivity if I misstepped and am judged unfairly, which made me anxious about my performance and left me fearing others realizing who I "really" was.
It was difficult to see my success, because of so much messaging from trusted adults that conflicted with the idea that I could be successful.
In the moment of being criticized, many of you described a feeling in your body that sounds a lot like the flight/fight/freeze response. An alarm goes off in your nervous system that you're being threatened or are in danger.
Even if you can recognize it is not a real threat, your body may be holding the memory and responses from a lifetime of being bullied for your ADHD.
Many of us are resilient and have established coping mechanisms to manage these responses. Some will harden themselves and say they don't care what anyone thinks. Others make fun of themselves or share something self-deprecating while half-laughing. I also regularly hear ADHD women confess all the things they did wrong or missed when people are impressed with them or praising their efforts.
It is painful and difficult to trust others' assessments of us, positive or negative, because we don't have a stable view of ourselves aside from our ADHD challenges.
Most of us have not spent enough time addressing the underlying fear of what other people think of us, which stifles the way we live.
I'm not saying you all have PTSD, though it's not a stretch to wonder.
My hope is through reflecting on the things you've been told (directly and indirectly) about who you are and how you move through the world that you will see places in need of healing to reduce fear.
The good news is that we can heal trauma.
Through somatic therapies, like EMDR, exploring these topics with likeminded ADHD women in The Enclave, or working with a therapist or coach, you can begin to learn and practice the skills to regulate your nervous system response to criticism so you can discern better if the feedback is useful or worth paying attention to.
Author Kristen Neff gives a helpful breakdown on self-compassion that's worth a look as you begin to build resilience in a healthy way.
Noticing when you're upset and giving yourself permission to feel it all the way through is the first step in healing these patterns.
It is normal to be upset by criticism. All humans experience it and you are not wrong for feeling whatever you feel. If you're bending your life trying to avoid criticism, I invite you to take a closer look and see where you can claim small victories in living your way without anticipation of being cut down.
Here are some questions to explore your response to criticism and how fear of people can control you.
Where do you see the fear of negative feedback controlling your life? (if you've healed some of this – try to think back)
When you think of receiving criticism or feedback, what's possible for you responding in a new way? How do you wish you could respond?
What do you want to tell future you when she's upset by someone's feedback?
How can you give yourself permission to feel the sting and negative feelings that come up when you're feeling defensive or hurt? How can you communicate to your body that it is safe?
What are some ways you can get support in navigating criticism?
The Enclave Collaborative meets on Mondays and Thursdays to discuss the topic of the week. If you're interested in joining us, head over to The ADHD Enclave. We'd love to have you!