ADHD and Self-Sabotage: 6 supportive strategies to help you feel more confident and reach more goals

Woman by window calm and focusedSelf-sabotage is the negative self-talk that prevents us from believing we can do things. It can be conscious or unconscious and can keep us from setting, working towards and reaching our goals. It holds us back from doing what we want to do. Low self-esteem and unfounded beliefs about being deficient, not good enough, incapable or unintelligent contribute to self-sabotage. These deep-seated, limiting core beliefs fuel fears about performance and result in procrastination or avoidance. If left unchecked, this can lead to general anxiety, social anxiety and depression. That’s why it’s so important to counter negativity with encouragement, support and self-love.

Self-Sabotage and ADHD 

boy hanging head down

Feelings of shame and self-doubt often surface early on for those with ADHD. The shame about not being able to succeed at school or handle tasks as well as others starts early in life and continues into adulthood. Children with ADHD feel “different” from their peers, which may fill them with increasing feelings of nervousness, doubt and uneasiness. Over time, personal vigilance grows into anxiety about messing up and not measuring up. Embarrassment and shame lead to a desire to avoid that insecurity and pain at all costs. Attempts to avoid pain or embarrassment often manifest as self-sabotaging behaviors.

Signs of Self-Sabotage

There are a number of behaviors and modes of thought which are indicative of self-sabotage. Take a little time to self-reflect and determine whether you are negatively affected by the self-sabotaging indicators below: 

  • Avoidance: Staying away from people or situations that cause discomfort
  • Procrastination: Putting off getting things done because of a fear of failure
  • Fixed mindset: Believing that you can’t change and your abilities will not improve; blaming and shaming yourself for mistakes you may have made
  • Exercising control over others: Attempting to control others’ behaviors or situations that seem uncertain and provoke your anxietycycle of negativity: Negative thoughts > Upset Feelings > Unhelpful Behavior
  • Pleasing others at your own expense: Making choices to be accepted or liked by people, even if they go against your values or better judgments; depending on others for validation and approval
  • Engaging in risky behaviors: Harming yourself through substance abuse, gambling, sexual promiscuity, cutting, eating disorders, etc.
  • Using “Compare and Despair” to your own detriment: Looking at what others do, and comparing yourself negatively to them
  • Perfectionism: Trying to control outcomes as a way to manage anxiety; “letting perfect be the enemy of good enough”; needlessly getting caught up in the weeds or building obstacles where they don’t need to be; looking for the one perfect solution instead of taking steps forward, even if not under ideal conditions

Tools to Address Self-Sabotage

Even though it may seem like self-sabotage is a lot to deal with, it is possible to manage and even overcome self-sabotaging tendencies. Some approaches, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), are longer term treatments. But there are several tools and mindful awareness exercises you can practice any time to help manage self-sabotaging thinking day-to-day.

1. Establish healthier alternatives to limiting beliefs, negative self-talk and safety-seeking behaviors

Practice mindfulness by focusing on being present and aware of your thoughts instead of letting preoccupation and worries what other people think about you distract you. Pay attention to what’s happening around you in the present moment instead of noise in your head.

A paper with the words "positive" and "negative" on it, with a red pen circling "positive."

Sometimes we find ourselves being pulled into a cycle of negativity, worry, predicted failure or harsh self-judgment. In these cases, reverse course by slowing down and identifying any negative beliefs. Recall positive outcomes that have occurred before, and remind yourself that they are possible again. Encourage yourself to power through.

If I get stuck, I sometimes do better if I can commit to starting and working on a task for 15 minutes. It is good to negotiate with yourself, and build in rewards for following through.”

2. Identify phrases of self-sabotage, and create rebuttals

When your “negative brain” tells you, “You’re not good enough, why bother?” train your “positive brain” to answer, “Don’t underestimate yourself–give it a try and see what happens!”

Create your own list of encouraging phrases to use when you want to cut the negative self-talk short. Remember, you are not your thoughts, but you are the one who is aware of them. You can choose not to believe them or push them back with the power of positive thinking. This takes work and a lot of practice, so expect yourself to stumble and have setbacks. Forget about “compare and despair,” and looking sideways at what others are doing. Instead, look at where you’ve come from and where you want to go.

“When my brain is working against me, I find ways to increase dopamine or just rest if that is really what I need and eliminate the perceived judgment of other people.”

3. Set small behavioral goals that are low risk experiments to build confidence

My goals graphic

These are learning experiences that test/defy those negative self-beliefs. Take a measured risk based on previous successes.

For example, if you are anxious about attending a social gathering, set a small goal for yourself, such as “I’m going to smile at new people.” Once you’re comfortable with smiling, take it up a notch with a goal such as “I’m going to talk to 1-2 people standing alone” or “I will focus on the conversation in the moment and make a reflective or topic-related comment.”

Afterwards, assess how the situation went and how you felt. Did you have conversations that may have been awkward but weren’t damaged by them? Write a journal entry or voice memo about your experience and what you learned from it.

4. Adjust expectations to include the natural stumbles of being human; separate your ADHD brain from your character

Because of your ADHD, your thoughts may have a tendency to run away from you, making them harder to get back and control. Train your attention to move away from negativity and internal noise. We can’t turn off these thoughts entirely, but we can lower the volume on them and see them as background noise.

You’re only human, so you will make mistakes and feel awkward time-to-time. Your ADHD brain may make things tougher to manage, but you are still a good, worthy and capable person who has a lot to offer.

ADHD doesn’t make me less of a person or less valid. It makes me a different sort of person who is still valid and valuable.

5. Use a growth mindset approach

group high fiveShift away from trying to prove your worth to others using false comparisons or judging yourself as less than. Transition from seeing yourself in a negative light to practicing compassion and kindness toward yourself.

We are all works in progress, learning and developing at our own speeds. Believe in the power of “YET.”  Tell yourself, “I may not be able to do this YET, but I am learning.” Practice kindness and patience towards yourself.

6. Healing meditation

Picture yourself at a beautiful spot outside. Visualize the face of someone you really love. What encouraging words would this person say to you? How would these words comfort and encourage you? Write these down, and meditate on these images and words whenever you need to heal or empower yourself.

Living with ADHD means experiencing moments when you’re aware that you are struggling or have messed up, but you don’t necessarily know why or how to fix it. This can develop into persistent worry and self-sabotage, and this anxiety can overpower us. Focus on building up your reserve of positive experiences, and, in turn, you’ll begin to minimize those pesky negative thoughts. A combination of CBT and mindful awareness practices can help. And, if we go back to basics, self-care is a powerful antidote to self-sabotage. So remember, be kind and loving toward yourself today and every day.

Read more blog posts:

Watch on Dr. Saline’s YouTube Channel:

Stop the Self-Sabotage: How to Support Yourself with Love

Deeper Dive – Dr. Saline’s Store:

Harness GRIT and Get It Done! (Handout)

You Can’t Stop Anxiety. You Change Your Relationship with It. (Handout)