Is ADHD good or bad? Friend or foe? Blessing or curse? A Gift or a disability?
I was surprised to find this question inspires a lot of controversy in the ADHD realm. In case you aren’t familiar, ADHD is classified as a disability–one that’s protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Although some are still not on board with it’s existence, the medical community, insurance, and the government all classify it was a disorder.
But a few years ago, a book came out talking about ADHD being a gift. It discussed all the potential positives that come from having ADHD and encouraged our unique minds to be celebrated and worked with instead of against. Basically, to learn to use our differences as assets instead of trying to do everything the way neurotypicals do.
Some took the Gift and ran with it–wanting to lose the disorder discussion entirely, seeing it only as a great blessing. Others rejected the idea of ADHD being anything other than a terrible curse that creates pain and destruction anywhere it’s found.
And that dichotomy is basically where many still exist today.
So is ADHD good or bad? Blessing or Curse?
Each side of the argument has some good things to offer and some pretty big drawbacks. Those impassioned on either side rarely like to hear that their point of view has some downsides or that the counter-argument has anything to offer, but if we’re going to have an objective conversation–and that’s definitely my goal–we’ve got to be open to the possibilities.
For easy reference, I created this chart to highlight some of the pros and cons I noticed on each side. For time’s sake, I’ll hit some of the highlights for discussion that I found particularly noteworthy.
This is likely not a comprehensive list but it gets the point across.
Most Noteable Upsides and Downsides of ADHD as a Gift
Positive: Seeing ADHD as a gift may act as cognitive reframing. If you are familiar with Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) you might be familiar with the term “cognitive reframe” but if you aren’t, it’s essentially the ability to see the same thing in a different light, leading to improved mental wellbeing.
Cognitive Reframing is a psychological intervention used most noteably in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In conjunction with medication, CBT is considered the “treatment of choice” for ADHD.
Looking at the potential positives of ADHD may function like a cognitive reframe in that it shifts the perspective from what is wrong to what is right, from the cost to the gain. Research indicates that when we focus on the difficulties, challenges, or drawbacks we are more likely to experience additional suffering. And when we focus on the good, the gains, and that which we are grateful for, we tend to experience less suffering. That’s why gratitude is linked to happiness.
It’s possible that by seeing ADHD in this light, it could lead ADHDers to a more positive mental state and reduce the suffering and low self esteem that we are more likely to have.
Negative: In it’s extreme, this position denies the scientific basis of ADHD as a disorder which could lead to some really bad consequences if too many people fully embraced it. ADHDers usually need accommodations in order to succeed in school and in work. If it were no longer called a disability, those accommodations would be out the window. Research into appropriate treatments and medications have only been done because it’s a disorder–if research stopped and insurance no longer covered therapy or medication for ADHD, it would knock us off our feet.
Something to think about: The word gift has the connotation of being something purely good. I don’t think you could live with ADHD and see it as purely good, even as someone who prefers to call it a gift. Not when you’ve nearly set the house on fire a number of times for lack of attention, or impulsively pressed the gas at a red light and hit the car in front of you, or showed up late too many times to work because of poor time management and gotten fired…again.
None of those things could ever be called purely good. The terminology of it being a gift can sometimes lead people to feel like they are facing the challenges alone if everyone else with ADHD sees it as this purely good gift (even if that’s not what’s meant by the word).
The Good and the Bad of ADHD as a Disability
Positive: Because ADHD has been classified as a disability, we have resources, interventions, medications and accommodations that are much needed. It also validates the extent of the struggle that ADHD causes. It’s what keeps us grounded in knowing that our struggles aren’t a character flaw or moral failing when people tell us to just try harder or to stop being lazy. (If calling it a disability makes it seem more shaming, read on because we’ll get to that in a minute).
That framework can be invaluable when ADHD knocks you on your butt–when the challenges produce shame, it’s the reminder that your struggle is because your brain is wired differently, not because you are a worthless person. That’s a pretty important pro.
Negative: exclusively focusing on ADHD as a disability and allowing no room for any upsides is more likely to increase low self esteem, shame, and potentially depression. It’s that old adage that what we focus on we get more of. If you only focus on the horrors of ADHD (and yes, sometimes there are true horrors), it often naturally leads to bitterness, resentment, anger, and depression.
Perhaps by now you are beginning to see the next point.
The ADHD Dialectic: It’s a Blessing and a Curse.
The Gift and Disability controversy pits the two sides against each other and argues them as mutually exclusive: ie a gifts is purely good and a disability is purely bad. Neither side leaves room for anything else.
But a dialectic is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing thoughts as both true. The ADHD dialectic is that ADHD is both a blessing and a curse. At the same time. It is not purely either, but both at different times and degrees.
If we can hold both as true, we get to have all of the positives of each side but get rid of most of the negatives. In holding both as true, neither side cancels the other out. I think that’s a really important point.
Many times, people are uncomfortable calling ADHD a disability or a disorder because they feel as if doing so means they are personally flawed or “less than” people without ADHD. This belief is rooted in a stigma that you hold which we will get to in a minute.
On the other side, people are uncomfortable or unwilling to explore the possibility of ADHD having an upside because of the unconscious thought that a positive is supposed to make up for all of the drawbacks. That thought is an attempt at restoring the dichotomy–the all or nothing thinking of purely good and purely bad.. Remember, a dialectic is to hold both a blessing and curse in hand at the same time with neither ‘making up for’ or ‘canceling out’ the other.
The ADHD dialectic is that ADHD is both positive and negative. There are parts of ADHD that are beneficial and parts of it that are far from it. Your positives may be different than my positives and your negatives may be different than my negatives. The point is that it isn’t purely one or the other.
The Objections I know are Coming
“Seeing ADHD as anything other than a disability means you are priviledged.”
I call this the problem of privledge because alliteration is awesome. HA! See what I did there? This position is basically saying that if you don’t see this struggle the way I see this struggle, you’ve had it easier than me either by fewer symptoms or access to better resources.
This is the kind of argument where no one wins. It can be hurtful to other people (especially when it’s untrue) and it tries to trap you in having no choice but to be miserable.
For this argument to be true, it would have to be based on the idea that happiness/contentment/peace is unreachable unless you have an easy life. “You wouldn’t be able to say there are any good things if you’d struggled as much as I have!” boiled down to it’s most basic form is “You are content because your life is easy. You would be miserable if you’d had to struggle.”
This argument doesn’t hold up when you really talk to people. I’ll never forget the man I met who had been through nearly every horror I’d ever imagined–homelessness, drugs, physical abuse, lose of a child and another with profound mental health challenges, mental illness, and more. Yet he was content.He wasn’t bitter or angry that his life had been so hard. In fact, he was able to tell me some of the good things that eventually came out of all his struggles.
You can’t meet someone like that and believe that you can only find good things in your struggle if your struggle hasn’t been too bad. When you use the argument of privilege you risk shaming someone who’s been through a lot.
You also risk unnecessarily closing yourself off to the possibility of something that improves your own mental wellness and reduces your suffering. Which sucks…
Thankfully, a person isn’t condemned to a life of being miserable because they were born into struggle. It means that no matter what your circumstances are, there is the possibility of happiness and contentment.
“Calling ADHD a disorder is shaming.”
I told you it was coming. I mean, I informed you thusly…
Calling ADHD a disorder is no more shaming than telling someone that they have diabetes or they have Celiac Disease, like I do.
Celiac disease means that my body attacks me when I eat gluten and causes the lining of my small intestine to become damaged. Calling it a disease isn’t shaming. It’s pretty much understood that I can’t help it, my body just doesn’t react to gluten the way I wish it did. Sometimes it sucks but it doesn’t say anything about who I am as a person. It’s part of me but it doesn’t define me.
ADHD is a disorder and a disability. It means that my brain is wired in a way that often causes me to struggle in ways that other people without ADHD don’t struggle. Literally, a disability is defined as a long lasting adversity that causes significant problems for you in activities of daily living. And that’s not my fault either. Nor does it say anything about my value as a person.
The only difference here is one due to a problem with my immune system and the other a problem with the wiring of my brain.
Thinking ADHD being a disorder is more shameful really just boils down to our own contribution to the continued and ridiculous stigma that we still have toward mental and emotional health. The truth is, if I don’t believe that it’s shameful to have a disorder then the fact that it’s called a disorder doesn’t bother me. Finding it more shaming indicates that we still hold our own prejudices against mental and emotional struggle.
“I have good qualities but they are all in spite of my ADHD.”
Everything about you interacts with the way your brain is wired. Everything. The good, the bad, the struggles and the victories. They all interact. If you changed the way your brain is wired, everything about you would be different, not just the bad things.
This argument assumes that you would keep all of your good qualities and some might even be better, if you never had ADHD. But if everything about you interacts, this argument is without merit because it’s too limited and surface level. All we can really say for sure is that everything would be different. I argue that life would be better in some ways and worse in others. For instance…
Here’s how my life would be different (good and bad) if I didn’t have ADHD.
To lose it would be bad: One of the things that’s been a major struggle in my life with ADHD is losing things. It’s always important things, too, which means I’m always turning over every rock trying to mitigate the disaster that will ensue if I don’t find them. It’s obviously a bad thing. I’m talking really important stuff, too. Did you know that you can only request a copy of your social security card so many times in your life time? Yep, it’s 10 and there’s a reason I know that.
Because of this propensity toward losing things, I’ve gotten really good at finding things. I turn over every rock, leaving no stone unturned, and I don’t stop until I find it. I’m good at finding things. Because of that, I’m also good at finding the missing link to a resource that someone I love is desperate for. I look everywhere, I try everything and I ask anyone who will listen. And I don’t stop until I find it. I do this to keep from feeling powerless when someone I love is struggling.
If ADHD were gone, I can’t see how I would have developed this skill–I wouldn’t have needed it to find things because I wouldn’t lose them like I do and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten the practice at using it that I’ve had to develop it into the strength that it is today.
So I wouldn’t have it when I’ve needed it to help someone I care about get the resources they needed (but couldn’t get) to be healthy or to stand up to someone threatening their livelihood. They’d be worse off and so would I having to watch them go through horrors in life and be powerless to help.
To lose it would be good: Let’s take another one from the other side of the spectrum. Another major challenge I’ve had with ADHD is difficulty regulating my thoughts–especially when I’m trying to coach myself through some anxiety which I’ve struggled with most of my life.
For instance, I was at the doctor’s office a while back and he told me to follow up in 6 months. There was some confusion with the scheduling department that led to her explaining to me that there was no way to schedule 6 months in advance. I felt really embarrassed and you’re probably wondering why.
So was I. I couldn’t figure out why the interaction made me feel so ashamed. I started using my logical thoughts to try to coach myself through it but didn’t get anywhere. It’s hard to use those thoughts effectively when you’re thoughts bounce around as much as mine do.
I can think of the logical thought but before I’ve had time to actually use it to try to help myself, my mind has already jumped on to some thing else. It means I stay embarrassed for much longer. Hours. And even over the next couple weeks when I think of that situation, I re-experience the embarrassment.
I didn’t realize it was related to my ADHD until things were so much different when I started taking ADHD medication. With medication, I may still get embarrassed (because, social anxiety) but the difference is I can use my logical thoughts more effectively and I let go of the shame much faster. More like minutes instead of hours and days.
If I didn’t have ADHD, it would have saved me soooooo many hours and days (which accumulated probably makes up years at this point) of embarrassment and shame. Because I could have used my logical thoughts more effectively.
It’s a blessing and a curse, and it interacts with all of the good things we’ve experienced and all of the bad things, too. Taking it away would create a complicated result, not a purely good or purely bad one.
This is just an example. You probably won’t have these same examples in your life but if you look closely and don’t get caught up in the dichotomy, you’ll probably find your own.
When ADHD has a comorbid
It’s pretty well known that ADHD is often comorbid with other mental health struggles. As I mentioned, I have social anxiety, which is a common one. Others are generalized anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, and the list goes on…
Sometimes, especially when we have a comorbid diagnosis, or struggle is greatly increased not just in the ways we experience it but in the subtle ways that keep us stuck there. For instance, ADHD is often diagnosed with depression, which is a beast that tries to trap you in negative thought patterns, continuously lower your self esteem, and often interferes significantly with your ability to function.
Depression is often has an associated brain fog that feels similar to inattention and it zaps your motivation to do anything. Having both ADHD and depression will create an additional struggle that may make it feel impossible to see any upsides of ADHD or find strategies that work for you–this has a lot to do with the depression. Depression distorts the way we see ourselves and other people and magnifies our experiences with ADHD making them feel shaming times a thousand.
Ask yourself: is it possible that your struggle is complicated by a co-morbid condition like depression? And if so, is it possible that it impacts what way you see yourself and the way you see your ADHD?
The struggle with ADHD is made so much harder when it exists alongside depression but this is just one example. Perhaps in another article we can explore the various ways that additional diagnoses add to the struggle of how we see ourselves with ADHD. Let me know if you’d find that helpful 😉
Try it Out for ADHD (and Co-morbids)
We’ve talked briefly about CBT and there is no better recommendation for treating low self esteem, chronic feelings of shame and guilt or other ADHD, Depression, and anxiety related struggles than to see a therapist. Especially one who is well trained in CBT. I personally recommend you find a therapist who’s been trained by the Beck Institute. But if you can’t find that, do your research on CBT and talk to your therapist about doing the full CBT treatment.
In addition to therapy, I find that workbooks can be really helpful. The structure of a workbook takes some of the overwhelm out of adding something to your plate. It’s already outlined for you and you don’t have to try to figure out where to start. It’s like step by step instructions on how to help yourself. Nice, right?
I’m picky about the workbooks I use or recommend but these are ones that I have no trouble encouraging people I work with to explore. Each has a different focus that relates to our struggles so look at the ones that seem to be most in line with what you are needing.
I like these two for CBT needs. It can help with improving your negative self talk, boosting your self esteem, and improving your stress levels and emotional well being. Both are highly rated and good resources for ADHD.
This one is more specific to ADHD executive functions so rather than being something that helps you with self talk or emotions, it’s more like a coaching resource to help you find strategies that improve your organization, planning, and other executive functions.
This is a mindfulness based strategy to working with ADHD rather than a cognitive one. If you are someone that prefers a mindful style over a cognitive one, this one might be more your speed. Just know that with this workbook you need a CD player to really benefit from it. If you are like me, the only CD player you still have around is in your car which is probably not the best place for a mindfulness exercise
This workbook is not specific to ADHD but is worth doing, nonetheless. It is has been incredibly helpful to me and so many people that I work with, benefiting those with ADHD and those with OCD, Anxiety, Depression, and so on… If you’ve been around my blog, you’ve probably seen this one recommended before. I love this one and even though it isn’t specific to ADHD, it helps anyway.
These are solid workbooks that can be really helpful. If you use one, let me know how it goes–I always appreciate hearing feedback about what I’ve recommended. It helps me make sure that I continue giving you the best strategies.
Alright, where do you sit on the ADHD Blessing or Curse Controversy spectrum?
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