ADHD and the Fear of Using Gifts

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

In the spring of 2020, my life turned topsy-turvy for the second time. After a period of intense therapy to deal with my PTSD symptoms, it became clear that there were more things going on than just childhood trauma. I saw a few specialists, and was diagnosed with inattentive-type ADHD. I had never had so many conflicting emotions at once. Relief because I knew that I wasn’t lazy, stupid, or broken. Elation because suddenly thousands of small moments in my life lined up to form the same picture, and I made sense to myself. Sorrow, because I had spent most of my life in loneliness, confusion, and self-hatred for something that wasn’t my fault.

When you receive an ADHD diagnosis as an adult, there is a grieving process. You can only really process the pain when you understand what you’ve lost. ADHD can cause many things, including slower social-emotional development, poor motor coordination, sensory sensitivities, and trouble controlling impulses. Because I was considered bright as a child, and I did well in school, the teachers overlooked my lack of friends and tendency to lose things that weren’t taped to my head. Not getting a diagnosis and treatment meant struggling along as best I could, while internalizing blame from teachers, classmates, and friends for being slower and more spacey than everyone else. I later learned that being ahead of my peers intellectually, while also being behind them socially, was a sign of being “2e” – twice exceptional. Having an intellectual gift and a learning disability at the same time.

Navigating gifts are tricky to begin with. You may have internalized negative comments from parents, siblings, or peers about your interests. Maybe you loved art, but were told that you’d never get a job pursuing your passion. Or maybe you loved sports, but were made fun of for being clumsy (another symptom of ADHD). These messages bury themselves deep in our hearts, and come out whenever we want to take a risk, try something new, or even return to an old hobby. But negative messages aren’t the only way we can develop a fear of using our talents.

If you were over-praised for your accomplishments, but emotionally neglected, you may have concluded that your achievements were the only way to be acknowledged and valued. You may have even developed perfectionism as a way to cope with emotional rejection.

It’s common for 2e individuals as children to either struggle to find friends, or to decide to suppress their gifts as a way to temper the jealousy of their peers. In cultures where appearing smarter or more capable than everyone else is seen as rude or threatening, 2e people might decide that it’s safer to mask everything – the learning disability, and their giftedness, rather than risk hurting their peers.

No matter which category you relate to, or whether you feel you belong to a category at all, one thing is true. You have gifts. And using them in a way that helps others can bring not only intense satisfaction, but a sense of purpose to all areas of your life.  

With the emotional baggage some us collect over a lifetime of feeling different, how can we overcome the fear of using our gifts? Patience, courage, and a little creativity. Here are four ways to get started:

Replace old, negative messages with positive ones.

Write down all the thoughts and feelings you have when you try to use your gifts. Here are some of mine that I still have:

  • not good enough
  • selfish
  • incompetent
  • destined to fail
  • let-down

Write yourself encouragement on sticky notes or index cards, and put them in the place where you normally would work on a project. Some examples could be:

  • You try so hard! I’m proud of you.
  • Feel the fear and go a tiny bit farther.
  • There is no effort without error and shortcoming (Theodore Roosevelt)
  • I love who you are when you’re being yourself.

Find a way to use your gifts to make life easier, more joyful, or more beautiful for others.

Do you have a knack for numbers? Could you help other people with their tax returns? What about using your artist’s eye to decorate a care facility for seniors, or make paintings for people who can’t leave the house? Or using your basketball skills to mentor young kids who need a role model?

As someone with ADHD myself, I understand how hard it is to get out there when you’ve been ridiculed or dismissed your entire life. It’s okay to grieve and get angry. Helping others may have been pushed on you in a way that’s made you feel guilty or resentful. It may be that you’re not ready yet, because you are still working on loving yourself. That’s okay. But please know that helping others in a healthy way shouldn’t be something that hurts you or makes you angry. Quite the opposite: it will be wind for your wings, and oxygen for the fire in your heart.

Find other people who share your interests, hobbies, or passions.

One of the happiest moments of my life could be encapsulated in eight words: “You mean there are other people like me??” Spending time with other people who share your interests is incredibly enriching, and might even lead to a volunteer opportunity or a lifelong friendship.  

Take it one tiny step at a time.

For the first dozen times or so that you intentionally sit down to push past your fear, you are going to experience discomfort. Acknowledge it, write it down if you need to, and do one tiny thing more than you did the day before. Let’s use the fear of painting as an example. On the first day, don’t try to fill an entire canvas. Just hold the brush. Listen to soothing music and let yourself feel the bristles. Hold it for long enough, and the fear will subside. When you are comfortable with just holding the brush and don’t feel too much fear, go a little farther. Get the brush wet. Play around with water lines on the paper. You will know if you are going too slow or too fast. Trust yourself.

Congratulations on taking this small step forward! Remind yourself, when you forget, about the feeling of joy, flow, freedom, or anything positive that you associate with doing what you love. You got this! It will never be perfect. But it will be amazing.

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