How to Succeed with ADHD When All Else Fails

ADHD Help, ADHD Strategies, Adults with ADHD    February 22, 2012

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ~ Thomas Alva Edison

Having lived most of their lives with the inconsistency, unpredictability and undependability of life with ADHD, it is incredibly common for adults with ADHD to view themselves as “failures”.  Because the executive function of their brain is not always fully activated, it is in fact normal for them to fail at least sometimes, if not frequently.  Beginning in early adolescence, these typical failures can become a permanent obstacle to future successes for those with ADHD as it undermines their confidence and willingness to take future chances.

In our culture, “failing” is dreaded and is typically avoided at all costs. But what if we looked at it differently?  What if we reframed failing as part of the process needed in order to succeed?  

Having “not failed” would mean we were not taking chances, pushing our creativity, living up to our full potential.  What if we measured success by how often we failed?

For instance, had it not been for failure, we may never have known such art that gave rise to the Audubon Society or the inspiring music of Handel’s Messiah.  It was only after Audubon’s business failed in 1819 that he began traveling and painting birds. And, after a night of deep despair over his failure as a musician, Handel unleashed his creative genius and wrote Handel’s Messiah.  Even though history is strewn with stories of success rising from the ashes of failure, failure continues to strike fear in our hearts like nothing else. There is so little tolerance for it in our culture and tremendous pressure to get it right every time.

Because we are human, with or without ADHD, we cannot help but fail.  We experience academic failures, failed relationships, failed parenting, failure at work, failure in health.  And when we do fail as part of the normal process of learning and success, the current views of failure often cause wounds that penetrate so deeply that we begin to think, “I am a failure.”  Instead of living fully, we begin to make safe choices, to settle for less than what we really want, and stop trying out of fear.

How can we cast failure in a different light, to take it out of the dark ages of disgrace and guilt, to remove the feeling of “disaster” associated with failure, to look for what it positively tells us about our well-being, strengths and values? Wouldn’t that be a relief?  Just imagine what we could all do with a little more hope, optimism and energy.  If viewed as a normal part of life, rather than a disgrace, failure can be a lever to open the door to a richer, more authentic life. Following are some ideas to help us start viewing our “failures” from a different perspective.

Failures can spark our creativity

Sometimes the experience of failure takes us out of our mindless routine and back into the essential work of creating ourselves.  When we experience failure, especially if it isn’t just a slight disappointment, it can knock us out of our comfort zone so that if we choose, it will stir up all those creative juices and problem solving strengths of our ADHD brains.  If we let ourselves, we can’t help but respond with passion, creativity and determination.

Failures can promote change

Failure is a natural offshoot of ADHD adventure and risk-taking…it’s going to happen.  Growth can be a natural offshoot of failure if we allow it to be.  A great failure can be the influence that enables us to muster up our courage to take the necessary risks that will lead to positive change.

Failures can help us relate to others

Thomas Moore once wrote: “If we could understand the feelings of inferiority and humbling occasioned by failure as meaningful in their own right, then we might incorporate failure into our work so that it doesn’t literally devastate us.” In other words, failing reminds us that we are human.  Everybody fails, even people without ADHD….even if they don’t want to admit it.  Failing helps us appreciate this vulnerability that we all share.  Increases our compassion and empathy for when others fail or seem to fail us.

Here are a few suggestions for working constructively with failure.

Acknowledge your feelings of pain, humiliation and/or inadequacy.

Laugh, if you can. A little bit of humor goes a long way in learning to accept failure.

Acknowledge your responsibility. Don’t deny the importance of the failure, but neither let it overwhelm you with guilt or self-blame. Guilt isn’t helpful, choosing to do things different is.

Forgive yourself. Forgiveness doesn’t take away the consequences or the memory of the failure, but it does soften the fall and clear a path for the next step.

Build a base of supportive people. Share the reality of your life. When you stop hiding shame and denying negative feelings, issues are quickly surfaced and resolved.

Reflect. With real curiosity, ask yourself these questions:

• How can this failure serve me?

• What does this setback mean?

• What have I learned and gained?

• How can I use this failure?

• How can I see it in a different way?

• What is positive here?

• What am I really trying to accomplish?

Ultimately, failure is not about loss, deficiency and flaws. It’s about learning lessons and courageously moving on. It’s about retaining hope and the instinct for joy. The lessons of failure make us wiser, stronger and more prepared for the rest of our journey, if we take them with us. What was your best failure?

As always, let me know what you think.  I welcome your comments on this and other blog posts.

10 Responses to How to Succeed with ADHD When All Else Fails

  1. Jeff Knox     February 28, 2012    8:26 am    Reply

    I have to say that I am more than a little tired of endlessly failing to get done what life seems to require. I also have to say that I have heard the mantra of recasting “Failure” over and over and am also rather tired of it, too. The later does not alter the reality of job function or necessary performance. There needs to be more than this. We cannot do this on our own nor can we continue to cover for a culture that refuses to accept us.

    I have heard enough of the “feel better” side of this equation. I find that I also need working answers to real functional issues, as we all do. I am not suggesting that there is no worth to the argument. I feel that too often we damaged folk are told to “get over it” or work around it, or Find something other to do instead when the harsh reality is that what we must deal with is not susceptible to that logic. Ask someone who has lost a home to foreclosure, or a job to lack of real performance, or a Family to failure to communicate or perform needed functions and I think you will hear something else than that yet one more “new” way is the answer.

    Ask someone on limited income how to afford all the various “support” which underlies the practice of such remediation.

    I have heard and practiced and taught other ways for more than 20 years. It was my job to help others solve problems. Absent real function they are only bandaids in the end.

    While they may improve outlook and certainly apply in some circumstances, there are still functional issues they do not quite address.

    In the end it is not sufficient to merely be able to tolerate the difficulties and pains of living with ADHD. It is not enough to find resolution for old hurts and losses. The world of house payments and schedules demands real performance of some kind.

    There can be real consequences and significant losses which few among the functional and successful seem to be able to appreciate.

  2. Charlotte     February 28, 2012    1:34 pm    Reply

    In my reading Laura’s article on failure, I felt that she was directing the ability to not let failure get us down as ADHD/ADDers because it is most definitely something we live with on a regular basis. I had several failures last week and it cost me both embarrassment and financial consequences. I forgot to pay my water bill (we have to go in to their office) but thank goodness, I was not penalized and I found out that they now have direct withdrawal so my water bill will automatically be taken out each month from my bank account. I also thought I had put my auto on direct withdrawal but I didn’t complete the task, failure and embarrassment again because I had never been late one time, I have to set it up on Direct Withdrawal today. I misunderstood when paying my electric bill, and now have to pay $250 deposit though I’ve been with the company for five years now because I thought the additional amount was not due per the person I talked at the electric company but the due date came and went for the new balance and I didn’t pay $75, so I have to pay $250 for a deposit. Last week was horrible and costly but have I learned my lesson, will I do it again, unfortunately, I most possibly will. I have tried every avenue I know even to the point of setting up this great excel spreadsheet with all my bill information on it, I often fail to stop around the 1st of each month to pay bills and then around the 15 or 16th, I panic and start sweating bullets to get it done. To me, that is failure and I hate that no matter what ADHD tool I set up, if I don’t implement it, it is of no use.

    I made A’s in school so I know I’m not dumb. I’m going on 65 in June so I could claim that or the chemo I took or the raditation I took or just about anything else but I mostly feel it is the ADHD. I wish with all my heart that a cure could be found for all the things that we, as humans, have to face daily. I have heard, though, that if you have to have a mental problem, ADHD/ADD is the best one to have. Maybe because it also has some positive affects on us also.

    My biggest problem since I have retired is that I have no desire or want to any more because of fatigue and no motivation. I hate this but that’s exactly where I am right now. I cannot focus most days and get 1/4 of what I used to get done if I can find some way to do anything at all.

    All of that said, I would say that both Laurie and Jeff have very valid points because yes, we fail, sometimes more than others, and yes, in that failure, there is no yellow brick road for us to travel, we must face the consequences of our lack of actions or in some cases, actions that caused the failure(s) and some days or weeks will be worse than others. My hope is that the day will come when the ability to focus and the executive function can be restored either through brain surgery (yes, I said brain surgery) since doctors are now finding ways through deep brain stimulation/surgery to change things like seizures, etc. and I believe there is hope in that direction but until that time, we need to have hope (Laurie) and we need to have reality (Jeff) and we need to blend both of them into a workable solution to keep moving forward and to keep putting our best foot forward in spite of ADHD/ADD.

  3. dave peacock     February 29, 2012    8:04 pm    Reply

    help! call 714 404 7302

  4. dave peacock     February 29, 2012    8:04 pm    Reply

    please

  5. Judy Goyer     March 1, 2012    7:06 am    Reply

    I find negative consequences to my actions, or lack of action, provide me invaluable learning tools. When the consequences are severe enough, you can be sure I do not repeat that mistake again.
    That being said, there are just way too many things that do not make a big enough impression to be remembered so the lesson is lost in my ADD brain fog only to surface with slight recognition when there is a reoccurrence.
    As for “real” solutions…medication helps a lot to remain gainfully employed. Everything else only requires communication skills to ask for help.
    I also find that when I am not taking my medication for ADD I have no “get up and go” no motivation to get follow through on much and I get almost nothing completed because I can barely focus. Exercise and diet are not even options when I’m not taking medication. Not enough oomph in me to even care about such things.

  6. Pingback: Reinventing Failure « ADHD Association of Greater Edmonton

  7. wayne edward     April 30, 2012    10:05 am    Reply

    I just spent 20 mins trying to post a comment about my ADHA and failure and failed. how very Ironic.

  8. Laurie     April 30, 2012    12:47 pm    Reply

    Hi Wayne! Give it a try again…I’d love to hear your thoughts! ~Laurie Dupar

  9. miguel Elasmar Hakim     May 20, 2015    9:10 am    Reply

    Dear Laurie. Im writting you from South America. My life has been hell since my childhood, due to undiagnosted ADD/H. More frustrating was the fact that my IQ in that time (im now 62) was well over 135. I had to cope with scenic panic, social phobia, depression, anxiety and all bundled in a full blown GAD, which I has to hide by evading most social activities due to the profuse symptoms, like trembling in my hands, sweating, ect. I started self medicating when I first had contact with alcohol in a party when I was 15. It started slow, until I developed a full alcoholism, not being a drunk or problem drinker, as I only sought the feeling of being in the HERE and NOW, stop worrying and obtain a feeling of INTEGRITY with my self and the outside world. This formula worked until I developed a high tolerance to alcohol and I was drinking more than what I could eliminate or metabolize. I graduated from college, incredibly in Business and Economics, inspite of my disaster in math, as after addition, subtraction and multiplication, I was math-lost! I has fantastic executive positions in commercial and cargo airlines, just below CEO level, but alcohol took its toll, as incredibly, I also found out that I had flying phobia, and I had to fly 2 0r 3 times a week for operational meetings in several LATAM countries and Within USA. Then I got married and hell broke loose. I wont go into details as its a long story. Anyhow, I joined AA and have been dry for 28 years now, but the ADD surfaced again (ad it never left me) and I had to face extremly difficult situations now in the mobile telecomm world as International Projects and Implementation VP. I spearheaded several successful projects in LATAM , start-ups, etc, but having to cope with ADD not knowing I had the condition!! Only until 10 years ago and after having a very severe depression which made me take and make several impulsive decisions and actions with my 2nd marriage, kids in college of 1st marriage but living with me and 2nd wife & daughter, which ended in a total caos in my professional life, I visited a Psychiatrist in NYC which after 3 sessions, told me that I had suffered ADD/H since my childhood, and now im sure that its genetic, as I started reviewing many of my fathers acts, actions, decisions and reactions, and it was a carbon copy of mine. He was a very prominent Surgeon in SouthAmerica and in the middle of his practice, sent all to hell and dedicated his life to radio amateur activities; much to my mothers frustration. Any how, I was finally medicated at 52 with 3 mgs of Xanax x 24 hours and Wellbutrin. For the first time in my life, I was able to feel “normal” again, without the troubles of alcohol. I have never abused xanax, although Im dependant of it, and 300 mgs Wellbutrin. Besides that, my life is the result of the untreated ADD condition. Im broke, in debt in over 150K dollars, divorced, no job due to age ( in latam after 40, You are labor dead). No pension, and I live thanks to support from my sister. My kids? They have their life and work in different countries. They have never understood what in hell is ADD, as in latam only some 15 years ago MDs started paying attention to it. My life is a mess, although I have the ADD under cobtrol with the medications. But Sometimes I look around my present life, and cant find a reason to live for another day, and much less, with a dominant right hemisphere that never ages, in a body which ages and starts failing in several areas. Not in my plans to drink after 28 years, but yes, l have though about suicide. Living with ADD is living hell, and much more when you have reached adulthood with undiagnosed ADD. The only thing that keeps me aluve today is FAITH IN GOD, as I dint have anything left from my past. I dont dwell in it, I just see the trail that brought me here. Yes, im grateful to my sister for her help, but I dont live, I just survive. Ps: my sex life was also a mess due to ADD. No pleasure, no orgasm, all part of a life of though and no feeling…….Rgds, ME

  10. miguel Elasmar Hakim     May 20, 2015    9:33 am    Reply

    Please excuse my spelling mistakes, as Im writting quickly as I just realized I have an apoointment to change my contacts formula!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *