By Beth Levine
When Ryan S. Sultán, MD, a mental health physician, a research professor at Columbia University and director of Integrative Psych, a New York City clinic that specializes in ADHD, was growing up, he struggled with friendships because he himself had ADHD.
“I always had a lively mind, which — while often a gift — often felt like a curse in social situations,” Sultán recalls. “I would be in the middle of a group conversation when suddenly, an electrifying idea would spring into my mind. It felt like holding a helium balloon that, if I didn’t release, would float away forever. So, without a second thought, I’d interrupt whoever was speaking to share my exciting thought. For instance, my friend could be sharing about her cat’s new diet, and I’d suddenly cut in, excitedly recalling my bungee-jumping adventure. As riveting as my story was, my sudden interjections weren’t always appreciated by others.”
Making new friends — even as an adult with ADHD — can be a tricky proposition. You may be chronically late, talk too much, overshare, interrupt, forget important details. And, like Dr. Sultán, completely hijack conversations.
It can be even harder if you were not diagnosed until adulthood because you may have a long history of being bullied that makes you think you are somehow defective.
“Around 56% to 76% of elementary school-age children with ADHD have no reciprocated friendships in their classroom, compared with 10% to 32% of their peers,” according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.
As a consequence of such childhood experiences, you may have convinced yourself that you aren’t capable or likeable. Or you are so afraid of humiliation or rejection, you don’t even want to try.
“If you have gotten diagnosed (with ADHD) in adulthood, that means you are especially vulnerable, because all throughout childhood and adolescence, something was happening that wasn’t identified,” explains Megan Agee, a licensed psychological associate and owner of Velaris Psychological Services in Charlotte, N.C. “You are more likely to have internalized self-concepts based upon shame and low self-worth and self-esteem, because you’ve likely always thought of yourself as quirky and less worthy.”
You’ve Got a Lot to Offer
People with ADHD are considered neurodiverse — meaning their brain works a bit differently than other people’s brains. But being neurodiverse doesn’t mean you are doomed to wander this mortal coil all alone.
People with ADHD can have many positive attributes that make them fun and exciting to be around. In fact, one 2022 study of nine adults with ADHD, aged 29 to 54, published in the journal Advances in Neurodevelopmental Disorders, found that the study participants “attributed an uncommon degree of energy, optimism, adventurousness and curiosity, and novel problem-solving ability to their ADHD.”
But you’ve got to take the first step. “Navigating social situations with ADHD can be a bit like trying to dance without stepping on anyone’s toes,” Dr. Sultán says. “It requires awareness and control that don’t always come naturally to me. However, I’ve learned that acknowledging these challenges is the first step towards overcoming them.”
“The Only Way To Have A Friend Is To Be One”
Here are ways for you to break the ice and reach out in a comfortable way:
• Rewrite the negative scripts in your head
You may have been told from a very early age that you are lazy, stupid, spacey, undependable and unlikeable. And those tapes keep running in your head every time you try to reach out. Your first job is to rewrite those scripts that are holding you back. Agee recommends being mindful of when that noise fills your brain, and challenge them.
“Say to yourself, ‘I’m beating myself up but I have a choice to stop the moment and tell myself something different,'” she says.
Practice self-compassion and remind yourself of things that are good about yourself. Create a celebratory or encouraging mantra to use when the inner negativity starts. It changes that harsh, one-sided criticism to making it more flexible and kinder to really get our needs met. You may need to work with a therapist to get the ball rolling.
• Start small
Take baby steps to get out of your comfort zone. Sharon Saline, PsyD, author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids for Success in School and Life, recommends setting three small daily challenges for yourself. They might include that you are going to say ‘hello’ to three people you don’t know at work in the hallway. Then the next week you might greet three people and ask them how they’re doing. And after that, join a group for lunch at the breakroom or cafeteria and see if people engage.
“I actually advise people to ask if they can join a table,” Saline says. “This can challenge your memory of being rejected in the middle school cafeteria because unlike kids, adults aren’t going to say ‘No, you can’t sit here.’ It’s a small victory that can go a long way to healing past trauma of rejection.”
• Find your tribe
You can grease the wheels by seeking out like-minded people who share your interests. Join clubs or organizations. The beginning conversations are so much easier because you have an obvious starting point: “How did you get into competitive cycling?” or “What’s the best mystery book you ever read?”
• Add to the conversation; don’t just hijack it
Practicing active listening means really listening to what the other person is saying so you can add and build on that. It’s the old comedy improv rule of “Yes, and …” — which means that an improviser must accept what another improviser has suggested and build on that. Don’t go off on another tangent.
Many of us, neurodiverse or not, tend to pretend to listen, when actually we are just waiting for the other person to shut up so we can talk about what we find interesting, which may or not relate to what the first person was saying. This leads the other person to feel that they are not being heard and that you don’t really care. That’s too bad, because you miss a chance at real connection.
If your mind does wander, just observe that without judgment and bring it back to the conversation. “You want to participate with curiosity, ask relevant questions and assess what’s happening by looking at people’s faces,” Saline says. “You’re going to adjust your physical proximity and your volume to what’s occurring around you.”
• Read the room
People with ADHD are actually capable of knowing what certain social cues mean. They understand rolled eyes and stifled yawns. “The problem is getting them to notice the cues in the first place,” says Saline. Pay attention to facial cues and body language that signal that you’ve gone on too long or taken a subject way too far.
• Own your challenges
Chronic lateness, flaking off or undependable behavior can be the kiss of death to a friendship. The other people feel you don’t value them or their time. If this is your weak point, gather your gadgets to help you keep track of time and remind you of promises you’ve made. Use your phone, your computer, an old-fashioned alarm and a white board to make lists to audibly and visually remind you.
You may even want to say up front: “Hey, I have trouble with time. I am going to try really, really hard because I value you but if I mess up, please let me know.” It’s up to you whether you feel comfortable disclosing your diagnosis, but you can let them know in vaguer terms that you are aware of the issue.
• Play to your strengths
Organize or join activities you know you can handle. “If loud concerts or action films are too much, skip them for a walk in the hills or a lounge at the beach,” says Agee.
• Allow yourself timeouts
“If you start feeling overwhelmed or bored, give yourself permission to take a moment, get some deep breaths, or a drink of water,” says Saline. Notice the signals that your attention is drifting. Then you can say: “I need to step away for a second,” “Let’s circle back later,” or “I’ll come back at this time.”
Don’t convey to the person that they are the problem, but rather that you yourself need to take time apart or leave entirely.
• QTIP – Quit taking it personally
This is a very hard space to get into when you are super-sensitive to rejection. (A therapist can help.) Not everyone is going to want to be a friend. That’s just the way life is. If someone turns you down, then maybe there is no chemistry. If they are cruel, that’s on them. Hurt people hurt people, as they say. Their issues are no reflection on you. This video says it all.
Now get out there! You can do it
Dr. Sultán says: “Life with ADHD is a journey, not a sprint. Sure, I still stumble sometimes, but I’ve come a long way. I’ve found that the key is to keep learning, keep trying, and remember to celebrate every bit of progress along the way. And trust me, it’s definitely worth it!”
Editor’s Note: Watch for our companion piece on Wednesday, July 12: “Being a Friend to Someone with ADHD.”