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Self-Compassion and Adult ADHD

Self-compassion is an important coping skill that should be part of treatment.

Key points

  • Adults with ADHD report higher levels of distress and lower levels of well-being, partially affected by low self-compassion.
  • Adults with ADHD report significantly lower rates of self-compassion and higher rates of perceived criticisms.
  • There are three core elements that comprise self-compassion that can be used to build this skill.

Living with adult attention-deficit disorder/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often comes with emotional and social tolls. The nature of ADHD and the consistent inconsistency experiences in many life roles, endeavors, and relationships engender a sense of pervasive uncertainty, which is a prime source of anxiety, as well as feelings of frustrations and depression at various setbacks, even if not reaching a diagnostic threshold for formal anxiety or mood disorders.

The effects of ADHD are often public-facing with frustrations affecting bonds and relationships in one’s personal life as well as academic, workplace, and other roles in which there are performance expectations. It is no surprise that adults with ADHD face more than their fair share of criticisms, not to mention a degree of self-reproach that is often far out of proportion relative to the original mistake. Hence, self-compassion is commonly discussed as an essential skill when dealing and coping with ADHD.

Research on Self-Compassion and Adult ADHD

A recent study of self-compassion and mental health compared 543 adults with ADHD and 313 adults without ADHD who completed online questionnaires measuring self-compassion and mental health.1 The responses of the adult ADHD group compared with controls showed significantly lower levels of self-compassion and lower levels of overall psychological, emotional, and social well-being. Adults with ADHD also endorsed significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress. More specifically, self-compassion was found to partially mediate the connection between ADHD and both the lowered well-being and higher ill-being measures, which suggests that targeting self-compassion—how adults respond to frustrations from ADHD—is potentially a useful therapeutic target, complementing the skill-based approaches for better ADHD management.

Related research compared individuals with a self-reported history of ADHD with a non-ADHD control group on measures of self-compassion and perceived criticism.2 The adult ADHD group was significantly less self-compassionate compared with controls (and individuals with traits of ADHD without a formal diagnosis were also less self-compassionate than controls).

In terms of the measure of self-compassion, it was most notable that the ADHD group was more likely to isolate and emphasize a sense of difference and abnormality (rather than a better understanding of ADHD and what it is and is not) based on their difficulties. Consequently, adults with ADHD were much more fixated on negative outcomes and harsh in their self-judgments. These tendencies were magnified by high ratings of perceived criticisms by others, which may contribute to the internalization of frustrations and self-reproach, consistent with the social emotions of shame and guilt often reported by adults with ADHD, at least based on clinical experience. Hence, again, promotion of self-compassion was proposed as a useful therapeutic endeavor.

Anna Shvets/Pexels
If you are an adult with ADHD are you as compassionate with yourself as you are with others? Try some self-compassion.
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

What Self-Compassion Is and How to Build It

A few core elements of self-compassion were outlined in the first study reviewed:

  1. Self-kindness (vs. self-judgment): Treat yourself in the supportive way you would treat someone else—particularly if that someone else has ADHD.
  2. Mindfulness (vs. overidentification): Take notice of and observe your reactions to a situation without necessarily having to eradicate them and without being flooded by negativity.
  3. Common humanity (vs. isolation): Recognize and normalize that there are difficulties associated with ADHD, that others experience them, and people without ADHD have other difficulties. Recognize that such imperfection is a human universal rather than assume that one is broken or inadequate.

Self-compassion is a skill to be practiced. It complements a focus on developing and implementing coping strategies for adult ADHD, as these skills include managing emotions, relationships, and mindsets, which are the purview of cognitive-behavior therapy, ADHD coaching, and other supportive specialties for adults with ADHD.


1. Beaton, D. M. et al. (2022). The role of self-compassion in the mental health of adults with ADHD. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 1-16.

2. Beaton, D. M. et al. (2020). Self-compassion and perceived criticism in adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Mindfulness.