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Take the Good With the Bad

Don't forget your strengths in the midst of your diagnoses.

Key points

  • When most people get evaluated, they focus on their diagnoses. However, there is more to an evaluation than that.
  • Everybody has some cognitive strengths that often get lost when focusing on the weaknesses.
  • If you only focus on the weaknesses, your self-esteem will suffer.

The other day, a 25-year-old woman came to see me for ADHD. We started talking about how she was diagnosed. She remembered struggling in middle school and getting neuropsychological testing1. She fumbled the papers nervously. “Here,” she said, “I have ADHD, anxiety, depression, and some sort of processing disorder.” She pushed them over to me quickly.

I looked through the paperwork. The first thing that caught my eye was that she had an IQ of 125—well above average. “Wow,” I said. “This says you are darn smart. Certified smart! Did you know that this says you are smarter than nearly all the people you meet?”

She was stunned. Nobody had ever told her that before. She said, “They only told me about the problems I have. I thought the test meant I wasn’t smart.” She had gone through high school and college thinking she was damaged goods and made choices accordingly.

I felt really good that I had led with the “really smart.” Yes, the paperwork did indicate some issues with focus, but with a single sentence, I had helped her with a central issue affecting many people with ADHD: self-esteem. As the old saying (attributed to Henry Ford) goes: “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re right!”

We all have strengths and weaknesses!
Source: StunningArt/Shutterstock

When you don’t believe you are good enough for something, it’s really hard to focus. If you do have a core challenge with focusing, not believing in yourself will only compound that core challenge and make it even harder.

One of the most important ways to improve your focus is to invest a moment to see how you feel about a task. Do you think it is too hard for you? You need to know that that feeling of “OMG wow that looks hard” is going to make your focus worse. So one way to get your focus better—and this has nothing to do with medication—is to find a way to make it look more doable to your brain.

What are some of those ways? One way is to try to figure out the smallest part that doesn’t look too hard. Does the idea of doing your taxes make you feel like running to the nearest exit? If so, start by opening just one of the documents you need. Does your spreadsheet look like there are too many numbers to make sense of? Highlight one column.

Another way is to remind yourself you’ve done it before. You did the taxes last year and it didn’t (quite) kill you. You have looked at spreadsheets like this before.

Thirdly, come to terms with getting help if you need it. That doesn’t mean getting other people to do the work for you. It also doesn’t mean admitting you can’t do something. The best help is the kind that just gets you started; that gets you past those “starting jitters.”

Once my patient began to believe she was actually smart and could do things her whole attitude toward work changed. She was a lot more confident. She believed in herself. Because of that, she attempted more—and with the attempts, she got further than in the past. Once she also started taking a medication for her focus issue—which was quite real—her anxiety and depression improved to the point where she was able to stop taking antidepressant/antianxiety medications.

Thankfully I saw her when she was only 25. Although she felt she had “wasted” years of her life already, at least the damage was limited. How many people go decades feeling the way she had?


1. (Neuropsychological or “Neuropsych” testing is not simply a test for ADHD—it is a comprehensive battery of psychological tests that should be administered and interpreted by a qualified psychologist. It’s designed to tease apart different aspects of a person’s mental functioning, and includes a variety of components that can differ from test to test. Common components include tests of personality type, verbal, visuo-spatial and mathematical ability (IQ), memory, attention, executive functioning, impulsivity, etc.)