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Know the Differences Between ADHD and Narcissism

Sometimes ADHD is mistaken for narcissism. Here's how to tell the difference.

Key points

  • There are distinct differences between ADHD and NPD.
  • A person with ADHD may be overly apologetic for his behavior.
  • People with NPD may have ego-syntonic personalities.
Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
ADHD and narcissistic personality disorder are two separate disorders.
Source: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

Sometimes a partner or friend of someone with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) will wonder if he really has narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) instead. Another option is that a person can meet the diagnostic criteria for both ADHD and NPD. So how can you tell the difference between the disorders?

A person with ADHD may look like they are self-focused during a conversation, but he is often so overwhelmed with stimuli that it is hard to focus on the conversation. A person with ADHD isn't willingly not listening or paying attention. His brain can't do the tasks required to stay fully focused during a conversation. There is a big difference between won't and can't. While not paying attention during conversation can feel deeply personal to the partner of someone with ADHD, it is not meant to be selfish or a personal affront. If a person with NPD isn't listening to you, it might be because they are purposely shutting you out. This behavior is called stonewalling, and a person with NPD may use it to "punish" you.

People with NPD have ego-syntonic personalities. This means that they think that everyone around them has a problem, but they are completely fine. Most people have ego-dystonic personalities—they have an internal conflict about some of their behaviors. Due to being ego-syntonic, people with NPD rarely apologize for their behaviors. They don't think they did anything wrong—they think you are the issue. However, people with ADHD, once they realize that their behavior was hurtful, may overdo their apologies. They may even apologize for things that aren't their fault. This can be the result of low self-esteem, guilt, or shame that often accompanies ADHD.

People with ADHD tend to be very excited at the beginning of relationships. However, when a person with NPD starts a relationship, there may be love-bombing—going above and beyond to impress a potential mate. It seems like it's too good to be true. A person with NPD may engage in "grand gestures" to impress his love interest. People with ADHD may pursue someone, but usually not to the same extent as someone with NPD.

While a person with ADHD and a person with NPD may both be habitually late to meetings and other events, the reason for their tardiness can differ. For example, a person with ADHD tends to have "time blindness," which includes not processing how much time it takes to arrive somewhere, including adding in traffic time. As a result, the person with ADHD may profusely apologize for being late. On the other hand, a person with NPD may be late because the meeting wasn't all that important to him, and he will usually not apologize for being late. In fact, he may be upset that the meeting was started without him.

When you tell a person with ADHD that he might have the diagnosis, usually the reaction is one of relief and surprise. A person with ADHD finally feels like he has found the missing puzzle piece. People's lives start making sense to them. On the other hand, if you tell a person that you think he may have NPD, the reaction is usually not favorable.

From this brief sketch of how behaviors differ between ADHD and NPD, you might have gleaned a clearer view of the origin of the behavior of your loved ones. Always leave diagnosis up to licensed professionals.

Copyright 2021 Sarkis Media LLC.

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