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ADHD Is All About Power, Paradox, and Pain

ADHD is a complex set of contradictory or paradoxical tendencies.

Key points

  • There are validated, scientific reasons for the huge disparity in strengths and weaknesses for people with ADHD.
  • Pain, power, and paradoxes are all common components of ADHD.
  • It is helpful to create a positive environment for yourself. Surround yourself with people who support, not criticize or tease.
Image by janeb13 from Pixabay
Source: Image by janeb13 from Pixabay

Despite all its complexities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neuropsychological condition characterized by disorganization, procrastination, time impairment, impulsive decision-making, “wandering attention,” and problems with self-management, might be best described in three words: pain, power, and paradoxes.

In their book ADHD 2.0, psychiatrists Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey defined ADHD as a “complex set of contradictory or paradoxical tendencies,” such as a “lack of focus combined with an ability to super-focus” and a “lack of direction combined with highly directed entrepreneurialism.”

And, in the book Permission to Proceed, The Keys to Creating a Life of Passion, Purpose, and Possibility for Adults with ADHD, David Giwerc, founder and president of ADD Coach Academy, said, “there are validated, scientific reasons for the huge disparity in strengths and weakness that exists for people who have ADHD.”

One of those “validations” comes in the form of a 2020 study appearing in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice. In it, authors suggested an association between sleep deprivation and “ADHD-like tendencies,” which “can spur on entrepreneurial intent even among practicing entrepreneurs.”

An earlier University of Michigan investigation, published in an issue of Personality and Individual Differences, indicated that individuals with ADHD have different mindsets, enjoy generating ideas, perform better than their non-ADHD colleagues on standard creativity tests, but have difficulties completing tasks.1

The investigators proposed that those struggling with ADHD may be more motivated to overcome their weaknesses, thereby taking greater advantage of their creative strengths.

In the words of Jenara Nerenberg, journalist, and author of the book Divergent Mind, “despite what the words ‘attention deficit’ imply, ADHD is not a deficit of attention, but rather a challenge of regulating it at will or on-demand.”

The Pain, Power, and Paradoxes of the Abnormally-Functioning Brain

Even Leonardo da Vinci, the artist known for some of the world’s greatest paintings, has been long suspected of having ADHD. Writing in a 2019 edition of the journal Brain, authors noted:

The story of Da Vinci is one of a paradox—a great mind that has compassed the wonders of anatomy, natural philosophy, and art, but also failed to complete so many projects (Freud, 1922; Kemp, 2006). The excessive time dedicated to idea planning and the lack of perseverance seems to have been particularly detrimental to finalize tasks that at first had attracted his enthusiasm. Leonardo’s chronic struggle to distill his extraordinary creativity into concrete results and deliver on commitments was proverbial in his lifetime and present since early childhood.2

Interestingly, science may be arriving at an advanced understanding of how the neuro-compromised ADHD brain can remain dynamic, plastic, and adaptable, finding new strengths amidst weakness.

In chapter 12 of the book The Paradoxical Brain (2011), neurologist Bruce L. Miller and psychologist Indre V. Viskontas reported that “the paradoxical occurrence of creativity and related behaviors in patients with neurological conditions has begun to gain attention.”

They later indicated “neurological and psychiatric conditions that disrupt the front lobes and the temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes, or between the dominant and non-dominant hemispheres, have been shown to affect creativity in myriad ways.”

Indeed, in an article in The Psychologist: a Journal of the British Psychological Society, authors cited the emergence of new fields – “positive neurology” and “positive neuropsychology.” They wrote that “damage to the brain may upset one dynamic state and cause difficult-to-predict effects as it settles into a new state” and indicated the “importance of looking at change rather than simply focusing on deficit. This echoes a broader approach,” placing “emphasis on dispositional optimism, flourishing, resilience and functional reserve in coping with impairment" (Seligman & Csikzentmihalyi, 2000; Wood & Tarrier, 2010).

Despite ADHD’s Strengths, There’s the Pain

If ADHD patients tend to exhibit some unique skills – higher energy levels, creativity, ability to hyperfocus and think “out of the box,” and more resiliency and spontaneity, what is the problem? Much of the pain associated with ADHD is emotional. ADHD individuals are often criticized and sometimes rejected by friends and colleagues who view their struggles as personality defects or plain-and-simple failures.

The author of a 2021 article on the web page of Attitude, "Inside the ADHD Mind," described rejection-sensitive dysphoria (RSD), which reportedly affects a significant number of adults with ADHD and can result in severe physical and emotional pain when they experience “real or perceived rejection, criticism, or teasing.”

The syndrome, the writer stated, can lead to low self-esteem and self-perception, emotional outbursts, social and emotional withdrawal, and difficulties with relationships.

If that is not enough, ADHD is frequently accompanied by other co-morbid psychological disorders, including anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors. A 2016 study in Psychiatry Research also found that adults with ADHD “have higher odds for experiencing pain” overall.

And scientists writing in a 2019 issue of the Journal of Pain Research said that, among women, ADHD is frequently linked to chronic pain.

What to Do

American poet Maya Angelou is frequently quoted in discussions about ADHD. In her words, “you may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, and how you can come out of it.”

What Angelou is saying in poetic terms:

Take advantage of ADHD’s benefits and strengths. When feeling high-energy, direct it to projects and programs to help you fulfill goals. Hyper-focused? Use it for accomplishing initiatives about which you have great passion. Apply your creativity to find innovative solutions to vexing or complex issues and problems.

Cope with ADHD’s challenges. Find ways to keep yourself on time and deadline. Stop and think before impulsively moving forward with a project that has not been well thought out. With ADHD, multi-tasking is not necessarily a virtue. Use calendars, schedules, a watch, post-it notes, and other methods to keep yourself organized and on track.

Create a positive environment for yourself. Surround yourself with people who support, not criticize or tease—work at developing strong social relationships. Participate in clubs; volunteer.

And, if experiencing co-morbid psychological disorders like anxiety, sleep-related disorders, and addictive tendencies, seek professional help and counsel. There is no shame in it.

Leonardo da Vinci may have struggled to get his work done efficiently, but look at his greatness. Paradoxically, perhaps, but in the words of Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, "The way of paradoxes is the way of truth."

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1. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2010.12.015