Adults With ADHD: Tips for Handling Negative Feedback and Criticism

Health Writer
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As an adult with ADHD, you might feel you are much more sensitive to criticism or negative remarks than those who don’t have ADHD. And you might be right. According to William Dodson, M.D., almost all of his adult ADHD patients answer a resounding “yes” to the question listed on his website, “For your entire life, have you always been much more sensitive than other people you know to rejection, teasing, criticism, or your own perception that you have failed or fallen short?” Many of his patients have indicated that they see this hypersensitivity to negative feedback as the major problem in their lives.

When you handle criticism with angry outbursts, defensiveness, or destruction, you tend to further harm your self-esteem and can damage personal or work relationships. The following are tips to help you better deal with negative feedback and criticism:

Keep a log of how you respond to criticism. Do you respond more negatively to certain people or in certain situations? Do you become angry at the slightest hint of negative feedback? Do you become more defensive if the criticism is earned, or if you think you are being unfairly criticized? The more you understand why and when you react inappropriately, the better you can take steps to correct your behavior.

Remember that you can’t control what other people say, feel, or think. But you can control how you react to it. When you hear a negative remark, your first instinct might be to try to change the other person’s mind and provide a litany of reasons why it isn’t true. When you do this, you might react defensively or out of anger. Instead, remember that your job isn’t to change minds, but to react appropriately.

Take what you need from the criticism and discard the rest. You don’t have to accept negative feedback in its entirety. If there is a part of the assessment that is correct, use it, but disregard information that doesn’t apply. Sometimes we become too focused on the overall criticism that we ignore information that could be helpful.

Take your time when responding. Hearing someone criticize you can sometimes throw off your focus. You might respond in anger and then later regret what you said. Instead, indicate that you would like time before responding by saying, “I hear what you are saying. Can we talk about this again in an hour?” This gives you time to think about the criticism and decide if it is relevant.

Use the feedback to better understand yourself. Take time to review the situation and decide whether there is any merit to the criticism. If so, consider what underlying feelings might have made you behave in such a way or whether your actions were a result of ADHD symptoms. Are there changes you can make in yourself to prevent the situation from happening again?

Focus on what you can learn rather than dwelling on the criticism. Adults with ADHD can sometimes have a difficult time letting go of negative feedback. They dwell on what was said, reviewing it repeatedly until they feel bad about themselves. Change your focus to what you learned from the interaction rather than the actual feedback.

Ask questions. Rather than jump to conclusions, ask questions to better understand what is being said. Clarify with questions about the behavior. Ask “how,” “what,” “where,” and “when” to gather more information before reacting.

Practice responding to negative feedback. If you find you often react angrily or defensively whenever someone even hints at a criticism, you might need to practice how to respond. Ask a trusted friend or relative to work with you on different options until you find a way of responding that feels most comfortable to you. Some examples of how to respond include asking questions; stating, “I can see how you would think that, however…”; asking for time before responding; or paraphrasing what the person has said to make sure you understand before responding.

Take extra care when responding via email, text, or through social media. You might be tempted to quickly send off an angry response — and that can’t be taken back later. When responding this way, read aloud what you wrote to give you a better idea of how it sounds; perhaps discuss it with a friend; and wait several minutes or even hours before sending, in order to make sure you aren’t overreacting or responding too heatedly and too hastily.

For more information on managing adult ADHD:

Adult ADHD: Managing Stress

25 Tips for Time Management for Adults With ADHD

ADHD in Adults: Tips for Managing Impulsiveness in Conversations

Money Management and Adults With ADHD

Dealing With Symptoms of Adult ADHD: Losing Things


Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHDIdiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral TherapyEssential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.