I have received a number of emails over the years (from people that are diagnosed with ADHD as well as from non-ADHDers in relationships with people with ADHD.) Some of these emails question whether people with ADHD are naturally selfish. Although I am not an expert or medical professional, I am inclined to answer, “No, people with ADHD are not naturally selfish. I think people with ADHD are similar to the rest of the population – some are selfish and some are not.” It is possible that some of the characteristics of ADHD give the impression of selfishness, though not the intention behind selfishness. The following are six ways in which ADHD traits can be misconstrued to show selfishness.
Interrupting during conversations. During a conversation with friends, coworkers or acquaintances, as someone with ADHD you might find you have a wonderful thought to add to the current conversation. But based on previous experience, you know you might forget it by the time it is your time to talk. Instead of waiting, you say it – even though someone else is talking. When you do this often enough you are seen as someone who wants to monopolize conversations or someone who thinks their point of view is more important than other peoples’ perspective.
The need for structure and advance planning. Many people with ADHD understand the need for structure in their lives. They know that without the structure they are never going to get anything accomplished. You might know what you want to do and what time you want to do it and know that any deviation is going to throw off your focus, even on weekends. Suppose you have scheduled your morning so you can get all your errands done by noon. But halfway through your partner decides he or she wants to stop for breakfast and run into the store to pick up a few items. If you don’t agree, you are seen as selfish; if you do, you know your intentions for the morning will never be accomplished.
The need for down time. People with ADHD are often hypersensitive and can be overwhelmed when in high-stimulus situations. You might feel overwhelmed after a day at work or a day at home. You might need time after an activity to destress, to unwind to rejuvenate. But suppose when you get home your kids and your spouse want your attention. Your need to have time to yourself for a few minutes might be seen as selfishness.
Becoming easily distracted****. No matter how much you are interested in what someone else is saying or doing, you might become distracted. You might pay attention to the sun shining outside, the dust on the floor, the noise of the kids playing in the other room. You might want to hear every word but your mind keeps wandering. You are seen as selfish for not listening.
Poor memory****. People with ADHD are notoriously bad at remembering things. Our society says that a sign of caring is to remember birthdays and anniversaries. You are supposed to remember parent-teacher conferences, school concerts, important tests, meetings for work, picking up the milk on the way home from work and many other things during the course of your day. When all these details become lost in the maze of your ADHD mind, it is seen as you not caring enough to remember.
Hyperfocus. One of the less discussed characteristics of ADHD is hyperfocus – the intense level of concentration on something you find fascinating. During these times the rest of the world disappears. You forget all your other responsibilities and lose track of time. When others are counting on you during these periods of time, you are seen as selfish for ignoring their needs.
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, selfishness is “seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure or well-being without regard for others.” Sometimes, the characteristics of ADHD mimic the characteristics of selfishness. The symptoms can make you seem as if you are concerned only with yourself, even when this isn’t true. Selfishness normally carries with it the intention that you care only for yourself – symptoms of ADHD do not. If your partner, friends or coworkers suggest you are selfish it might be time to look at how you are managing symptoms of ADHD and work with a coach, therapist or support group to find ways you can best manage your symptoms without allowing the people around you to feel as if you don’t care.
For more on managing adult ADHD:
Conversational Skills for Adults with ADHD
Strategies for Managing Adult ADHD
ADHD, Distraction and Finishing Things