Own your voice at work: a primer for women with ADHD

ADHD brain-based challenges and related emotional wounds can impact how women with ADHD communicate at home and in the workplace. Women with ADHD often say that they either take on too much or hold back out of fear of being judged or rejected. These deep wounds and fears are the legacy of ADHD life for many. The good news is that this legacy can be overcome with practice and exposure to corrective, healing experiences. This article will focus on how you – a woman with ADHD – can own your voice in the workplace through the powerful words of “yes” and “no.”

1. Learn to say no

If I had a dime for every time a woman with ADHD told me that they secretly stay late at work or go in early to get caught up or tidy their desk, I’d be rich. Like, #GoodByeSallieMae, no more student loans rich.

Woman using smart phone at office desk
Credit: Hero Images/Getty Images

The truth is, ADHD makes life harder. Women with ADHD often have to put in extra work behind the scenes to obtain the same results as their peers.

However, many women with ADHD have a hard time delineating when putting in a little extra effort overflows into simply doing too much.

Sometimes women with ADHD take on too much because that next project is the bright and shiny dopamine stimulator. Other times, it is because they want to please the higher-ups and demonstrate their value in the workplace – and in the world. Many get stuck in the loop of perfectionism. You know what I mean: waiting until Mercury is out of retrograde and the moon is new and you woke up on the right side of the bed to start something, then hyperfocusing on making it perfect to the point where you forget to take a bathroom break, and then getting lost in anxious and self-critical thoughts that make it hard to jump back in and complete the task after you finally take that very necessary bathroom break. It makes sense, when you think of the emotional legacy of ADHD life. Many of us keep trying to live up to that elusive “potential” our elementary school teachers loved to allude to on our report cards, are terrified that we will be judged if someone sees the mess (literal and figurative), and we have internalized a quiet but fierce motto: “Try harder.”

The thing is, with ADHD, working harder won’t cut it. You have to work differently.

Saying yes to everything is over-rated, and trying to “do it all” is very 1980’s. A colleague of mine calls this the “un poquito mas” phenomenon – “a little more.” Catch yourself when you’re about to pull “un poquito mas” and pump the breaks.

Remember, not everything that needs to be done, needs to be done by you.

Not every fun project comes up at the right time for you. Not every task you complete needs to be perfect, completed without help, and free of mistakes. Before agreeing to “a little more,” make sure you’re taking into account all of the details involved (typically not an ADHD strength), such as transition time, driving time, meal time, and the overwhelm factor. You have to learn to be fierce in setting and maintaining your boundaries. As the saying goes, before you say “yes,” make sure you’re not saying “no” to yourself.

To get you started here are a few classy ways to say “NO”

  • This sounds like a great opportunity, but I have to pass. Thank you for considering me!
  • I can’t commit to taking on another task right now. Keep me in mind next time.
  • I’d really like to help out, but my plate is full this week.
  • Thanks—I’d love to speak at your event, but the timing this year is no good. Would you please keep me in mind for next year’s summit?
  • Let me get back to you on that.
  • I can’t be a major contributor to that project, but I can help by _____.
  • Thank you for thinking of me! I have to pass this time around.
  • No.
Confident creative woman in loft office
Credit: Hero Images / Getty Images

2. Learn to say “YES!” to opportunities you deserve

Just as it can be hard to say “no,” it can be equally hard to say “yes” due to fear of failing. If we succeed, more might be asked of us or maybe our ADHD will come crashing in and we won’t be able to live up to our initial success.

Stepping into the limelight can be difficult for those who have relied on hiding as first-line defense against “being found out” or possible judgment

I often hear women with ADHD talk themselves out of the good stuff in life. A common example is something along the lines of: “How can I possibly (insert fun/fulfilling/moment-of-glory here), when(insert every ADHD symptom and uncompleted task here).” Sometimes, these comments stem from overwhelm with daily life with ADHD. Other times, women with ADHD hold themselves back from goodness out of a deep fear of failure, judgment, and even success. The thing is, the opportunities that push us out of our comfort zones can be incredibly beneficial to healing old wounds and rewriting the stories we have about others, the world, and ourselves.

Living well with ADHD requires you to step into your strengths and zones of competence more than you focus on your shortcomings. If you’re like most women with ADHD that I know, however, you have likely spent a lot of time trying to “fix” yourself or trying to act like someone who doesn’t have ADHD. This is a lot of time spent focusing on what’s “wrong” (whatever that means), and if that approach worked, then my job and articles like this would be obsolete – the problem would have already been solved.

Spending all of your time trying to shore up your real or perceived deficiencies robs you of time, confidence, joy, and chances to do things that light up your life. So, are you claiming your space and sharing your strengths? Or are you hiding away in fear, trying to “fix” yourself, while other people – perhaps even those much less capable than you – are owning their right to shine? Own your strengths and don’t be afraid to say “yes” when opportunities to shine come knocking.

Smiling creative businesswoman leading meeting in office
Credit: Hero Images/Getty Images

Some ways to step into the spotlight:

  • Say yes to an invitation that is a bit outside of your comfort zone.
  • Propose a creative solution to a problem at work.
  • Ask for a raise.
  • Apply for a promotion or new position.
  • Take a class or weekend workshop.
  • Go to a conference. Order room service for breakfast. You deserve it.
  • Speak up at meetings without apologizing for sharing your thoughts.
  • Use fewer qualifiers such as, “Actually…”, “If it’s okay…”, “I’d just like to add…” Drop the qualifying words and start your sentence directly.
  • Only apologize if you mean it. Do not apologize for chiming in at a meeting you were invited to attend. Let’s stop the “I’m sorry” epidemic; it feels bad and isn’t helpful.

Some days with ADHD can feel long, but life is short and you have the freedom to make of it what you will. Set and honor the boundaries you need for self-care and leap into new opportunities to show off your strengths. I hope you choose to live out loud.


Dr Michelle Frank
Dr. Michelle Frank

Dr. Michelle Frank is a writer, speaker and clinical psychologist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of adults with ADHD. Dr. Frank takes an empowering and strengths based approach to help her clients live fully and successfully with their unique set of strengths and challenges. She currently works in private practice at Enrich Relationship Center of Denver, CO where she provides psychotherapy and consultation services to adults with ADHD. Check out her new book A Radical Guide for Women with ADHD: Embrace Neurodiversity, Live Boldly, and Break Through Barriers.

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