I Can't Get My Act Together, But When I Do, It Doesn't Count

March 16, 2010 Douglas Cootey

Can't get your act together? The complaint plagues those with adult ADHD and low self-esteem usually follows. Learn how you can develop a positive self-image.

A popular complaint for adults with ADHD is "I just can't get my act together!" What is not commonly known is that both the underachievers and overachievers with ADHD share the same complaint. How can that be?

I Can't Get It Together and I Have Low Self-Esteem

It's hard to believe that I have anything in common with high power overachievers, considering how low power my achievements tend to be.

In fact, since I am acutely aware of all the things I didn't accomplish yesterday (this article, for example), I am filled with a very inflamed case of frustration over those unfinished items. They take on a life larger than what I have managed to check off my list. There is no salve for it but to keep working and working until all things have been accomplished. This keeps me up at night and stressed during the next day. In this, I have everything in common with overachievers.

Adults with ADHD share a sense of underachievement no matter how much they have actually accomplished. Once the gears of the mind are engaged, this list of unfinished tasks can take on an obsessed urgency. Have you ever pushed through to the end of a project to the exclusion of life around you simply because you were afraid you might lose momentum, or worse, forget to finish if you stopped too soon?

When I Do Get It Together, I Still Think I'm Underachieving

For those of you who cannot relate because you have the other ADHD problem of having a hard time getting out of the starting gate, you may be surprised to learn that the feeling of unimportance you feel for your lack of achievements doesn't go away if you actually start achieving things!

ADHD seems to breed in many of us a constant sense of pessimism. Here's a sample of what I think when down on myself:

  • I don't write fast enough.
  • I don't write often enough.
  • I don't get enough commenters.
  • Not enough people @me back on Twitter.
  • Nothing I write affects anybody.
  • Nobody retweets me.
  • Nobody quotes me.
  • I don't own a home like others in my writing circle.
  • I don't make enough money like my brother.
  • I don't have a degree.
  • I need to work more.
  • I need to write more.
  • I need to more . . . More . . . MORE!

When I compare myself to how I was six years ago before I began charting my progress online, I am so much more productive. I write two blogs, contribute articles to a national magazine, and am writing a middle-grade fantasy novel while also being a full-time Dad on disability. Not only am I undertaking these tasks, but I am succeeding at them. Yet I am filled with a pervasive sense of complete Loser-ness.

The lack of accomplishments hovers like glowing carrots at the end of emotional strings—mocking me and constantly reminding me of where I haven't arrived yet. Once something is complete I dismiss it as unimportant because my mind races to find something new to focus on. In the end, nothing is more important than what I haven't finished yet.

How to Develop A Positive Self-Image Even When You Can't Get It Together

Can this possibly sound any more pathetic? Well, all is not hopeless. We can rein it in. In fact, I often do just that. I gave someone advice the other day on Twitter that I often give myself:

When we compare ourselves to others, we only come up short. Better to compare yourself to yourself to see your own progress.

When I forget this simple advice, my mind can race along the track of those thoughts I wrote above. However, when I remind myself to chart my own progress only against myself, my path of success becomes clearer and I am able to let the anxiety go. Having goals to reach for can be a highly motivational and positive thing, but only if we do not dismiss our own successes.

Whether we work harder for those successes or not can be debated, but this I do know. We earned them. We should be proud of them. Feeling positive about ourselves will breed more success and leave us with a healthy sense of achievement.

APA Reference
Cootey, D. (2010, March 16). I Can't Get My Act Together, But When I Do, It Doesn't Count, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 17 from

Author: Douglas Cootey

August, 21 2010 at 8:33 am

I discovered your blog yesterday. My husband was diagnosed with ADHD as a child but during high school, his coverage lapsed and he hasn't been treated since. Your words are an incredible comfort to me right now. I might be reading my husband's brain. Though I've known that he has this condition forever, it wasn't until recently that I have really started to pay attention to his little quirks and discover how related they are to ADHD. We're going through a major move right now and trying to get rid of a lot of things. I keep running across items from all the various topics he's been interested in and sadly discarded. I'm trying to figure out how I can really be a support system because, like you mention, he gets incredibly down on himself. He's so talented - I just want to help him get where he wants to go.
Thank you, thank you for writing. So very helpful for those with condition and those living with them.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
September, 6 2010 at 6:40 pm

Thank YOU, Elizabeth, for your kind words. Your best bet with your husband is open and honest communication. Let him know you want to help him succeed and use his own words regarding his failures to point out he's not happy with his direction. Mention you've heard that people with ADHD have an easy time starting new projects, but a hard time finishing old ones. The best solution is to start whittling away the projects to leave only the most important. Help him decide which ones and get him to commit to not pick up new ones. It will be hard at first, but practice truly does make perfect.

Natasha Tracy
June, 11 2010 at 2:30 am

Hi Douglas,
I'm Natasha from Breaking Bipolar, and I just wanted to say that I have this problem too, although I'm bipolar and not ADHD. I have a real problem with pushing myself to the exclusion of all else and then dismissing it when I've accomplished something. I'm _extremely_ hard on myself, which isn't fair, I know. I'm actually (by many standards) one of the most successful people I know and yet I can always find things to feel bad about and these things make me feel unsuccessful.
I'm not sure I have any answers, but I know it does help when the people around me try to remind me of all that I've done. Compliments from others seem to really help. Not that you can count on those, or prescribe them at will. But still. They help.
I just wanted to let you know that you, with ADHD, aren't the only one that has this behavior. All us crazy people are cousins, it seems.

May, 9 2010 at 12:28 am

I am 42 and was diagnosed with ADHD last year. I just stumbled on your blog while searching out ADHD advice. I appreciate your honesty about your life. Your way of thinking is a spitting image of my thinking. While being intelligent and creative, I have not been able to 'grow' a 'career'. I viciously compare myself to other's achievements and possessions and fall very short in my mind. The depression as a result is brutal. Is there a better way to live? What works and what does not? What do I do next? Any suggestions?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
June, 10 2010 at 11:22 am

What I do, Dave, is set a goal, then identify the obstacles. Then I try to get around the obstacles. I have to tune out the achievements of others or it will drive me crazy. The comparison is NEVER kind.
Inevitably, I will fail. That's when I reset the goal, and reidentify the obstacles. Sometimes I need to break things down smaller and smaller until I can surmount my hurdles. Looking back, it appears that I leaped over them deftly, but I know the truth. I crawled under them!
This is a good comment. If I remember, I will dedicate a blog to it next week. Be sure to let me know if I forget! Haha… (so likely)

March, 16 2010 at 3:36 pm

What wonderful advice, compare yourself to yourself to see your progress. Things would be so much easier if we all just did this. I, myself, could stop trying and failing to live up to my father's ideals. It would also make panic attacks and anxiety so much less likely.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Douglas Cootey
June, 10 2010 at 11:19 am

Thanks, Christy!
I feel the greatest moments of angst come in my life when I am expecting too much of myself. It's hard to find a balance between overreaching and setting goals for self-improvement. But we keep at it and eventually get there.

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