ADHD and Empathy

Here’s how empathy works with ADHD

Empathy is:
1. Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.
2. the attribution to an object, such as a work of art, of one’s own emotional or intellectual feelings about it.


  1. Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
  2. Formal expression of such feelings; condolences.

!!! First let me state VERY clearly that ADHD does not impair the part(s) of the brain that deals with empathy. Some disorders do directly impair that part of the brain, such as Autism. Many people with ADHD are also on the Autism spectrum, so make sure your ADHDer has had a thorough assessment.

So why does my ADHDer seem to lack empathy?

There are a few possible reasons. It is likely that your ADHDer is dealing with more than one reason.

1) Distraction and lack of focus and awareness.
I have to KNOW, or be aware of the fact, that empathy and/or sympathy is called for in the situation. Because my ability to feel empathy is not impaired, I will feel sad for my friend when I see that she is feeling sad.
But I have to see that she is sad in the first place.
Because of my ADHD, I might be too distracted or unaware to see all the necessary social cues to know that my friend is having a bad day. I might not notice her downcats eyes, the slump of her shoulders or the tone of her voice. Or I might miss one or two but not all of these social cues.
Basically I miss the cue that empathy is required here. I miss the opportunity to ask “Hunny, what’s wrong?”
If I catch the cues, I will ask and I will feel bad for her and I will want to help make things better or cheer her up.
But I have to know it’s needed in the first place.
From the outside: my NT (neurologically typical) friend looking at me, might assume that I know and choose not to address the issue or her feelings. Because SHE would not have missed the cue she was giving off. But I did miss those cues and she doesn’t know that.

2) Lack of social skills
Many NT people beat around the bush and drop hints. If asked “how are you?” They say “I am fine”, even when they are NOT fine. Because they assume that you should pick up on the social cues that say “I am saying I am fine but I am not”.
These mixed messages are confusing to someone with ADHD.
Children learn social skills by observing the adults and people around them. Our observation skills are impaired. Meaning that we don’t learn these skills as well as other children.
We don’t learn as well how to tell how you are feeling by looking at you or listening to your tone of voice.
We don’t learn how to express ourselves in the “correct, expected NT manner” either.
We are clumsy at human interaction.
Even if we clue into the fact that an empathetic response is required, we might bungle the job.
We have permanent foot-in-mouth syndrome. Our attempts to show we care might be clumsy, awkward or weird. Too little or too much.
From the outside: It might seem that we are being overbearing, under-caring or just plain weird.
An attempt to cheer you up with a joke might seem like we are making light of the situation.
An attempt to tell you how we know how you feel, by telling a story of something simular that happened to us once, might seem like we are making the situation all about ourselves.

3) Emotional de-regulation

Simply put. We feel as we ought to feel given the situation. But we might feel WAY TOO MUCH or NOT ENOUGH of said emotion.
This can mean that while we feel bad that you feel bad, we might not feel as bad as you think we should.
Also because our emotional response to things tend to be over the top, we become “once bitten twice shy”.
We develop a reaction to strong emotional situations like it is a hot, hot fire that will burn us and HURT. It’s hard to deal, to cope. It’s overwhelming and just too much.
Many ADHDers learn to avoid, avoid, avoid, to protect ourselves from the emotional onslaught.
Many ADHDers, especially men raised by fathers who fear they will grow up to be sissy-boys, are abused as children for our over the top emotional reactions.
“You’re gonna cry for nothing? I’ll give you a reason to cry!”

From the outside: Our emotional response to a situation is off. This MUST be because we are bad people who don’t care. Or because we over react to every little thing and make it all about ourselves.

4) Time is short, why are you still upset?
We live in the NOW. Right now. Our brains zoom along without a thought for the past or the future. The ADHD brain moves on very quickly.
If you said or did something that hurt me, I will forget about it very quickly. I get over things very quickly. I can’t hold a grudge because my brain will move on.
Since this is my reality, I assume this is your reality as well. If you are still feel down about a bad day at work three days later I cannot understand why. I forgot all about it by the time we went to bed in the first day.
It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that I can only care for a short period of time.
If you remind me, I might be able to feel sorry for you again. Or I might be lost and confused as to why you are still upset over this.
I will honestly forget that you phoned me at lunch to say you are having a bad day. Thus will act like everything is fine when you get home from work. Because your bad day was hours ago.
From the outside: It seems like I forget that you have a problem. Like I don’t care. Like I don’t take it seriously.
I do care, I do take it seriously. I just can’t sustain it for a period of time.

5) We want to help but can’t get it off the ground.

No matter how much I love you, no matter how much I want to help you. I can’t force my disabled brain to give the gas to get it done.

The ADHD brain is like a gas-guzzling car with a tiny tank. Hence, my attempts to cheer you up, or give you an empathetic response might fall short. I run out of gas.
From the outside: If I cared I would do this and this for you. Well, maybe I just CAN’T.

What can you do?

You need to be clear when you require help, a hug, sympathy or an empathetic response. If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Give your ADHDer the benefit of the doubt and just speak up. Remember, our observational skills are impaired.

Again be clear that you have a need. Also be clear about what you need.
“I am feeling down today because of this crappy job. Will you give me a hug and take me out for dinner please? I like to be given a hug and dinner out when I am feeling down”
Now we know something is required and what we are expected to do. Eventually we will figure out that when you have a bad day at work, you want a hug and dinner out and will learn to offer this to you.

Keep in mind that our emotional response to a situation will be different from yours. This is not something that we can control. Check your expectations at the door.

Don’t take it personally when we forget that you hate that girl at work because she said something mean to you last year. Our brain just doesn’t hold on to stuff like that.

I Must

I have to conform to the WORLD. Let alone my partner’s expectations.

I have to actively learn how to talk and converse. From pillow talk with the hunny to thanking the cashier at the store, I cannot do as I would naturally but must learn to force myself to do as an NT would. I must learn to force myself to even be aware of my tone of voice and volume, something that does not come naturally to me.

I must force myself to meet someone’s gaze and to not flit my eyes about the room at every distraction.

I must force myself to sit still when my body and brain desperately wish to move, move, move.

I must force myself learn about fashion and put on cloths that match “properly” when really I do not care and I find it exhausting to do so. Just so that I can be taken seriously by all and so that my partner does not find me an embarrassment.

I must constantly fight my natural impulse to blurt out what I am thinking or feelings.

I must be properly apologetic, humble and deferential when the NTs in my life tell me that I am an unworthy embarrassment and source of frustration to them for showing the symptoms of a dis-functioning brain.

I must spend each day being compared to other people’s wives who are smarter, prettier, better, more organized, more together, better at socializing etc

I must be properly apologetic, humble and deferential when the NTs in my life tell me that my views, perspective and feelings on a matter are false due to my dis-functioning brain.

I must go to bed when am not tired. I must eat when I am not hungry. I must play when I am tired. I must work when I am exhausted. I must smile and listen when I am overwhelmed. Because I must conform to a “proper” schedule.

I must lock myself into the bathroom to quietly weep or to masturbate because my own feelings and desires are not “proper”

I must go to events and socialize with people when I am ridden with anxiety. Afterwards, I must sit quietly and allow myself to be berated for making social faux paus at the event.

I must cut the grass when I would rather fill it with gravel and be done with it.
I must water the plants when I would rather not have any to care for.
I must vacuum the carpet when I would rather have flooring as it is is easier for my ADHD brain to sweep.
I must wash dishes when I would rather eat off paper plates that can be composted.
I must dust knick knacks that I would not have brought into the house myself, as it is only one more chore to me.

I must put aside my hobbies and interests for “quality time” that usually only ends in being told what a terrible disappointment I am or a lecture on how I am not properly listening.

I must express gratitude to you for treating me like and idiot child.

I must accept that you will be angry at me for having a brain that does not work.

I must often apologize for being a broken doll.

I must often agree that I am lucky to have you, as I am unworthy of you.

Get Real

Accept the fact that he is not you

Accept the fact that he is not “normal”

Accept the fact that he will never meet your expectations

Accept the fact that your expectations are unrealistic

Accept the fact that you should have gotten to know him better before you committed your life to him

Accept the fact that the problem is half you and not all him

Accept the fact no one leads a perfect life

Accept the fact that there are dirty socks on the floor

Accept the fact that he really is trying his best

Accept the fact that his best may not equal your best

Accept the fact that he has a DISABILITY

Accept the fact that ADHD is part of your life

Be grateful he doesn’t beat you or cheat on you

Be grateful he has stuck by you all this time

Be grateful that he is trying his best

Be grateful that he loves you more than life

Be grateful he doesn’t complain about you the way you complain about him

Be grateful he doesn’t resent you for trying to force him to be “normal”

Be grateful he hasn’t burned out from years of trying to meet your expectations

Be grateful he hasn’t walked out on you and the kids

Be grateful he puts up with your constant nagging

Be grateful he works a hard, dirty, nasty job for you and the kids

Be grateful its only dirty socks on the floor

Be grateful he is willing to take liver damaging medications (with sexual side effects) just to appease you

Be grateful its only ADHD and not something worse


Get real