Whether you’ve recently moved to a new city or started a new job while working from home, making friends as an adult can be hard. (Is anyone really looking forward to the awkward Zoom happy hours they dutifully add to their G-Cals?) But making — and maintaining — friendships as a person with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can be even more challenging.
As a woman with ADHD (who also happens to be an introvert with social anxiety), I know first-hand. If you’re anything like me, you might be more likely to forget to respond to texts and calls, are prone to running late, have trouble staying engaged in conversations, have a tendency to overshare or talk too much when speaking, or deal with rejection sensitivity. Especially during the last two years, when differing levels of comfort with social activities have made in-person hangs even more fraught, staying on top of friendships can feel nearly impossible at times.
But that doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up. In fact, whether you’re looking to make new friends or to strengthen the bonds you already have, now is the ideal moment to reflect and make your friendships a priority again as we ease into a new year.
To help get you there, we spoke to psychiatrist Dr. Sasha Hamdani, M.D., (you might’ve seen her delightful TikTok videos) about the specific challenges people with ADHD face when it comes to friendships and actionable steps you can take for creating and sustaining meaningful ones in 2022.
1. Acknowledge That It’s Not You — It’s Your Brain
You’re not “bad” at friendship. Your brain is just wired a bit differently. For example, a person with ADHD might have more difficulty making reasonable emotional assumptions and jump to conclusions more quickly. “ADHD is a neurobiological disorder,” Hamdani tells Bustle. “This is something that’s hardwired into your DNA and changes how you process and perceive certain situations.”
“A lot of us have had to deal with self-esteem as a result of ADHD because for years, we’ve been told that we’re doing things wrong or that we’re falling behind,” says Hamdani.
Emotional dysregulation can be another hurdle. “People with ADHD experience rejection sensitivity, so they’re always kind of in their heads,” explains Hamdani. “Even if it’s not a real criticism or rejection; it’s anything perceived.” In other words, you might start spiraling because you believe a friend is upset with you, when in reality, that’s not the case. This can lead to avoidant behavior, like procrastinating on responding to their texts or calls when they reach out to make plans, which can further drive a wedge into the friendship.
Longer-term friendships may be easier to manage because, by now, your friend likely understands how you operate, but these behavior patterns can be tricky in the early stages of a new friendship. For example, someone may mistake your attempt to relate as you monopolizing the conversation.
“Your brain is moving pretty quickly, and so generally, the way you relate to other people is to synthesize the information they are giving you and relate it back to them with a personal anecdote,” says Hamdani. “Sometimes, people can read that as self-centered: Why are you talking about yourself the whole time?” In reality, you’re just trying to demonstrate that you’re listening.
Executive dysfunction also makes sustaining a friendship difficult, even when it’s seemingly simple things like remembering to text them back or showing up on time.
On the flip side, people with ADHD have unique qualities that make them great friends to be around. Hamdani finds that many have a spontaneous nature, are usually down for any adventure, and are extremely empathetic. Don’t gloss over all the positive things you bring to the table.
2. Find An Activity Or Hobby You’re Excited About
The easiest way to make new friends is to immerse yourself in activities that interest you. “We want this to be the least work possible,” says Hamdani. “The place where people with ADHD really shine are things they’re naturally engaged in.”
Participating in hobbies or clubs with other people who already enjoy the same things as you is a great first step, so sign up for that book club, trivia team, sports league, or pastry-making class you’ve been wanting to try. Having built-in time to spend with people can help take the pressure off because there’s an activity associated with it.
Online platforms like TikTok, which have exploded during the last two years, can also be fantastic sources of community and even friendship. “The ADHD community on social media is the most supportive, wonderful, and encouraging place to be,” Hamdani says.
3. Practice Open Communication
Making a new friend is sometimes the easiest part — the work comes in actually sustaining the friendship. To do this, Hamdani says being as up front as possible about your communication style is key.
“Sometimes, it’s really difficult to talk about ADHD because maybe you haven’t processed it yourself or you’re afraid you’re using it as an excuse,” she says. “But what I have found [works best] is just being open and honest.”
For instance, if you sense a new friend is feeling frustrated from your lack of response to texts, Hamdani recommends using the following as a possible script:
“Listen, this is nothing personal. I am miserable at responding to text messages, and I know everybody says that but I actually have ADHD so if I’m not directly seeing it, it doesn’t exist anymore. This has nothing to do with you; this is just something I’m working on. If this becomes problematic, let me know and remind me because I’m working on this.”
“That makes it more of a collaborative experience and takes away some of that ‘OK, well, they’re doing this on purpose,’” adds Hamdani.
4. Build Friendships Into Your Schedule
Make friendship a priority by incorporating it into your schedule just as you would with a dentist appointment, a yoga class, or any other commitment that’s important to you.
“What I tell people who are having a lot of difficulties — other than setting alarms and responding as soon as you get stuff because I think that’s important — is setting aside time,” says Hamdani.
If you know you have a block of free time after work or school every Friday, use that as your designated window to respond to texts, calls, and make social plans.
“ADHD people hate routine, but they need it,” says Hamdani. “I know that kind of takes fun out of the social time because you’re planning it, but it doesn't need to be as rigid as it sounds.”
5. Take Notes On Your Patterns — Literally
One of the many challenges of having ADHD is not being aware of your behavior in the moment. One minute, you’re exchanging pleasantries and chatting about the weather with a stranger at the dog park, and the next, you might find yourself divulging details about your personal life that’s typically reserved for therapy sessions.
It’s hard to catch yourself in real-time when you’re talking too much or oversharing more than you intended. To prevent this from reoccurring, Hamdani says that in order to truly understand your behavioral patterns, you need to absorb them first.
In the moments where you feel “out of control,” Hamdani recommends taking stock of your environment. During those times, ask yourself, what was happening? Who were you surrounded by? What were you doing previously? Were you drinking caffeine?
“What I tell people to do as a practice and mindfulness when those things come up, take a note of it on your phone,” says Hamdani. “Just write it in the Notes app and write what was going on. Because as you become better at noticing your own patterns, you will be able to navigate situations better.”
Regardless, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself when the occasional cringe-y moment occurs. “I am notorious for oversharing and becoming over-familiar too quickly,” admits Hamdani. “I try to handle it by being candid and a little bit humorous like, ‘Oh, sorry! That was really weird’ and taking ownership of the moment and moving on.”
6. Be Generous With Yourself
Like with any friendship, sometimes it’s just not meant to be — and that’s OK. Not every relationship is going to pan out the way you wanted, but that doesn’t mean it’s your fault.
“Your friend group is something you can cultivate and build, and it should be a mutually beneficial experience,” says Hamdani. “It shouldn’t be this one-sided thing. So if the other friend is not into it, you’re not going to gain a fruitful, meaningful relationship, and you don’t have to mourn it.” Take a cue from Ariana and say, “Thank you, next.”
Remember: ADHD is a medical diagnosis, not a character flaw. By having compassion for yourself and generously strategizing your time, you can build and sustain the fulfilling friendships you’re worthy of.
Dr. Sasha Hamdani, M.D., psychiatrist