Can ADHD Cause Narcissism?

Do you think your ADHD partner is a narcissist?  If so, you would not be alone - the question of narcissism comes up regularly - usually asked by non-ADHD partners who believe that their ADHD partner is unfeeling, selfish and self-centered.  But while it's easy to label someone who comes across as self-centered as a narcissist, the truth may be a bit more complicated than that.

I write this post after a specific question from a man with ADHD, and a request that I provide him advice to be able to sort out whether or not his issues were ADHD or narcissism.  My observation is that people with ADHD are very 'inwardly-focused' - that is, there is a lot going on inside their head, and so they spend a good deal of time there trying to get it under control, or just following the many interesting 'paths' they find there.  This leads to ignoring the needs of others around them (i.e. they are so inside themselves that others don't get much attention...)  In addition, people with ADHD have a lower ability to read emotional/physical cues from others.  These things combined leads to the experience of non-ADHD partners to be one of feeling that their ADHD partner is narcissistic, when in fact what they are is very chronically distracted.  The accusations of lack of empathy often come after some period of relationships disintegration...where an ADHD partner may have retreated from his or her partner to avoid conflict or hardened their attitude in response to feeling repeatedly pushed or complained about.

If this describes your own situation, then the way to deal with it is to acknowledge that this inward-focus is a problem/tendency you have, and that your partner's complaints about your being self-centered are based in her (his?) experience of being with you...the complaints are both logical and related to your ADHD, even if the label chosen is incorrect.  Once you acknowledge that your partner's experience is poor and stop worrying about the label, then you can address the symptomatic behaviors that create that experience - in this case, being so often inwardly-focused.  There are many ways to do this:

  • better physiological treatment that calms your brain and makes it less important to be looking inward (meds, exercise, fish oil, sleep and meditation or mindfulness are your best bets here)
  • creating scheduled times to be with your partner and focused on your partner ('attend time' - see my second book, The Couple's Guide to Thriving with ADHD for more on this)
  • creating the habit of clearing away distractions when your partner tries to communicate particularly important information to you.  One tactic for this might be creating a verbal cue together...if it's really important, she can say "I have something important I wish to share, and I would love your full attention to it" or some such...that could be the cue to move away from distractions such as the computer, sit together, and look her in the eye)
  • improved organizational skills -  possibly using a coach to help with this.  Though organization isn't directly tied to narcissism, it is often tied to non-ADHD partners feeling their ADHD partners are selfish...i.e. they only think about themselves rather than contribute to taking care of responsibilities.  Often lack of follow through for those with ADHD is more related to poor symptom management around organizational skills rather than self-centeredness

The fact that the man writing to me was grappling with the idea of narcissism suggested to me that he may not, in fact, have the issue.  Here's and excerpt from the Psychology Today definition of NPD:

"Narcissistic Personality Disorder involves arrogant behavior, a lack of empathy for other people, and a need for admiration-all of which must be consistently evident at work and in relationships. People who are narcissistic are frequently described as cocky, self-centered, manipulative, and demanding...Narcissists tend to have high self-esteem. However, narcissism is not the same thing as self-esteem; people who have high self-esteem are often humble, whereas narcissists rarely are. It was once thought that narcissists have high self-esteem on the surface, but deep down they are insecure. However, the latest evidence indicates that narcissists are actually secure or grandiose at both levels."  (You can find the full definition at this link.) 

While this may not be the case with the man who wrote, my observation is that many with ADHD do, in fact, have self-esteem issues caused by their experiences growing up with ADHD - specifically the criticisms and unpredictable failures they faced due to their symptoms.  Few are "secure or grandiose at both levels."

So, can ADHD trigger narcissism?  I don't believe so.  But the inward-focus and lack of follow through so common to people with ADHD can easily be interpreted as being malevolently self-centered when misunderstood.  Follow the ideas I've put in the bullets above, and I hope that complaints about narcissistic behavior may start to melt away.