Mr. Impossible: Is It Narcissism or ADHD?


What if your ex isn't a narcissist, a compulsive liar or a sociopath? What if he's just got ADHD?

By Hadley Earabino, TheLoveLifeCoach

As a Sex, Relationship & ADHD Coach who helps women with difficult romantic relationships, it's something I've heard more than once: A woman mentions her ex and makes him sound like the quintessential Lifetime movie villain.

"He was such a narcissist."

"He was a total sociopath."

"He was a compulsive liar."

Bad-mouthing your ex by dismissing him as a "narcissist" or a "sociopath" might feel good when you're hurting, but you could also be totally off-base. And if you've got kids with him, you'll be negotiating with him for years, so your attitude might be making your co-parenting relationship more difficult than it needs to be.

All those years of bad behavior? All the lying, the avoidance, the neglect, the insecurity? Those complaints might be perfectly accurate, but it might not be narcissism and he might not be a sociopath. It could all be evidence of undiagnosed ADHD--one of the most common, and most treatable, psychiatric disorders in adults. You might be unwittingly describing someone with all the symptoms of ADHD.

Evidence: He was a compulsive liar, which is a hallmark of narcissism.

Maybe you think he's a narcissist because he lied all the time. He invented outrageous stories. There's a history of total fabrications and absurd "spinning" of the truth.

Guess what? Lying is a well-documented ADHD trait. Executive functioning problems leads many ADHD folks to "zone out" during conversations, misunderstand questions, and then try to cover up their mistakes by pretending to remember or understand what was said. After a lifetime of making memory-related mistakes, they can get into the habit of saving face, pretending to know more, or making things up as they go along. Add some charming, high-energy charismatic story-telling--also typical of ADHD--and you've got someone easily misunderstood as a narcissist.

Evidence: He doesn't have close ties with anyone, which makes him a sociopath.


Maybe he doesn't have a lot of close ties with too many people. He's alienated people with his crazy, "sociopathic" behavior.

Guess what? Social rejection or ostracism is a common ADHD struggle. While ADHD is primarily a neurological problem, it often becomes a major psychological problem because of the way it affects relationships. Conflict can act as a stimulant to the brain, and for people with ADHD, looking for a fight is just another thrill-seeking behavior that they use to self-medicate. After years of conflict with others, combined with poor decision-making, the ADHD sufferer may even distance himself and put up emotional walls in order to cope.


Evidence: He never showed any guilt or remorse--a typical sociopath.

Maybe he had a hard time even seeing how exactly he was wrong, or that he was wrong at all, much less could he apologize for anything he did. The inability to experience empathy is a sociopathic problem.

Guess what? Many people with ADHD have difficulty saying "I'm sorry" or accepting responsibility for their actions, not because they're sociopaths, but because their distractability and underfocusing has left them clueless about their mistakes. They don't read social cues as well, and honestly may not realize they have offended someone. To make matters worse, hypersensitivity is a common an ADHD trait, causing many people with the disorder to avoid difficult conversations, like ones that involve apologizing.

Evidence: He was so charming and larger than life--a total narcissist.


Maybe when you first started dating he was charming and charismatic, which is how a sociopath will win over the love and affection of his target.

Guess what? Hyperfocus courtship is a trait of many ADHD relationships. Their brain circuitry fires like crazy when they are in the liminal phase of a relationship, when everything is about the bubble-fizz of new love. You've never been romanced until you've been romanced by someone with ADHD--we're talking gorgeous flowers, sweet notes, exotic vacations, adventurous sex. For the ADHD brain, romantic cathexis (or falling in love) acts as a natural "medication," much like an SSRI or a stimulant medication. But whereas non-ADHD couples start to cool off after an initial period of romantic excitement, the ADHD folks just go completely cold when their brain chemicals stopped working to "medicate" them. This leaves many partners feeling unloved, unwanted and angry. And neither partner understands why any of it has happened.


Evidence: He needed constant praise for his accomplisments--a huge narcissist.

Maybe he needed constant reassurance, approval and praise from everyone around him and could be set off by the slightest criticism he receives.

Guess what? His huge need for approval might be due to the psychological wounding he suffered from years of being told he was  "underperforming" or "not meeting expectations" as a child and young adult. This constant emotional battery leads many with ADHD to develop low self-esteem. Combine this low self-esteem with a little impulsivity and some good old-fashioned conflict-seeking, and you've got someone who very much resembles a garden-variety narcissist or sociopath.

What To Do If You Think Your Ex Has Adult ADHD


It can be difficult to tell the difference between someone with adult ADHD and a sociopath or narcissist. A narcissist needs to be validated by others, just like the person with undiagnosed ADHD. A sociopath will exploit others because he finds it amusing, and someone with ADHD may make you feel exploited after all his explosive and demanding emotional displays. But what might help you when dealing with a narcissist might hurt you when dealing with an ADHD ex.

For example, if you're dealing with a narcissist, don't feed his ego. But if you're dealing with ADHD, a little ego-boost can go a long way toward getting you what you want.
Here are some other pointers for dealing with ADHD in an ex you still have to communicate or negotiate with:

  •     Make an appointment if you need to negotiate anything. Setting up some kind of structure helps with many ADHD problems.
  •     Write down any talking points on an index card and refer back to it continually during the negotiation. This will keep the conversation on track, and cut down on miscommunication.
  •     Don't act like a mean, angry elementary school teacher. He had a lot of that growing up, and it triggers even worse behavior. Avoid verbally rejecting him, judging him or calling him names.
  •     Express gratitude for something--even something small. This will come as such a welcome surprise, you're much more likely to get what you need from the negotiation.
  •     Encourage his relationships with his children--relationships are difficult enough for people with ADHD, it's best not to put up more barriers. It's in your best interest for your children to get what they need and want from their father.

If you're starting to wonder if your ex might have undiagnosed ADHD, look at his children. The condition is extremely heritable, so if any of his children have it, chances are he has it too.

If you do have children with him, you'll be negotiating with him for years to come, so learning about ADHD and how it might be contributing to any problems is a good idea. If you're experiencing the turmoil of a custody battle, or any other legal problems with him, you should consider scheduling an appointment with a skilled ADHD and relationship coach. A professional can help you change the story you're telling yourself about his bad behavior, which might get you both more of what you want.