Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
November 4, 2023

Revealing the Activist Within: Exploring Justice Sensitivity in Adults with ADHD

Have you ever looked around and felt hurt, angry, and pained by all the injustices of the world? Sometimes it just feels like no matter where you look, there’s too much unfairness and unjust treatment everywhere. Right now throughout the world, there are wars and genocides, military regimes holding power through brute force, and rights being stripped from marginalized people.

While these atrocities are difficult for many to cope with, they may be especially hard for people with ADHD. This is because ADHD people have a higher justice sensitivity than an average neurotypical person. This means they’re more likely to perceive and react strongly to injustice toward themselves and others. Understanding ADHD and justice sensitivity can help neurodivergent people comprehend their impulses better, and get support when the world’s injustices feel too overwhelming. 

What is Justice Sensitivity?

Justice sensitivity refers to someone’s capacity to perceive and react to injustice. Thought of as a personality trait, justice sensitivity is predicted by levels of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions to perceived injustice.

According to researchers of social justice theory, there are four types of justice sensitivity:

  1. Victim
  2. Observer
  3. Beneficiary 
  4. Perpetrator

Victim justice sensitivity refers to the perception of one’s own unjust victimization. It typically involves ruminations and anger around experiences of victimization, and strong inclinations toward righting the perceived wrong. 

Observer justice sensitivity refers to someone’s awareness of the injustice placed on others.

Beneficiary justice sensitivity is someone’s tendency to feel guilty and uncomfortable about benefitting from injustice, even if they themselves aren’t perpetrating that injustice. 

Perpetrator justice sensitivity is when someone feels their own behavior is causing injustice for others, which leads to shame, guilt, and other negative emotions.

Do ADHD people have a stronger sense of justice?

Do ADHD People Have a Stronger Sense of Justice?

There’s a link between ADHD and social justice advocacy. In a study measuring justice sensitivity and ADHD, participants with ADHD were more likely than others to:

  • Perceive instances of injustice
  • Report higher justice sensitivity for victims
  • Report lower justice sensitivity for perpetrators
  • Report higher rejection sensitivity

While studies on this topic are limited, I’ve seen anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon in my sessions as well. Many of my ADHD clients feel angry, disheartened, and saddened by injustices they or others face in everyday life. They often feel overly sensitive – and are often labeled as “too sensitive” by others throughout their life. They wonder why they feel so strongly in situations others seem to simply shrug off. 

So why do ADHD people have a stronger sense of justice? The reasons are not fully understood. A large component may be differences in brain chemistry. People with ADHD are more likely to attune differently to their environments and emotional states, which might explain their attunement to and dislike of unfairness.

In general, ADHDers may experience emotions more intensely than others. This can look like moodiness, sadness, or anger. However, it can also be expressed as the desire to intervene in the face of injustice. 

Emotional dysregulation is one explanation for experiencing intense emotions, and it’s a common feature of ADHD. This is often stigmatized and thought of as a weakness in neurodivergent people. However, in the case of justice sensitivity in ADHD adults, it’s a pretty incredible strength.

Another reason for a stronger sense of justice in ADHDers may simply be lived experience. The neurodivergent community understands what it’s like to feel like an outsider– and to be judged and treated unfairly. Therefore, they may be more likely to be more sensitive to perceived unfairness in general.

Justice Sensitivity in ADHD Adults

Justice sensitivity in ADHD adults may be exhibited in the following ways:

  • High perception of injustice toward self and others
  • A strong desire to advocate for others
  • A draw toward social justice work
  • Feelings of intense anger or sadness when treated unfairly
  • Irritation and resentment toward rules that feel arbitrary, unfair or stupid
  • Guilt or shame about being potentially unfair to others

If you have a strong justice sensitivity, you might worry excessively about causing harm or injustice to others. You also might become really angry when you feel like you’re being treated unfairly. And when you see others being treated unfairly, whether it’s strangers, close friends, or family, you often feel just as pained as if the injustice were happening directly to you. 

Justice sensitivity in ADHDers may lead adults to pursue social justice causes in their communities, speak up on behalf of more marginalized groups, and be vocal about taking needed action.

Justice sensitivity ADHD adults

The Dark Side of ADHD and Social Justice

There’s no question that there are many benefits of ADHD and social justice awareness. However, justice sensitivity can also lead to relationship and mental health problems. For example, an ADHDer with high justice sensitivity may be prone to feeling angry at their partner or friends for things that may feel small or insignificant to the other party, but which feel hurtful and unfair to the ADHDer. This can lead to misunderstandings, strained communication, and hurt feelings. 

Justice sensitivity can also lead to mental health problems like burnout and depression. Social justice careers and pursuits are admirable, but they can feel like the work of Sisyphus in the Greek legend – constantly pushing a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down and have to start over. The world’s injustices can feel overwhelming, and it can be easy to fall into burnout or depression when they continue to pile up. You’re only one person, after all. How can all these injustices ever possibly go away? Why is the world such an unjust place? These thoughts can feel utterly defeating.

To cope with the difficult emotions and thoughts that stem from ADHD and social justice issues, you may need extra support. Find an advocacy group you can be part of that tackles social justice issues you’re interested in. This way, you won’t have to shoulder the burden of activism on your own. Alternatively, consider therapy for managing feelings of depression, burnout, anxiety, and other mental health issues that may arise from your justice sensitivity.

Want Support for Your ADHD and Social Justice Inclinations? Therapy and Coaching Can Help. 

Justice sensitivity and ADHD can be a difficult combination to navigate on your own. If you’d like support, I’m here to help. I offer online therapy in Idaho and Iowa and coaching services wherever you’re located for anxious clients who struggle with things like people-pleasing, perfectionism, burnout, overwhelm, and ADHD.

Reach out today and see if we’re a good fit. Let’s start building a better future together.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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