Emotion regulation is a common problem for adults with ADHD, but the concept of “regulating” feelings could lead to self-defeating efforts. We know that regulating the breath can have a calming effect on the body, but how do you regulate feelings? Wishing not to have them magnifies the very feelings you wish to escape. Wishing to escape a situation you’re in does not make the situation go away.
There is no thermostat to regulate feelings directly. “Feelings just are,” says psychologist and author, Robert Wright. What he means is that we don’t choose feelings; they choose us. The very idea that we choose them creates problems in how we relate to other people and to ourselves. We control nothing when we relate mindlessly to our emotional experience. Relating mindfully involves relinquishing effort to control what we can’t.
Honoring your feelings means accepting them as normal human experiences and suspending judgment about yourself and others. To accept feelings is to honor the reality that they have roots in old memories, and they have a normal function. Feelings protect you. Fear, for example, helps you prepare for the future, anticipate consequences, avoid risky behavior, obey laws, and meet deadlines.
Honoring feelings also allows you to detach from the notion that situations are responsible for your feelings. Suspending certainty about unfounded beliefs helps prevent believing that difficult life situations should not occur. Our story lines (the meaning we make) will create more problems than the situations and people we blame. We only feed negative feelings when we push back against life as it is.
Here’s an example of how a feeling once tricked me into believing my story line. I was certain one day that my wife’s silence meant she was angry with me, and equally certain she had no reason to be. I began to feel angry that she was angry. I grew silent along with her, wishing to avoid whatever she needed to say to me. Nothing had actually happened except for the unexamined thoughts that kept bubbling up from my discomfort! I was anticipating, judging, and generalizing from history, some of which preceded our 42-year relationship.
I was far from being mindfully present. My rejection-sensitive mind was predicting the future in a self-defeating effort to escape uncomfortable feelings. I was prepared to defend myself from what she was thinking, only to learn I was dead wrong. She had been experiencing some physical pain that she had not disclosed. Unaware of my story line, she broke her silence with a thoughtful acknowledgement: “Just so you know, I’m not feeling well and might seem irritable today.” My feelings changed immediately. My mindless effort to control the future was no longer necessary. In fact, it never was.
Practicing acceptance and compassion for self and others is good for all your relationships. Tibetan Nun Pema Chodron advises us to “embrace the feeling and drop the story line.” Zen Master Seung Sahn often told his students, “Keep a don’t know mind; a don’t know mind can do anything.”
Do you have a similar story to share?
Finding the perfect system for getting things done can only be positive, you may think. But pursuing perfection can be problematic for adults with ADHD. An “ideal system” can even obstruct you from getting things done. Imagining a perfect system may be stimulating, but coordinating the parts to activate and sustain it can be overwhelming. Consistent effort is a common problem for us.
Subscribing to the notion that you will function normally with a perfect system is self-defeating. Tools should not be more important than their purpose. We can function better with structure, for sure, but creating and maintaining structure is something else. So we browse for the most elaborate system. A simple system might not satisfy our insatiable appetite for perfection. A new Mercedes looks and rides better than an old pickup truck, but it cannot carry a heavy load.
ADDNashville recently examined some popular systems, like those of Marie Kondo, David Allen, and Ryder Carroll. We discussed why some of us find organization gurus unhelpful in the long run. One person suggested that when the gurus capitalize on their great ideas to target a broader audience, the result is systems that are more complex than the original ideas. Herein lies a problem for us: complexity stifles individuals with compromised executive functioning. Simplifying, on the other hand, liberates us.
Can someone else’s system work for you? I think so, but I recommend being confident and defiant enough to find your own way to use it. Claim the parts that appeal to you. Take from them what you will likely use and disregard the rest. That’s what I did with Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal Method. A creative ADHD friend who recommended it was using it for one simple purpose. “Use it however you wish,” she suggested. I began using it to capture and index ideas and titles for writing projects. I took the plunge after reading only the first 25 pages. I’m glad I did that. Otherwise, my perfectionism would have hooked me. I’m capable of becoming more obsessed with a tool than with using it.
Maybe I will read the rest of The Bullet Journal Method, but I will trust my aversion to complexity. I know how my wheels can get stuck. It happened this past winter when my street became a sheet of ice after a deep snow. I abandoned the car.
I forget that I have a memory problem. My wife and I recently took a two-week trip, perhaps our first ever…I don’t remember. I had checked the long-term weather forecast about a month before our trip and was delighted to learn we would enjoy the first warm week of the year on the Gulf. I forgot to check the forecast again later, before I packed shorts and t-shirts. I didn’t take a jacket. Here’s the good news: it was too cold and rainy that first week to go outside anyway, and we’d been moved into a big house near the one we had reserved, thanks to a sewer problem in the first house.
The temperature warmed up to sweater weather by the second week, and even warmer two days before we departed for home. I walked on the beach at my preferred times, sunrise and sunset. I wore blue jeans, layers of undershirts beneath a corduroy shirt, and my Red Sox cap.
It was my dog’s first beach trip. He is still confused, one week later, about where we live and why the ocean is no longer close to our house. Wilson, our beach boy, made friends and chased girls. Nearby residents with dogs remembered his name, and I tried to remember names of their pets.
Wilson got away from me only once. Unleashed in a test of his loyalty and maturity, my two-year-old pyrenees-beagle chased a sea gull and then ran like a coyote to visit a family about two hundred yards from where he left me. I ran as fast as a man on Medicare can to rescue that family from my disloyal dependent. The family liked him. He was playful with their two small dogs and unsuccessful in his effort to eat their food.
I’m less ADHD-impaired on vacations than at home. I packed well and put away all my clothes and travel items upon arrival. I swept sand from the deck and interior wood floors, cooked my share of meals, and washed dishes daily. I stored grooming and hygiene items in drawers and arranged my hang-up clothes in a closet larger than any we have at home.
I loaded the car for our return home while my wife conducted her usual last-minute inspection of our rental house. She exited with a hair dryer I’d left on the bathroom counter, but she overlooked one drawer. The item I miss the most was a recent purchase. I had bought a nose-and-ear hair trimmer to trim the only hair that grows fast at this stage of my life. I’m less concerned about the easily replaceable comb, shampoo, and floss. Who remembers to floss anyway?
If you have ADHD, you have some memory stories too. Do you remember any of them?
Dear loyal readers: I have just completed the longest stretch of neglecting my blog since beginning it. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a writer who doesn’t write, but I am sure that anyone can put their wheels back on the tracks and allow forgiveness. Phillip Moffitt eloquently tells his readers just to start over without the distraction of self-criticism. “If you fail to be mindful of a hindrance, then you can be caught by it; if you recognize it, then you have options…you can just start over” (from Emotional Chaos to Clarity).
I accept your forgiveness with gratitude, just as I forgive you for dropping the ball at any point in your life. Let’s just pick it up and run with it. Why not?
In March I will begin writing my next book without undue attention to some ideal product. I don’t know how long it will take, or if I will be pleased with it, but I have something to say and I’m going to say it.
During the remainder of Black History Month, I intend to be mindful of the courage and persistence of Black American leaders throughout our history. Those leaders are descendants of slaves who literally built this country on their backs while in bondage. Their lives exemplify the power of unity and nonviolence. If we cannot be inspired by Back American History, we’re not paying attention.
October is ADHD Awareness Month and the 2020 Virtual international Conference on ADHD is around the corner. The conference will be online this year, Nov. 5 – 7. John Ratey and Kathleen Nadeau are keynote speakers, along with Sinbad, talking about his life with ADHD.
Organizers have built in plenty of opportunities for participants to interact. Plus, attendees have two weeks to watch as many sessions as they want. Registration is a bargain this year, as are all the other costs of attending. You can see more here: https://chadd-2020.pathable.co/.
I will be speaking November 5, addressing professional helpers on navigating their relationships with clients. Relying on sources from research on mindfulness and the brain, on therapeutic alliance, and on experiences of support group participants, I will address elements of the helper-client relationship that are associated with positive outcomes. A collaborative and trusting partnership is the foundation for helping individuals attain the goals they bring to us.
No matter how skillful helpers may be, they will not be helpful if they cannot understand their clients and know how to establish a trusting relationship. If I pushed my clients to meet my expectations, they would push back or withdraw. But they will tolerate challenges by a helper who can understand and accept what it is like to be in their shoes. They are not looking to be cured or overhauled; they just want to live well with their ADHD.
I have blogged about being my dog’s retriever (Aug 21, 2019), and have speculated that all dogs have ADHD. But Wilson shares one experience with my non-ADHD spouse in relation to me. Their patience is often tested by their ADHD family member.
My wife recently suggested that I begin gathering everything I need for walking Wilson before saying, “Let’s go for a walk.” So, here’s the checklist: get the bag and training treats, grab my cell phone, get his leash from the leash basket, find my house keys, make sure I have some poop bags, and tie my shoes…before inviting Wilson to walk.
My usual pattern is to say, “Let’s go for a walk,” and then consider what I need to take with me. Wilson has learned to wait with skepticism while stretched out on the floor, resting his chin on the kitchen tile, moving only his eyes. He follows my movements, and his posture conveys this: “I will get up when I believe you are truly ready.” My wfie says something simiar when waiting for me. He watches me as I pick up the leash and then put it back down to look for my phone and house key. He observes me grabing the leash again, then kneeling and putting it on the floor, next to my left foot, while I tie my shoes.
So now, I’m preparing to take him on a night walk and getting what I need to take with me. After going to the bathroom first to take care of my business, I search for the flashlight, get the training treats, and make sure the little poop bag holder (attached to his leash) has bags in it. Then I get the leash, find my cell phone, grab my house key, and say, “Let’s go for a walk.” He looks confident in me now as he gets up from the floor and steps forward.
Before changing the order of these tasks, it took me so long to get everything together that I could not always find Wilson for the walk. He would give up and go to bed. But tonight, he remained in place, anticipating an invitation to walk. And as soon as he steps outside, he becomes the sled dog, dragging me up the street. I regret having allowed him to watch a PBS documentary on sled dogs.
If you have ADHD, you may be living well and still feeling that you don’t belong. Imagine being in a family or a community that for generations didn’t belong anywhere, except within that family or community. Imagine that your family has less access to resources and protection than people outside your family or community. I was disturbed by the murder of George Floyd, and countless other black citizens who have been treated as if they don’t matter. I observed the Floyd family during public events honoring his life and its meaning. It is clear that he belonged to a family and a community who loved and respected him. His life mattered. His own country was built on the backs of his ancestors. How could he not belong?
The “Black Lives Matter” slogan does not mean that other lives don’t matter. Of course, all lives matter, and that is key to the slogan. The point is that nonwhite lives matter as much as white lives. To think otherwise is white supremacy. Important black lives were excluded from my textbooks when I was school age. I only recently learned that the first black legislator in the Tennessee General Assembly was elected in the nineteenth century, before Jim Crow laws were enacted. I didn’t even know who Jim Crow was until well into adulthood.
I am not a descendant of slaves, and my family never owned slaves. And yet, like others in the majority, I benefited from an economy built on the backs of slaves whose lives mattered only in the most inhumane way. The trading of human beings would represent the largest commodity in the global stock market for many years. Female slaves who were pregnant were especially valuable commodities of a slave-based economy.
African Americans achieved so much so soon after slavery that white southerners felt threatened and passed Jim Crow laws to limit their liberty. I grew up in an era when racism was not subtle. Black citizens could not eat where I could, could not use the same bathroom, drink from the same water fountain, stay in the same hotel, or swim in the same pool with me. Segregation created problems for which our culture still suffers. Too much separation remains the norm.
I experienced a major awakening one day in 1967. I was approaching my 18th birthday when I sat through an afternoon of trials in in a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina courtroom. I observed a judge slapping the wrists of young white defendants while harshly sentencing older black men. Black defendants were given thirty days in jail for minor offenses. One man was told his sentence would be suspended if he bought a bus ticket and left town. Among the crimes of black defendants were “loitering” and using profanities while riding a bumper car.
Loitering! All of us had been loitering…that’s what you do at the beach! One of the younger white defendants had driven his car off the road and knocked down a utility pole. He explained that he was trying to kill a spider that was on the dash of his car. Everyone in the courtroom laughed at this young man for believing he would get away with such a story. He was acquitted. I witnessed racism in a place where justice is supposed to mean something. Today, people of all ages and colors are chanting “I can’t breathe.” I’m more hopeful than ever that we are turning a corner and will overcome this country’s original sin. I want to believe that “some day” has come.
You won’t find open awareness in a pill. A pill for ADHD helps most adults activate, sustain attention and effort, comprehend when reading or listening, and have some order in their daily lives. Medicine may help with all of that, but it might not help you maintain awareness of time, other people, and tasks that are not right in front of you. Medication does not prioritize.
Once your attention is locked into one task, you might forget other priorities that have dropped off your radar. It is not always a good thing to maintain laser-like focus. Managing attention requires moving fluidly between states of open and focused awareness. Losing awareness of what is not in front of you can create problems in your work and in your relationships.
Have you ever started working on a task that hooked your attention so fully you forgot that you started boiling eggs thirty minutes ago? I’ve blown up eggs before. The ceiling above my stovetop displayed the evidence for weeks. Have you ever gotten angry when someone interrupted your hyper-focused attention, even when you needed to pull your head out? Individuals with ADHD tend to have trouble making those shifts. Pulling back to open awareness is an understated problem for us, in my opinion, especially when we are focusing on personally stimulating or novel tasks.
You can cultivate open awareness by training your brain and practicing, just as you would train your body for athletic competition. We call it mindfulness training. Adults with ADHD who take medicine and also meditate seem to make more gains than those who only medicate their symptoms. Daniel Siegel, co-founder of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, says meditation can be as effective as medication for ADHD symptoms.
Turning the lights up on your constantly shifting internal state, while observing your external world with clarity, and being mindful of how the two are linked, can help you integrate what is relevant in the moment.
You can train your brain to
- be more aware of awareness…of when you need to redirect your attention.
- be more attentive to subtleties of nonverbal communication that you may otherwise be overlooking or misreading.
- be more observant of your emotional reactivity to situations and people, aware of assumptions that are unduly influenced by strong feelings.
- stop avoiding uncomfortable feelings so successfully that you are disconnected from them, or not attuned to the feelings and experiences of others around you.
This is what mindfulness is; it is the opposite of mindlessness.
Not all mindfulness practices are the same. Knowing what you’re doing and why you’re doing it makes a difference. I suggest finding an experienced meditation teacher who understands open awareness and how to cultivate it.
How do you manage working from home with ADHD, where your attention is more divided than in your normal workplace? I’m dealing with this at the moment, working at home in one room while my wife works in another. It helps that she is working here as well. Her commute is shorter than mine, as she travels from the bed to a desk in the bedroom. I travel from the bedroom to my sunroom office. I can see birds and squirrels from where I am sitting!
It helps that my wife emerges from the bedroom office only for lunch or coffee. Now that I am cooking and cleaning more than ever, I feel valued, but those tasks are unplanned. I see dog hair on the floor and grab the broom or vacuum cleaner. I feel hunger and start preparing meals.
So, here’s where I’m directing my effort now, for what it’s worth. I clean up and dress for work to start my work day, not just to look professional, but also to mark the beginning of the workday. I clock in, so to speak. I close my blinds while doing paperwork and when writing, like right now. I will see the outdoor world later when I break to walk my dog. I open the blinds when I see clients so they can see me on their screens. It is not difficult for me to focus narrowly on them because screens have a way of locking in my attention…I’m sure your spouse has noticed that about you! Hyper-focused attention can help when my work is in that narrow space of a screen.
At the same time, I can find myself brainlocked on an unimportant activity if I haven’t prioritized. I’m at my best when I preview important tasks before locking my attention into the work. As the ADHD experts say, medicine doesn’t prioritize. I need a strategy and tool for that, and I need to remain in a state of open awareness while planning, and before shifting into a more focused state.
When in the office, I don’t snack, call friends, watch news, or do anything that I wouldn’t do in an office or sanctuary. I wouldn’t make a phone call or play a free cell during a religious service or when meditating. Why would I do those things at work? I can schedule recreational activities outside of the work schedule. I can check news headlines when I break for lunch. When I clock out at the end of the day, I try to leave it completely if I can. That way, I am defining a beginning and end of the workday, and I’m more productive when clocked in.
Stay safe during these trying times. Eventually, we will get to more normal routines, whatever they will be. I suspect we will experience some lasting changes in how we live at home and in the world together.
We need each other…always did. Perhaps we are going to be more conscious of our mutual interdependence and need for community. Unity might save us and our planet; division will risk everything we have known. We all belong. As my friend Mike Himelstein said in a song lyric, “Each one is God’s gift to the world.” https://youtu.be/D8ZvnZuOfQQ
Prisoners of the present are good in a crisis…right? Well, perhaps not always, not in all circumstances. The coronavirus pandemic is not a momentary event. It calls for conceptualizing the future, planning, maintaining steady effort over time, and dealing skillfully with emotions. Those are not strengths of most adults with ADHD.
So, what do you do when your ADHD symptoms could jeopardize your life and the lives of others? I think the answer is complementarity. You can team up with brains that are different from yours, ones that complement your imaginative, unconventional, resourceful brain.
To be a mindful partner, you will need to listen to others with an open and flexible mind, and speak succinctly with respect for the listener. You can experience the joy and benefits of diverse brains working together.
Rather than envy how the brains of others work, or think that yours works better than others, respect how different brains work, and how productive they can be when they work collectively. Lending your brain to the Big Mind of collaborative effort is powerful.
Maybe you know this already. If my solution is a no-brainer, forgive me!