I have been exploring what professionals have written about shame, and I came across this paragraph from an article in Psychology Today (July, 2013) entitled, “How Compassion Can Heal Shame from Childhood,” by Beverly Engel, LMFT”:
“Until a few years ago, the subject of self-compassion had never been formally studied. But recently there has been some breakthrough research done on self-compassion by researcher and social psychologist Kristin Neff from the University of Texas at Austin. Among other things, Neff discovered that self-compassion can act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame. It was found that self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. Self-criticism, on the other hand, has a very different effect on our body. The amygdala, the oldest part of the brain, is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. When we experience a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is triggered and the amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline, and the hormone cortisol, mobilizing the strength and energy needed to confront or avoid the treat. Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks—from ourselves and others. Over time increased cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the various neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure.“
It is challenging to practice self-compassion when someone misunderstands and berates you, but awareness of who you are and who you’re not can only come from within. Your work is not to change others, but to know yourself. You might not be able to correct inaccurate notions that others have about you, but those notions don’t define you. That is why the first chapter in my book is “Who You Are and Who You’re Not.” No one but you can be an expert on what is inside you.
Imagine going to a professional who doesn’t get all the subtleties of ADHD, and he begins by assigning tasks that he believes will improve your daily functioning. You think his ideas are good ones, but you either forget them, or you don’t prioritize the tasks and don’t get them done. You are embarrassed and feel as if you are letting the therapist down. It doesn’t take much to trigger our shame. That is why I don’t begin there.
If you fail at implementing a therapist’s practical suggestions, you may appear—either to yourself or your therapist—as if you are unmotivated. But there you are, seeking help to improve the quality of your life, which suggests that you are motivated.
It is easy for you to buy the notion that you are not good enough as you are, that you should be better than you are. It is my contention that you are unlikely to actualize your vision if you feel you are not yet capable, that you first have to have a much improved brain, and you should first become like the other 95%. When we get too focused on becoming, we lose awareness of being. Being exceptional is being different, and if you want to do something exceptional, dare to be different.
When I thought I needed to become like the image I had of a “real author” before starting to write a book, I couldn’t start. When I decided to start without undue concern that I was unqualified, unlikely to finish, and highly unlikely to get a publishing deal, I was able to start and sustain my effort. I was doing nothing extraordinary, just mindfully engaging in pleasurable activity every time I permitted myself to write. And my ADHD defiant streak helped me activate…as I was going to write what I damn well pleased!
The practice of mindfulness is more about being than becoming. It involves acceptance and compassion for oneself, which is a good foundation for acceptance and compassion for others.
I had some interesting meetings last week with advocates in the Northwest. The leader of a CHADD-affiliated support group in Portland, Oregon has an interesting history. Glenn was one of a minority in his unit in Viet Nam who survived brutal combat. After a year in the infantry, he became a medic, initially on the ground and later on a helicopter. Medics on the ground were easy targets, as they had to move around under fire to try and rescue their wounded comrades. I could tell right away that Glenn has a big heart and can identify with the emotional pain of his ADHD peers. His support group is mostly a discussion group (vs. a speaker group) where participants share their personal challenges with ADHD and support one another.
On another day, in another city, I met with Dr. Thom Field, a native of the UK and a neuropsychologist in Seattle. Dr. Field’s important research and writing are mostly about the use of neuroscience in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. He has a personal meditation practice. He was interested in how our support group works, and I was glad to describe what we have created together in Nashville. As we said goodbye, Dr. Field acknowledged being in the ADHD family. He asked permission to quote me in his new book.
On Friday, I met with a physician in Seattle who specializes in treating adults with ADHD. Dr. Angela Heithaus has ADHD and has two sons with the disorder. She has a large collection of ADHD books and told me that she came to the practice of treating adults with ADHD by way of primary care. She works with a few therapists in her suite. Dr. Heithaus clearly is dedicated to enhancing the lives of adults wired like us. I was a bit envious of her office, the east window of which is all glass and overlooks the Puget Sound.
A few of my books have been sold in Canada. And an Amazon help desk operator in the Philippines asked me one night if my book is available on Kindle. She wants to read it. She helped me cancel the accidental purchase of my own book. I swear I have no idea how that happened. After buying three books on mindfulness, I reviewed my purchases and somehow had bought my own book! Perhaps I should write a review of it, or even better, I should write an article and title it “Mindless in Seattle!” : )
I remember basic training back in 1968 when my drill sergeant would get in the face of anyone who was out of step when marching. “Pull your head out!” he would yell. He never had to yell at me because yelling at others affected me, alerting me to sustain attention to my stride.
If you have ADHD, you have trouble pulling your head out–unplugging from whatever has hold of your attention. You get distracted because you have trouble inhibiting your attention, just as hyperactive types have trouble inhibiting action. When you use a camera, you don’t just click the button randomly; you point your lens toward something, and you zoom in or out.
We’ve all been told in so many words to pull our heads out. So, what is the opposite of having your attention locked up, mindlessly stuck on whatever is on the radar in the moment? We hardly know what open awareness is because we spend little time there.
I just completed a 3-day meditation retreat where I watched my brain for hours as it wanted to lock in on a thought and then follow a chain of related thoughts. Try watching your brain that long without getting bored! My job was to recognize what I was doing and then return to silence without judgment. My brain wanted to chase every thought, including thoughts about chasing thoughts! But once the wheels slowed down, my awareness opened up. Eventually, I could observe emotions, sensations, sounds, and even the emergence of a thought without thinking and analyzing the observations. Achieving simple awareness is like emptying a glass so there is room to put something fresh in it.
Sustaining awareness to fleeting thoughts, feelings, sensations, and sounds, without attaching to any of them, takes a lot of practice. I attribute the difficulty I had at the retreat to having just spent two years writing a book. Writing a book-length manuscript requires extraordinary focus. It has taken me months to pull my head out of that hyper-focused state, and my brain is still inclined to rebound back into it.
You don’t have to attend a meditation retreat to pull your head out, although the practice of meditation makes it a little easier. You can turn off devices, sit on your porch without your cell phone or laptop, get away from noise, and return to silence as many times as it takes to experience silence as a compassionate friend. Returning to silence gets you to the “observation deck” where you can see your inner and outer worlds more clearly–what your brain is doing and how the world around you appears.
A wise old meditation teacher often said to his students, “Just notice.”
Today was a great day for bicycle riding…sunny and warm. I took a different route from the roads I normally travel. I was pumping hard and fast when I heard a dog’s bark getting progressively closer. Then I spotted him, sprinting across a deep front lawn…toward me, and I could hear his owners pleading with him not to attack me. I was picking up my speed when suddenly he darted in front of my bike, within a foot of my front tire, and into the center of the street. Then he circled around the back of my bike and aimed for my right foot. He was so fast that I didn’t expect to get away from him…and then BANG! He collided with a mailbox!
I told that story to my wife when I returned home, and you know what she asked me?
“Was the dog okay?”
Research shows that there is a higher incidence of crashes with ADHD, and the likelihood is four times greater that the one with ADHD is at fault. So, isn’t that sufficient evidence of canine ADHD?
In one recent ADDNashville meeting, I read a passage from Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016). Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon at Stanford who had advanced degrees in English literature and philosophy, wrote his book after his cancer diagnosis.
If you are like me, a visual processor, you may need to see the passage in print. I had to read it several times, and let it sit in my brain for a while to fully digest it. The passage is worth repeating here:
“I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans–i.e., “human relationality”–that undergirded meaning.”
What relevance does this have for those of us with ADHD? Someone in our group wisely asked this question. Since we are prone to communication challenges, those very challenges may have a negative impact on our relationships. If a word has something to do with relationship and meaning, and our speech is impulsive, or we get lost in our stories and appear detached from the listener, or we get distracted as listener and misread the speaker’s intention, or we speak unclearly and our words are misunderstood, then our relationships may suffer.
This is why I wrote the third chapter in Living Well with ADHD: “Attentive Listening and Mindful Speaking.” We need to develop and sharpen our communication skills in order to have that depth of relationship with others, what Paul Kalanithi says “undergirds meaning.” We need to learn and practice mindful listening and speaking if we wish not to miss out on the real substance of life.
Kalanithi was very much alive until his last day. His words, and his example of how to live to the end, are priceless gifts that he gave to his family and his readers. He was 36 years old when his life ended. “You can’t ever reach perfection,” he said, “but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.”
The first chapter in my book is “Who You Are and Who You’re Not.” We could easily complain about how misunderstood we are, thereby making others responsible, or we can take some action to contribute to better understanding and acceptance of ADHD. I prefer to do the latter. Toward that goal, I had an opportunity to speak at the Brentwood Library last week, and I’m grateful for the turn-out. The set-up was for fifty people. Fifty-one registered and 45 showed up. A number of “ambassadors” from ADDNashville attended…thank you! I’m told that support group members hung around and answered a lot of questions of others who came to hear the talk. About half the attendees bought the book, and I sincerely hope it helps and inspires them. My experiences with ADDNashville – more than anything – inspired me to write Living Well with ADHD, and I’m forever grateful.
For those who are new to the diagnosis, and to discovering our support group, I invite you to join us in our efforts to support one another, improve our daily functioning, and inform others about ADHD. Check our calendar on this site for the schedule of meetings. We have some professional guests lined up to participate in some future meetings. Sara Skillen, a certified professional organizer, with a special interest in ADHD, will be with us this Monday, April 4. For those of you who are committed to watching the NCAA basketball championship, we will probably forgive you for leaving a few minutes early for the 8 pm tip-off.
There are two more speaking and book-signing opportunities coming up in Nashville: Vanderbilt Barnes & Noble (April 11) and Parnassus Books (May 13). I’m working on opportunities in Athens, GA, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, and Costa Mesa, CA.
Thanks for your patience with me as I, somewhat reluctantly, promote these activities. I’m not comfortable focusing so much on myself and my work, but I am learning that to to be useful as an author, a book must have readers – and to have readers, authors have to become publicists.
Why is so important for you to know who you are and who you’re not, considering your history of experiences, especially before being diagnosed and understanding your neurological differences? This is the theme of the first chapter in my book. And why is it so important to become skillful with attentive listening and mindful speaking (chapter three in Living Well with ADHD)? Here is an excerpt from Paul Kalanithi’s book, When Breath Becomes Air (Random House, 2016), who answers those questions in three sentences that you should read at least three times to digest it fully:
I had come to see language as an almost supernatural force, existing between people, bringing our brains, shielded in centimeter-thick skulls, into communion. A word meant something only between people, and life’s meaning, its virtue, had something to do with the depth of the relationships we form. It was the relational aspect of humans—i.e., “human relationaliity”—that undergirded meaning.
What a profound and poetic use of language to explain the meaning of language. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and writer who died in March of 2015 while working on his book. He was passionately interested in “what makes a virtuous and meaningful life.” I highly recommend When Breath Becomes Air.
I asked Life Coach Casey Dixon (mindfullyadd.com and dixonlifecoaching.com) to answer a question about beginning and sustaining a mindfulness practice. Casey is an expert on simple and effective practices.
TH: What would you suggest as a good way for adults to begin a mindfulness practice that they can sustain?
CD: First, I would suggest people find one practice that they really enjoy, their “go to” practice. I have one, called Mountain Breath, that I can call up anytime and it helps me get into a mindful state immediately. I practiced it as a guided mediation so many times that now I can easily do it on my own. Variety is nice when you are into practicing mindfulness, but having one go-to practice is a great way to start that will last.
Second, I love the “When I …, then I …” approach, which means that you find a really good cue that triggers your mindful practice. One of my clients came up with, “When I see Bob walk past my desk at work, then I will take 3 intentional breaths.” This is a great cue, because Bob walks past her desk several times each day and she can rely on it. Now, when she sees Bob (although he does not know this!), then she practices mindfulness. This works really well, so she was able to expand her cue to trigger other, more involved practices.
Another client had a really hard time finding a cue. I pushed her to think of one thing that happens in her life every day. She came up with, “When I cover the bird cage at night, then I will try Tick Tock.” Tick Tock being her go-to practice. (Note: “Tick Tock” is rocking side-to-side like a pendulum).
It is also helpful to remember that you don’t have to be a mindfulness master in order to benefit. Practicing mindfulness might feel awkward and sometimes you will forget to do it, but if you have a go-to practice and a good cue, you can keep it up or return to it when you are ready.
For more information on other accessible mindfulness practices, check out mindfullyadd.com
Effective communication requires awareness of the speaker when listening and awareness of the listener when speaking. When listening, are you attending to the speaker, or listening to your thoughts instead? Are you formulating your response, or actually listening? To listen mindfully is to be aware of where you are directing your attention, like directing your visual attention to an object you wish to see.
Mindful listening is like meditation. When meditatinng, returning attention to your breath is a way to return from your thoughts to your experience in the present moment. When listening mindfully, the speaker is the object of your attention in the moment. To maintain attention to the speaker is to practice mindfulness in real time. Meditation is simply one form of mental conditioning to counter old habits. Casey Dixon (www.mindfullyadhd.com) illustrates other, very simple ways to practice mindfulness.
Effective communication also requires awareness of the listener when speaking. There are times when you may be entertaining, but not interacting. You might not be self-centered by nature, but when your listener has little opportunity to participate, you are—in effect—being self-centered. You might not notice when a polite listener has lost interest and is wanting to get away from you. Sadly, you might be clueless as to why you have trouble maintaining friends.
Here is the good news: You don’t have to sacrifice your capacity to entertain when learning to interact. You just need to know the difference.