Seeing Ourselves from a Distance

Great novelists are teachers of life lessons. Viet Thanh Nguyen is a master of metaphor and simile, and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Sympathizer. In an interrogation scene, he describes the problem of being too close to one’s experience to see it. 

…for we are the ones most able to know ourselves and yet the ones most unable to know ourselves. It’s as if our noses are pressed up against the pages of a book, the words right in front of us but which we cannot read. Just as distance is needed for legibility, so is it that if we could only split ourselves in two and gain some distance from ourselves, we could see ourselves better than anyone else can.

Reading this passage reminds me of how we can be so unaware of the effects of ADHD symptoms on others. We may be too nearsighted. To see our experience as others might observe it requires mental flexibility. To learn from our missteps requires the courage to observe our missteps with an open mind and tolerate feelings of embarrassment without retreating. 

We can be so single-mindedly focused that we lose awareness of what is on the periphery of our selective attention. We can seem inconsiderate, not because we don’t care, but because we lose awareness too easily. For example, we can be so focused on a story we are telling that we don’t notice that the listener has other things to do. I was speaking to the owner of a restaurant last week who had other customers besides me…imagine that! It was one occasion when my wife and part-time attention manager should have kicked me under the table. I was on a roll when my listener interrupted me to get back to work. 

The mindful speaking deficit for adults with ADHD is this: following our own thoughts while speaking, and trying to be succinct, requires extra mental effort and selective attention. We lose the big picture when we are too focused at the wrong time. For sure, engaging with others is where life happens, but it is not all that is happening. To someone whose selective attention is locked in place, it is all that is happening.

Our attention needs a manager, the absence of which is central to the disorder. There is no deficit of attention, just a deficiency in attention management. That is why boosting dopamine with medicine can help. It wakes up the manager. 

Maintaining some kind of daily practice of mindfulness can help us to be mindful of where we are directing our attention, and whether we are even directing it at all. But it does not cure ADHD. I’m at my best when I wake up in the morning and say to myself, “Today I have ADHD.” 

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