The Self-Criticism Habit

ADHD symptoms are one thing; habitual behaviors that form around those symptoms are another. The secondary problem of habits may be worse than the primary problem of having ADHD.

All people are prone to habits that are driven by their emotional or cognitive styles. For example, many anxious people habitually avoid situations that make them feel anxious. Surfing the internet can distract an anxious person from dreaded future events. It has an obvious short-term benefit, but an undesirable long-term consequence. Practicing avoidance is not a productive way of coping. The underlying discomfort is the primary anxiety, but the secondary anxiety is more debilitating — i.e., being anxious about becoming anxious. The avoidance habit has a guaranteed reward: immediate anxiety reduction. 

One of the most common behavioral habits I have observed in adults with ADHD is harsh self-criticism. Expecting (or being expected) to deal with life challenges the same way non-ADHD peers do is half the problem. Expecting criticism from others is the other half. Clients tell me that criticizing themselves is like a preemptive strike that keeps judgment from others at bay. 

My clients often don’t even notice how much they criticize themselves until I point it out. Their self-dialogue is like the white noise of a fan running in the background.  Tendencies are harmless unless you don’t see them, or you mistake them for “who you are” rather than “what you’re doing.” You don’t need to change who you are just to change what you’re doing.

The best way to deal with habits that don’t serve you is to develop new habits that will. Don’t think you have to overhaul yourself in the new year. Commit to action that is consistent with your values and then do this when the wheels come off the tracks: (1) put them back on the tracks, and (2) do it without judgment. They will come off again; you can count on it. Practice repeating these two steps as often and as many times as needed. It is like practicing meditation, returning your attention to the present as often and as much as needed.

Zen practice in real time can be better than practicing on a meditation cushion. On the cushion you repeatedly return to the present moment by redirecting your attention to your breath, to your body, to sounds in the present moment, or to a mantra. In “everyday Zen,” you repeatedly return your attention to the task at hand, and without adding the judgment. Cultivate this new habit, and have a Happy New Year!

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