The ADHD Homestead

Create the life you want with the mind you have.

Category: Social Relationships (page 1 of 2)

Taming distractions: my smartphone-free week

Smartphones are a double-edged sword for adults with ADHD. I have a love-hate relationship with mine.

On one hand, it’s a Swiss Army knife of a device. It reminds me to take my meds. It puts my calendar in front of my face every time I unlock its screen. It condenses many tools — day planner, phone, camera, grocery list, file folders, and more — into one GPS-enabled device. I once misplaced it, and it told me where it was with a little blue dot on a map.

It’s also a huge distraction. Last month, I decided to take a break. I bought a dumb phone on eBay, and I deactivated my smartphone. Then, I asked myself: is life better this way?

The pros

I gained a lot from my week off. I took more pictures with my SLR. I read magazines instead of checking notifications. I went to brunch with friends, and didn’t even consider checking my phone in the car or during a lull at the table. I listened to a CD instead of Pandora while driving.

Speaking of driving, when I first learned to drive, I knew how to get everywhere. I’m not a visual thinker, and I didn’t have a map in my head, but I knew which roads intersected where. Now, I snap my phone into its dashboard mount and turn to my navigation app instead of using my eyes and brain. Like memorizing phone numbers, driving without a smartphone has become a lost art. It felt good to stretch those mental muscles again. I watched for road signs and landmarks on familiar routes, and I looked at a map ahead of time for new destinations.

Perhaps best of all, my phone was just a phone. I could make a call without being derailed by apps and notifications. When I first opened my dumb phone, I felt liberated. In a way, I was.

The cons

However, I quickly realized how much a smartphone can help someone like me.

For people with ADHD, convenience means more than comfort. Sure, it’s convenient to sync my Google Contacts across all my devices. It also protects me against lost business cards, or even a lost phone. It’s convenient to check my calendar while I’m at the dentist. It can also make the difference between cleanings every six months vs. every three years. Threaded text messages, where I can scroll through an entire conversation on one screen, are convenient, but something I already struggle to manage. Without that feature, I felt totally out of touch with my social group.

My phone tells me more important stuff, too. It tells me when (and whether) I took my meds this morning. It reminds me of birthdays, anniversaries, and deaths among those close to me.

In other words, my phone helps me manage my productivity, personal health, and social relationships. These are all areas of tremendous struggle for adults with ADHD. Features that provide convenience for most people can make or break relationships (or dental health) for us.

Where to go from here

Because I still used my smartphone on wifi at home, I saw the biggest difference while running errands or spending time with friends. I’ve now reactivated it, and I intend to keep it. I also want it to spend more time in my bag, or in the cell phone bin at home. I’ve been considering a bluetooth cordless phone for my office/home, to imitate the experience of an old school landline. My smartphone-free week has convinced me this is a good idea.

Which reminds me: Once upon a time, no one expected us to respond immediately to everything around the clock. Growing up, people my age didn’t have cell phones at all. We had landlines and answering machines. We sat down at a computer and waited for our modem to dial into our internet service provider.

I remember going to college and experiencing an always-on internet connection for the first time. I marveled at how easy it was to sit down for 30 seconds to check my email on the way out the door. I left AOL Instant Messenger open all the time. The internet wove its way into the fabric of my consciousness, no longer relegated to a time slot on a shared landline. Smartphone culture had, in a way, already begun.

In the end, my smartphone break wasn’t about the device, it was about mindfulness. Used intentionally, smartphones provide huge benefits. When minutes or hours pass by in front of the screen and we don’t even know what happened, we have a problem. We can counteract this by putting the phone in a designated place in the house, keeping it in our bag while we’re out, and/or disabling notifications. We can be judicious about which apps we install. My phone now rings audibly, but only vibrates for notifications. I’ll know if my kid’s school calls, but I can be more intentional about checking the other stuff.

Because my phone is only a tool if I use it wisely.

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My ADHD Home: A Visitors’ Guide

My attempts at effective homemaking with ADHD could fill a memoir. I long for a tidy, peaceful home where guests always feel comfortable and welcome. My grandmother would tell you I make this look easy.

We should all have someone like my grandmother in our lives. For everyone else, I give you this visitors’ guide. I do like you, and please don’t let me drive you crazy.

 

Never be afraid to ask.

Before I say anything funny, allow me to say: I want to be a good host. I try to provide the essentials: towels, toothbrush/toothpaste, a bed, and fresh coffee in the morning. I’ll even pick the coffee mug I think suits you best today.

I’m also forgetful. I miss social cues. Some aspects of my lifestyle are a little weird. If you want it, and I haven’t offered it, I guarantee I a.) have no idea and b.) want to make it happen. A polite request for something to make your stay more comfortable is always welcome.

You’d be surprised by what throws me off my game.

Once, my mom brought her own pillowcase to my house. I had a newborn, and she wanted to save me some laundry. I spent the next four years searching for one of the pillowcases to that sheet set. Apparently, I cannot handle washing part of the set without losing the rest.

I recently found it. I wish I could tell you where, but this happened a couple weeks ago, and I forget. I know I found it somewhere in my house.

Also, now I have anxiety every time someone suggests using a partial sheet set. Guests have said, “oh, it’s just me, you didn’t need to use two pillowcases.” Or, even more terrifying, “I don’t really need the top sheet.” I always wonder: should I admit that I’m afraid of losing the unused piece of the set?

Don’t worry, I love going out. I just hate getting ready.

I love showing you around town. I love thinking about my guests, and what they might enjoy, and designing a weekend to suit them.

That said, I hate getting out the door. I fuss over departure times, even when they don’t matter. I overthink how many and which cars we should drive, or whether we should walk or take public transit. I get cranky with my family for taking too long to pack up. Generally speaking, I don’t go with the flow.

I apologize. I’ll try not to be unpleasant, but I have a terrible track record. If (when) it happens, it’s not about you, or my desire to do the thing. It’s about getting out the door, which is not my favorite.

Keep me up late at your own risk.

I have a bedtime, just like my kid has a bedtime. It’s around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. If I stay up too late, I’ll be a hot mess the next day — especially if we need to get out the door for anything. Lack of sleep intensifies pretty much every ADHD symptom, and sometimes I feel like it increases my meds’ drowsiness side effect.

However, most social nuance is lost on me. I have no idea how to extricate myself gracefully from a conversation. If you’re up, and you’re talking to me, chances are I’ll stay up until you say it’s time for bed. If you want to be super helpful, try to wrap up our friendly chat around the aforementioned time window. Say something like, “alright, well, I’ll let you get to bed.” Everyone will thank you in the morning.

I love offering you a private space…for both of us.

I feel rude even typing this, but I get a little batty about clutter. I find it visually overstimulating, and it makes my brain go haywire. I spend a lot of my life battling clutter, if only to clear my own head.

For our first several years in our house, we didn’t have a dedicated guest room. By necessity, guests tended to spread their belongings throughout the house: a keyring here, a newspaper there, a colony of duffle bags in the corner. I hated myself for how cranky this made me.

Now, I offer guests a semi-finished basement room with their own futon, side table, and bathroom. A handful of guests have told me, “oh, you don’t need to set all that up for me. I can just sleep on the couch.”

Trust me: I love making you a little nest, and it makes me feel like a nice friend. It also gives you a place to put your stuff without cluttering my living space. I’m not a terrible person, but my neurochemistry places certain demands on my environment.

Before Coffee vs. After Coffee.

There are two kinds of time in my day: the time before coffee, and the time after coffee. Before coffee, I like to hang out in the kitchen, cook breakfast for everyone, listen to NPR (or music, or nothing), and put a kettle on the stove. Then I eat my egg and toast and take the remainder of my coffee to the couch to read a magazine.

During this time in the kitchen, I feel happy and pleasant — unless someone harshes my mellow. This isn’t the time to start an important conversation. My brain isn’t warmed up yet. While I’m measuring out the coffee or pouring water into the French press — this is an especially bad time to throw me off-kilter with idle chit-chat. If I pour too much water and have to start my coffee-making routine over, I can’t promise I’m going to be able to deal.

Decompression is a good thing.

After all the drama of pre-coffee chit-chat, lost pillowcases, cluttered side tables, and expeditions out my front door, I need a breather. Seinfeld put it best: it’s not you, it’s me.

I’m an introvert with ADHD. This means I’m easily overwhelmed and worn out by all the hurly-burly. My kid no longer takes a nap in the middle of the day, but I still appreciate a slice  of quiet time. If I sneak off to my office to read a book on the loveseat, or to a backyard hammock for a 30-minute rest in the sun, I probably don’t want you to come keep me company — though I do want you to find me if you need anything! Likewise, if there’s something you want to do — take a walk, read a book, spend some time checking your email — feel free to set aside some time for it. I won’t be offended if you want a little down time that doesn’t involve me.

I like you, please come back.

Bottom line: I love having guests. It’s way more relaxing than getting my entire family out the door (see above) for a weekend away. I love sharing my home and my city. I don’t always have my act together, and sometimes that makes me feel disappointed and angry with myself. It’s not because I don’t want you there, it’s because I have this internal struggle happening: I want to cling to my routines and my familiar environment (ADHD’ers don’t always deal well with change, and someone leaning back in a reclining chair can feel like too much change for me). I also want to be the world’s best host, and I don’t want my ADHD to make me look like a failure as a friend or a grownup.

So welcome to my home. I hope you’re 100% comfortable and happy and well-fed, but if you’re not, I hope you’ll ask for whatever you want. I also hope you’ll be sensitive to the fact that I might act weird sometimes, or seem overly rigid about the little stuff, or get cranky and overwhelmed while we’re getting out the door. I don’t mean to be off-putting. I appreciate you, and I hope you’ll come back.

The internet: ADHD’s friend and foe

When I get overwhelmed, the internet’s the first thing to go. That’s why my social media feeds are either hopping or silent. But the the internet, huge burden and distraction that it is, can also help me on my ADHD journey.

It’s complicated. On one hand, the internet — and social media in particular — keeps me connected to friends and family. It provides me with a community of like-minded ADHD advocates — a safe space to learn and to vent. At the same time, it’s easy to overstretch, to get distracted, to sink too much time into things that shouldn’t be a priority.

I found myself wondering recently: why do I assume my time for online activities is unlimited? Because I don’t need to get in my car and drive to the internet? Because Read Instagram feeds (personal and professional) isn’t something I block out on my calendar? Each new thing requires time and attention to feel like I’m keeping up.

For a while, I thought my ADHD was incompatible with social media. I took six months away from Facebook, with overwhelmingly positive results.

I wanted to stay away, but that didn’t feel right, either.  I have family and friends all over the country and the world. Exiting social media felt like a decision for them, too: in downgrading my internet use, I was downgrading my relationship with them. My ADHD Homestead Facebook page reaches thousands of people. A few of those people have written to thank me for making a difference in their lives. I participate in a small, private ADHD discussion group, and I want to keep up with the friends I’ve made there, too.

As much as I’d love to quit it all and throw away my smart phone sometimes, it makes more sense to treat online activities with the same respect I treat real-life ones. This year, I made a promise to myself to say no to any new evening commitments. I’ve been decluttering my schedule and reminding myself that my time is limited and valuable. If I say yes to everything, I shortchange everyone.

Likewise, I need to stop clicking “join” on every group that looks like it might be up my alley. If a social media app isn’t contributing value to my life and relationships, I need to delete it. Even if a Facebook group or a Coursera class doesn’t show up on my calendar or my doorstep, it requires time and mental energy.

The whole world can fit inside our computer or smart phone. It can’t fit inside our brains or our days. We can’t see or touch social media, not really, but a lack of intention around its use can deplete our most precious resources. The distinction between our online lives and “real lives” grows fuzzier by the day.

How do you balance the internet’s powers of good (connection) and evil (distraction)? Have you had to quit anything to reclaim your focus?

Email sanity with #AdultADHD: collect those open loops!

Way back in the day, I often lost track of my progress on little projects and tasks. Email presented a particular challenge. I’d ask someone a question, hit send, and promptly forget about it.

No matter how out-of-control your inbox may be, I’m sure you sit down every once in a while to ‘take care of your email.’ This may include a flurry of sent messages to people in all corners of your life. It feels good to get a few things off your plate and onto someone else’s, doesn’t it?

email open loops

Send it and forget it…

The problem is, our responsibility doesn’t evaporate when we hit send. I learned this the hard way — several times. Problem coworkers mismanaged their email and used “I never got the email” as an excuse for missing deadlines. My boss expected on-demand status updates on my tasks. She wasn’t impressed when I answered, “oh, right, I had a question about that and I think I emailed you a week or so ago…”

Once I send an email, the whole thing goes out of my brain like sand through a sieve. I do, of course, consider it others’ responsibility to read and respond to my emails. In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need to follow up. But it’s not a perfect world. Others get busy and/or have ADHD, too. That’s why it’s critical to collect those open loops as I send each email. I need to be able to find them before they find me.

…unless you’re waiting for a response.

waiting on outgoingI can’t take credit for this strategy, as I learned it from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but many ADHD’ers struggle with GTD. If you haven’t been able to read the entire book or get the system up and running yet, start here. Collect the loose ends in your email. It’ll make you look 100 times more responsible to those around you.

The method is simple. It doesn’t require any fancy apps. It doesn’t even require anything more than the original Gmail inbox.

When you email someone requesting information or asking them to do something for you, stash it in a folder (or a label, if you’re using Gmail) titled “Waiting On.” As in, “I’m waiting on something from someone.”

Gmail’s web app allows you to apply labels to messages as you compose them, which is very convenient. The mobile app lacks this feature, but you can go to your sent mail and apply the label there. I recommend doing this immediately after sending the message. If I save it for later, I forget!

Where Gmail uses labels, many other email programs use folders. I used Outlook at a previous job. There, I’d bcc: myself on outgoing messages that required followup. When they arrived in my inbox, I moved them into my Waiting On folder.

No matter what email program you’re using, you may want to add an @ symbol to the beginning (e.g. @Waiting On) so it stays at the top of your alphabetical list of labels/folders.

Don’t forget to review.

In a week or so, you’ll have a folder or label with a collection of outstanding requests: an email asking a friend when she’d like to go out for dinner, a shipping notification from Amazon, maybe an email asking family and friends to donate to your upcoming charity bike ride.

Now you need to review them. Put a note on your calendar once a week to go through your Waiting On folder. Set an alarm on your phone. Tell Google Calendar to send you an email every Monday. Whatever works for you.

Then scan through the list and send a quick (and polite!) poke to anyone you think should’ve responded by now.

How do you manage the open loops created by email requests? How do you remind yourself to check back in when you’re expecting a response?

Keep your foot out of your mouth at Christmas dinner

I’ve recently taken up knitting again, and not because I’m a naturally crafty person. Knitting helps me keep my mouth shut. With three family Christmas dinners coming up, the timing is right.

My heart sinks every time I describe myself as quiet to a new (or new-ish) friend and she responds with, “what? You?”

I can’t imagine a reason to be anything but quiet — that feels like the real me — but I come from a long line of verbal fidgeters. This is a nice way to say that many of us chatter, argue, criticize, or even yell in a subconscious effort to balance out our brains’ dopamine supply.

Before any social gathering, I promise myself I won’t talk too much. I won’t interrupt, won’t argue, won’t interject non sequiturs. I can’t remember ever having success with this.

Michele Novotni describes a poignant conversation with her then-five-year-old son (prior to his taking ADHD medication) in her book, What Does Everybody Else Know That I Don’t?

I explained to him that once you have a thought, you need to stop and decide whether or not it is a good idea before you say it or act on it. Jarryd looked puzzled, “There’s no place to stop it, mom. It’s just all one step. That part of my brain must be broken.”

I know exactly how little Jarryd felt. Fortunately, I have my knitting, which gives me a fidget outlet besides my mouth. Knitting is way more socially acceptable than staring at my phone, and it provides a handy conversation piece to break the ice.

Of course, knitting isn’t my only line of defense against myself. Here are some strategies from our family’s toolbox. On a truly lucky day, we remember and follow one of them.

  1. Do something with your hands (knit, doodle, crochet, or find some other small, portable craft); this is what I call “getting your fidgets out,” and it’ll also provide a visual reminder of your goal.
  2. Avoid your traps. My husband has a terrible habit of arguing with his father after a couple glasses of wine. Neither of them needs to feel impaired for a lively debate to spiral out of control. If someone points out a pattern like this to you, listen!
  3. Give up on changing hearts and minds. Challenging someone’s political views in front of an audience won’t help your cause. Ignoring an inflammatory statement and gently changing the subject (or even just finding an excuse to leave the room) removes the offending person’s soapbox.
  4. Watch the booze. It worsens ADHD symptoms and…I needn’t say any more.
  5. Take those meds. They may keep you from making poor choices on the aforementioned points.

If you see me knitting during our conversation, take it as a compliment. It means I care about having a conversation with you. I’m trying to learn to listen more than I talk, and make sure the words I do say are more than just auditory clutter.

How about you? What kind of conversationalist do you want to be, and how are you getting there?

7 ADHD-friendly gift ideas

I keep trying to convince people that gifts stress us out too much, but it’s a tough sell at Christmas. Here are a few suggestions if you’re shopping for someone with ADHD.

FitBit activity tracker

299757-fitbit-oneDon’t let the gadget factor fool you — the FitBit is more than just a fun toy. Of course, the fitness-features — including activity and sleep monitoring — will come in handy for anyone hoping for better self-care in 2016.

However, I love my FitBit most for its silent alarm. It’s the only way I’ve found to remember my twice-daily ADHD medication without disrupting anyone else. Using my phone alarm for medications has always felt awkward to me, but my FitBit‘s vibrating alarm gives me a reminder without attracting unwanted attention.

Pill case (or timer cap)

41Lv8S3sV2L._AC_UL320_SR256,320_A minute after I take my medication, I start thinking, “did I remember my meds today?”

Accidentally double-dosing is no good, but missing a dose can be just as bad. While I see timer caps for pill bottles recommend all the time, you can save money with an old-fashioned plastic case from the drug store. I prefer these anyway because when I load mine up at the beginning of the week, I get an early warning if I’m running low.

A timer or two

The Time Timer can help combat ADHD's "time blindness"

The Time Timer can help combat ADHD’s “time blindness”

We use timers a lot in our house: for the Pomodoro Method, potty training, Facebook,wrapping up in the workshop before dinner, remembering something’s heating on the stove, and much, much more. Tools like the Time Timer represent time visually, which can be a godsend for the particularly time-blind. It works great for kids, too, because you can introduce the concept of time as a little red pie slice that gradually disappears.

Because timers are so critical for us, I love Suck UK’s Kaboom! timer because it looks cool enough to leave it out downstairs. The loud bell is impossible to miss and its cute design makes it a conversation piece.

Document scanner

I rolled my eyes when my husband ordered this because we already own a nice flatbed scanner. However, I now use it almost daily. It’s fast, easy, and has allowed me to eliminate most of our paper filing. If you go the scan-and-shred route, make sure you have a backup service like Dropbox or Crashplan.

scanner

P-Touch labeler

A fancy label maker felt extravagant at first, but I’m now sold on the benefits — espoused by organizing guru David Allen — of printing labels for file folders instead of hand-writing them. The labeler makes this quick and easy, which makes us more likely to file documents in a timely manner.

Not only that, I’ve started labeling every storage container in our home. My husband (like many ADHD spouses, I’m sure) doesn’t always intuit where something goes, even if it seems obvious. I’m even guilty of forgetting my own organizing systems. Tidy-looking printed labels help everyone stay organized.

The new Getting Things Done

81cRgCpieTLConfession: I bought this as a gift to myself already, though I haven’t cracked it open yet. My ADHD made me disorganized on every level as a young adult: from my physical surroundings to my thoughts to my long-range plans (such as they were). We all know we need to be more organized. David Allen’s GTD system answers the question, “but how?” The original book saved my hide as I left full-time employment and created my own structure as a stay-at-home mom and writer.

A helping hand, or a few more minutes in the day

Yes, I’m serious. No one in our family excels at a.) coming up with gift ideas or b.) waiting for Christmas instead of running out and purchasing everything for ourselves.

If more stuff is the last thing your favorite ADHD’er needs, is there a way you can give him something more valuable? I’d give up all my Christmas gifts for someone else to do my top five most-procrastinated housekeeping tasks. Just once! Or how about this: two days of babysitting so I can catch up on…whatever?

Other ideas include: a few hours of cleaning or organizing help (from a professional or, if you’re good at it, from you for free!); a meeting with a financial planner; a few sessions with an ADHD coach, personal trainer, or nutrition counselor; a thrill-seeking day of skydiving, hot air balloon rides, or rock climbing; or a special yoga workshop.

What about you? What do you want for Christmas this year? Are you planning anything special for an ADHD family member?

I have ADHD, but I try to be a good friend anyway

Sometimes I ask myself: am I a good friend?

I don’t really know the answer, and that can be both frustrating and exhausting.

Social struggles are common for ADHD’ers. According to Dr. Russell Barkley in his book Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, we consistently report having fewer close friends than our peers.

I worry about this because I have nice friends. I like them, and I want them to continue liking me, but I fear no one really sees my best.

I’m getting better, though. Like anything in ADHDland, being a good friend takes learning, practice, and intentional strategies.

Here are the most valuable things I’ve learned:

  1. I contribute what I can, where I can.
    To make up for the times when I do weird stuff, don’t know the right thing to say, or just go off the radar for a while, I capitalize on the good things I have to offer: a loaf of homemade bread just because. A magazine clipping in the mail. A ride across town in the middle of a work day. I go for the little things and hope they add up.
  2. I’m honest about my foibles.
    In his book Just Listen, Dr. Mark Goulston calls this the “stipulation gambit.” I’m forthright about character flaws that might create misunderstandings. For example, I’m terrible with the phone. If it rings unexpectedly, I’m unlikely to answer it,  and I’m not shy about sharing this anxiety. I’d rather people think I’m neurotic than unconcerned. Likewise with forgetfulness, interrupting, speaking with too much intensity, and monologuing.
  3. I spend less time on Facebook than I used to.
    Scrolling through my news feed fools my brain into thinking I’m connected when I’m really not. It also sucks time away from more meaningful, one-on-one connections: writing emails and texts, arranging visits, or just having dinner together.
  4. I’ve stopped waiting until I feel less overwhelmed.
    It won’t happen. I have ADHD. It’s hard to do, but I try not to let myself use overwhelm and “being too busy” as a reason to defer social plans.
  5. I accept that my friends are a project.
    It feels like cheating to use my calendaring and task management apps to manage friendships. I hope my friends don’t figure out we’re only hanging out because I made our dinner its own project in Toodledo. Including time to think about friends and family during my weekly review feels cold. Then again, I use these systems for everything else I think is important. Why not afford friends and family the same consideration?
  6. I write down gift ideas year-round and squirrel them away in Google Documents.
    I don’t know about you, but I’m far more likely to think of the Best Gift Idea Ever in July than the week before Christmas. My brain isn’t good at generating lots of new ideas under pressure. If I give a home run gift, it’s probably something I wrote down several months earlier. Maybe I even wrote it on the bathroom mirror as I stepped out of the shower.
  7. I’ve read several books on communication and brain science.
    I read to learn about my brain, others’ brains, and how to show my best self to the world. There’s no shame in acknowledging I’m not good at something and working to get better. In Your Brain at Work, David Rock suggests learning to recognize your brain’s inherent weaknesses so you can say, “that’s just my brain” instead of going into freakout mode. It helps. Knowledge is power, especially when it comes to those big ADHD emotions that shut down your rational brain.
  8. I try to be a good friend to myself, too.
    Being kind to myself has — I begrudgingly admit — made me more attractive to others and allowed me to fill my life with good people who care about me. Mistakes happen, though, and it’s easy to become consumed by negative self-talk. In Women with Attention Deficit Disorder: Embrace Your Differences and Transform Your Life, Sari Solden advises against “over apologizing or putting yourself down.” I’ve tried to take that to heart and keep apologies simple, heartfelt, and proportionate to what happened.

How about you? How do you keep ADHD from getting the best of your personal relationships?

When you’re not yourself

During an emotional meltdown, part of us really does disappear. My two-year-old gave me a powerful reminder of this while we were staying with friends for the weekend.

R — exhausted from days of fun and social interaction — totally lost it getting ready for nap. We were in full meltdown mode. I just sat in the middle of the room and tried to remain calm as he sobbed, crawled in circles, and screamed incoherent sentences.

The crying eventually subsided. R opened his eyes, looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time, smiled, and said…

“Hi.”

Hi. As though he had just returned from Somewhere Else. In a way, he had.

When your rational brain checks out

It happens to grownups, too. I especially like how Dr. Mark Goulston describes this phenomenon in his book Just Listen.  He refers to our “three-part brain” as:

  • The lower reptilian brain (fight-or-flight),
  • The middle mammal brain (emotions), and
  • The higher primate brain (logic and rational thought)

These parts were added on sequentially as we evolved. For a real-life illustration, spend some time with babies and toddlers. In his classic Happiest Toddler on the BlockDr. Harvey Karp compares toddlers to “primitive little cavemen” living a “superfast rerun of ancient human development.”

As adults, Goulston says, these three parts of our brain can work as a team. However, add a little stress and our old reptile brain takes over.

“If you’re talking to [someone] whose lower brain or midbrain is in control,” explains Goulston, “you’re talking to a cornered snake or, at best, a hysterical rabbit.”

The biggest mistake we make in our ADHD household? Assuming someone is thinking rationally — with our primate brain — when we’re not.

not yourself pull quote

Your reptile brain deserves some space

When I’m feeling like that cornered snake or hysterical rabbit — not sure which is worse — the critical next step is telling myself, you’re not yourself right now. Or, more accurately, I’m the last person I want handling an important decision or conversation.

I’ve learned it’s best to honor where I am at the moment and give myself space to cool down. Naming feelings helps a lot. Try it next time you’re in emotional or fight-or-flight mode: say — aloud or to yourself — I’m feeling really out of control. That comment was really hurtful. Wow, I’m so angry. Listening to my child cry is sending my stress hormones through the roof.

It’s a hard skill to learn, and it requires practice. My brain loves to trick me into justifying extreme emotions or, even worse, sticking it out in an argument despite feeling hysterical.

This is almost always a terrible idea, especially given ADHD’s effects on emotional regulation. Emotional control is often lacking in ADHD adults. “Without well-developed verbal and nonverbal working memory,” explains Dr. Russell Barkley in Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, “you have less capacity for the visual imagery and self-speech that can help you calm your emotions.”

If you’re in a relationship with an ADHD adult, this emotional reactivity may be all too familiar. In Is It You, Me, or Adult ADD?Gina Pera describes “a tendency to become easily frustrated and growl or blow up, but react 10 minutes later with over-the-top excitement to something else.”

This describes me to a T. My rational brain can be a real diva. It’s ready to walk off the stage at any moment, leaving me to yell the exact wrong thing at my husband, boss, or kid. Once I’m entrenched in a conflict, I forget how I even got there.

It’s tough to counter this. The first step is noticing it’s happening. Intense emotions are, most of the time, an indication that I need to back off. It’s not the time to work through an important issue with my husband, make decisions, or provide my opinion on someone else’s behavior. A poor grasp of time makes it tough to defer these things. Right Now can be the only time that feels real.

But defer we must, if we want to maintain healthy relationships. It’s okay to be upset, and it never hurts to ask, “can we talk about this a little later?” It’s not okay to explode at someone, say a lot of really upsetting things to them, and later claim you have no memory of what happened. My life has been a lot of the former and not enough of the latter, but I’m working on it.

How about you? How do you minimize the damage when your rational brain shuts down?

(One reason) why I’m a worse parent when you’re watching

Social Skills 101

Photo credit: Lynde Pratt

Earlier this year, we read Vicki Hoefle’s Duct Tape Parenting as a family. Hoefle’s non-interventionist style, with an emphasis on nurturing both executive function and family connectedness, is a perfect fit for us. I suspect many other families (ADHD and not) will find the same.

And yet.

And yet, just the other day, I broke the rules — bigtime. There I stood, with my hand gripping R.’s tiny little wrist, telling him firmly, don’t grab that from her.

It was a typical spring afternoon in our neighborhood: sunny, warm, several families congregated outside for post-nap playtime.

R. stared at me and whined, but thankfully (for me) didn’t fight me when I suggested he choose another toy.

Later, I asked myself, what example am I setting here?

Am I showing my son that even though we have a system of expectations, communication, and respect that works for our family, I’m unwilling to defend it in public? That what Other People think is more important than my relationship with him?

You bet, and I’m not proud of it.

At the same time, I don’t want to be That Parent — in this case, That Parent who allows my kid to walk up and grab a toy from my neighbor’s sweet, adorable, smaller child.

For ADHD adults, a lifetime of social struggles

I suspect many ADHD adults teeter along this line. Our families are often a little different, and that’s okay. We’re used to being different.

But as parents, we don’t always want our kids to be different. Reconciling our differences with friends’ parenting norms can feel impossible for ADHD adults already lacking social confidence.

I’ve struggled with social skills since kindergarten. Elementary and middle school were tough, but by high school I’d joined what one of my teachers referred to as the “Fringe of Weirdness.” Thanks to the FoW, not fitting in became a way of fitting in.

As an adult, and especially as a parent, I feel older, more tired — mostly more tired of myself. To the chagrin of my 13-year-old self, who listened to the Sex Pistols and dyed her hair with Kool Aid, I wish I could be more like everyone else.

In a group of parents, even parents I know well, I struggle to read social cues and figure out where and how I fit in. Before play dates, I remind myself to make eye contact, ask questions, and pay attention to how long I’ve been speaking without a break. I try to observe others’ behavior to make sure I’m not too far off.

Often, I forget all of these strategies and agonize over my behavior hours later. During the preschool years, my people skills will define my child’s social life.

It’s not hard to see how, after a lifetime of social illiteracy, I feel disempowered to assert my parenting philosophies in a group.

better parent

Leading our children away from the Fringe of Weirdness

In an ecosystem where intervention and hands-on teaching — saying “you need to share,” negotiating turn-taking, mediating conflicts — are almost synonymous with good parenting, expressing dissent feels risky. Failing to follow social norms might make me appear inconsiderate, inattentive, or like I won’t teach positive social behavior (none of which are true).

I love to say “I don’t care what anyone else thinks,” but when it comes to letting others think I’m selfish, inconsiderate, irresponsible, or a poor parent, that’s a big lie.

Not to mention, similarity in parenting styles makes friends — and not just for me. R.’s and my lives are both made richer by our lovely social group and support system. I live in near-constant fear of jeopardizing that for us, especially given my lackluster friend-making skills.

The irony of wanting to look like a good parent

Many, many ADHD adults struggle to maintain close social relationships. It’s understandable not to want to rock the boat now that I’m in such a good place.

However, in trying to make a good impression as a responsible parent, I’m not being the best parent I can be for my kid. It won’t escape him. Once R. gets a little older, he’ll no doubt call me out on it. I want to teach him the confidence and conviction to do so.

Hoefle recommends in her book that we tell others, “I’m raising thinking kids.” But how are parents who already struggle with verbal communication supposed to say that without implying that other parents aren’t? Especially parents we like and respect?

In my long track record of social faux pas, I’ve offended people in conversations with far lower stakes. Our convictions as parents are so strong, our identities as “good parents” so easily challenged, it’s going to take more than “it’s okay, I’m raising a thinking kid.”

But what it will take, I have no idea. Most days, I’m not sure where to begin.

Blame shifting: when someone you love puts it all on you

If you love someone with ADHD, you may know too well how blame shifting can hurt a relationship.

Blame shifting takes many forms:

“If you didn’t make me so angry all the time, I wouldn’t explode at you. Would you rather I bottled it all up?”

“I wouldn’t have gotten a speeding ticket if you hadn’t asked a bunch of questions when you knew I was trying to get out the door.”

“I never thought I’d be the type to cheat, but you made me feel so unappreciated.”

“You and Dad never modeled a healthy relationship for me. No wonder my marriage fell apart.”

Daniel Amen blame shifting quote

For the purposes of this post, let’s look at a smaller-scale example:

Suppose you’re having company over tonight. Your husband meant to take pork chops out of the freezer last night, but he forgot. He arrives home from some errands at 4:30, ready to marinate the chops so he can throw them on the grill when your guests arrive.

Upon discovering the meat still in the freezer, he blows up at you:

“Great, now dinner is ruined! You were here all day and you couldn’t have noticed the meat wasn’t in the fridge? Every time I think you have my back, you’re just thinking about your own stuff and doing your own thing. All our other married friends work together as a team. You make me feel like our relationship is just every man for himself…”

And on and on.

In describing this behavior to your friends — or searching the internet — you may learn blame shifting is often categorized as psychological abuse.

Does this mean you’re in an abusive relationship and it’s time to get out?

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Why we blame others

Just like shifting blame onto others is easier to swallow than accepting your own (often overwhelming) faults, it’s easy to cast ourselves in the role of the victim. Once we’ve accepted the role, both parties learn to play their part like it’s second nature.

Before we write off a blame shifter as incurably abusive and ill-intentioned, it’s worth a closer look. The ability to see a situation from multiple angles and experience emotions without being blinded by them is a marker of strength. We can assert and protect ourselves in ways other than walking out the door.

As we seek that steady foundation, we need to remember why people people tend to mistreat others. As a child, I remember my mother telling me bullies picked on me because they felt badly about themselves.

Bullies of all ages use others to shift focus away from their own hurts. In his book Healing ADD from the Inside Out, Dr. Daniel Amen writes, “people who ruin their own lives have a strong tendency to blame other people when things go wrong.” Consider the pain, humiliation, and self-loathing weighing on the hearts of so many ADHD adults and it’s easy to see blame shifting and other emotionally abusive behaviors as the path of least resistance.

Accepting even a minor failure — like forgetting to take the meat out of the freezer — can feel like too much to bear if your self-image has already been decimated by ADHD. Allowing ourselves to own that one misstep threatens to open the floodgates, confirming our worst fears about ourselves and reinforcing our most damaging self-criticisms.

Disarm with compassion and clarity

I’m not excusing bad behavior, but rather seeking explanations beyond “he’s just a bad person.” When you’re feeling wounded by a blame shifter’s words, try to remember they’re hurting, too. This knowledge may make it easier to begin from a strong and productive place rather than simply retreating or attacking back.

And it does take strength. The best first step in a conflict is to acknowledge your own contribution, even if the other person is wrong.

Why? Because this removes the blame shifter’s weapon. You cannot assume a position of strength without making yourself vulnerable. When someone shifts the blame, that’s a good signal that they’re coming from a place of weakness and will redouble their attacks if you begin by focusing on their faults.

When acknowledging your contribution, don’t dwell on blame or get melodramatic. The idea is to communicate to the other person, “I’m not interested in discussing who’s to blame here” and move on.

In the case of the frozen meat, that means saying, “I’m sorry I didn’t notice when I went into the fridge to get my lunch. If I had, we may have been able to get the meat thawed in time.”

You may fear you’re just rewarding bad behavior. There’s inherent risk in making yourself vulnerable. But consider your options: if you argue, deny, and try to pass the buck back to the blame shifter, you’re making them feel even more threatened and thus even more prone to attack. You could just slink away, refuse to engage, and wait for it to blow over, but that makes you an ideal target: a person who won’t stand up for herself, who will allow someone to tear you down to make themselves feel better. That’s not okay.

After accepting your contribution, be firm. Make sure you’re not enabling blame shifting now or in the future. Help the blame shifter see their role in the situation by making clear, non-threatening observations about what happened.

Avoid statements that aren’t about you, like “you said you’d be in charge of the meat. I shouldn’t have needed to worry about it.”

Instead, describe only your own feelings, observations, and interpretations: “the meat wasn’t on my radar. I guess I kind of forgot about it after we decided you’d grill and I’d make the side dishes. It sounds like you’d like for us to check each other a little more intentionally to make sure nothing gets forgotten.”

This shifts focus away from finger-pointing and toward problem solving.

If the blame shifter continues to dump on you, speak up. Resist the urge to get emotional or confrontational. For example: “I feel like I’m trying to look at this from both sides. It’s not okay with me to just focus on how I messed up because that’s not what I feel really happened here. Am I making it difficult for you to have a two-sided conversation about this?”

Once a blame shifter learns that you won’t take the bait and feed the flames with more emotion, they’ll stop seeing you as a viable container for their own bad feelings and low self esteem.

You can’t do it all

Sometimes a loved one will continue behaving badly, especially if their ADHD is untreated or poorly managed. Only you can know — through experience, soul searching, and repeated attempts to open doors to effective communication — if it’s time to remove yourself from a toxic environment.

However, it’s important to remember there’s hurt on both sides, and rarely does responsibility for stopping the cycle rest with just one person.

Much of the advice in this post was gleaned from Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen’s Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. If you’re dealing with a poor communicator, the best thing you can do to make things better is to hone your own skills and lead by example. I highly recommend Difficult Conversations as a starting point for anyone seeking to heal a damaged relationship.

Have you felt victimized by a blame shifter? What did you do? Are you a recovering blame shifter? I’d love to hear your story in the comments.

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