Sometimes I wonder: what does it mean to be good at something?

When people praise me for being organized, motivated, or a hard worker, I don’t feel complimented. Being told I’m “good at” something doesn’t make me feel accomplished.

hold-the-praise

Perhaps because “good at _______,” “hard worker,” and “organized” all hint at innate aptitude, not actual hard work. I avoid discussing so-called natural “gifts” (including those often attributed to ADHD) because gifts don’t set us apart. The nature and quality of the work we do — personal and professional — is what defines us. ADHD makes it difficult to maintain consistency in this work. Success ought to be recognized for what it is, not cheapened with random labels like “organized” or “creative.”

Telling someone he’s good at something can be a comment on ourselves, too. It’s like admiring a person’s physical appearance: we fail to consider the complex reasons she might be thinner or stronger than we are.

This doesn’t come naturally…I have ADHD.

natural-gifts-labels-adhd-pull-quoteI won’t be so presumptuous as to call my house clean or uncluttered, but others have said this about me. Sometimes, I envy friends with messy homes.  I’m not naturally clean. I don’t love tidying up my whole downstairs every single night. I was born a collector, not a minimalist. Maintaining an alphabetized filing system and emptying my inboxes regularly isn’t easy.  It’s like when people tell me I’m good at yoga. Nope. I’m committed to a surprisingly modest daily practice that’s accessible to just about anyone.

And so it is with everything in my life. All my good habits are “for now.” None are particularly ambitious. I expect to fall off the wagon and get back on over and over, for as long as I’m alive. I set the bar low enough to clear, even it makes my goals embarrassingly small.

I’m not an overachiever…I do what I need to do.

Despite my hard work, I only do what I need to do to stay sane. I don’t keep boxing up and giving away my possessions because it’s fast and easy. I do it because I won’t clean my house if there’s clutter all over. I do it because an uncluttered, lower-stimulation environment gives me an uncluttered mind. I maintain an obsessive system for my calendars and to-do list. I write everything down on sticky notes. This is because my memory is so terrible, it’s embarrassing and a little scary.

Sure, you can tell me, “wow, I’m jealous, you’re so organized.” I’d like to point out, though, it’s like telling a person in a wheelchair, “wow, I’m so jealous, you have great upper body strength.”

Likewise, when you call me a hard worker, sometimes I’m reminded of the flip side: I have to work harder than the average person to get the same results — so I do. I maintain my lifestyle because I enjoy the significant personal benefits it provides. But is this worthy of praise?

We can un-earn praise.

And, because ADHD makes us unreliable at times, there’s another worry: if you think I’m a calm, attentive parent, what happens when you catch me on a bad day? When I’m tired, or my meds are wearing off, or I’m in an environment that’s too overstimulating and my brain shuts down? If you think I’m super organized, what happens when I forget something big and important?

A couple weeks ago, I referred to parenting experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s criticism of vague praise: it’s something you can take away. “Organized,” “put together,” “calm,” and “good listener” feel tenuous to me. I suspect many people with ADHD feel the same. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop — for someone to uncover our ruse.

Instead of marveling at my natural aptitude for cleanliness and order — it’s imaginary, anyway — ask me about my process for keeping my email inbox empty. Ask me about my favorite organizing book or app. Not only will I feel noticed for who I truly am — a person with flawed neurochemistry who’s worked very hard to construct and environment that supports my and my family’s well-being — I’ll talk your ear off about how you can do the same.

Natural gifts are just that. A great many of them end up gathering dust. When we recognize each other, it should be for our willingness to learn, to forgive ourselves, and to keep trying even when progress is slow.

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