Compassion. Anger. Exhuberance. Frustration. Passion. Impulsiveness. Zealousness.
These emotions are just a few we associate with people with ADHD. And you may often read how modulating emotions and managing frustrations can be a challenge for adults with ADHD. True.
Yet, beyond this, the other issues related to emotions and ADHD are often not adequately addressed in treatment.
This is a mistake.
Because, as Dr. Thomas Brown highlights in his most recent book, Smart but Stuck – Emotions in Teens and Adults with ADHD, your emotions greatly impact your ability to carry out your various executive functions in both positive and negative ways.
Let’s take a look…
To start, below is an overview of Dr. Brown’s Model of Executive Functions Impaired in ADHD. In reviewing this you can see more precisely the executive functions, as well as the potential challenges for people with ADHD.
Think of the executive functions as the brain’s management system.
(An important reminder. Your ADHD traits can also be your strengths depending on the context.)
Emotions and Executive Functions
To illustrate how emotions can impact your ability to carry out the various executive functions and manage your ADHD I’ll share a couple of brief accounts. While these stories are representative of the clients I have worked with over the years, they are fictional, to be sure.
Perhaps, you will see yourself represented in one of these stories.
Sue and Her “Nemesis”- Paperwork
Sue, a recruiter for a large firm, was constantly behind in submitting her expense reports. Both her boss and the administrative assistant in charge of processing them would frequently ask her for them. Each time Sue would promise that she would get them in that week, for sure.
But she wasn’t getting them in…
Doing expense reports bored Sue to tears. After all, what could be more boring for an adult with ADHD than paperwork, right?! On top of that she did not think it was an important part of her job. Sue’s frustration was at an all time high.
Underlying her frustrations were her feelings of shame and guilt. “How could anyone trust her when she did not keep her word,” she thought. She had no clue why she was sabotaging herself and how to solve this. But her shame kept her from asking for the help she so desperately needed.
Until we started to work together…
- After we explored her feelings of frustration Sue saw that she was doing herself a disservice by fighting “what is.” In time she was able to tell herself, “Yes, this is boring and maybe not as important as my other work, but it is just part of what I have to do to succeed. And I really like this job and want to succeed. So, how can I make it easier?” This change in perspective and self-talk did help her a bit to initiate when she was ready to engage with the expense reports.
- And, to help remind her of her intentions, Sue used me as her accountability partner, emailing me as she completed each report at an agreed upon schedule. While I sent gentle reminders, the “kick in the pants” and pièce de résistance for Sue was using Beeminder to track her progress and add a little fun; each time she “fell off the yellow brick road” she had to pay money she pledged!
- In addition, to help Sue from getting overwhelmed, she worked on the backlog as a separate project. And together we designed a process and habit she could use to keep her expense reports current going forward.
- Her feelings of shame and guilt started to recede as she got a track record of successfully keeping her word.
Believe it or not, the win for Sue was not really about completing her expense reports.
The importance of this process was both what she learned about
- how her emotions impacted her ability to work.
- and how she worked best when she was faced with something that was borrrring and did not seem very important to her.
Because then she had the tools to address similar situations down the road.
Bob’s Journey Down The Rabbit Hole
Bob, an engineer and self-employed consultant loved coming up with creative solutions for his clients and excelled at the core of his work.
Just before starting his own business he was promoted to a managerial position at the firm where he worked. “What a coup,” he initially thought. But, as he had feared, the administrative aspects of the new position did not play to his strong suit.
And he soon found himself drowning in work and behind in delivering – to everyone! He was overwhelmed and felt burdened by shame. Eventually he decided it was not the kind of challenge he wanted.
He wanted to return to doing the work he loved.
So, when he decided to become a self-employed consultant, he was really looking forward to being able to focus on the technical aspects of each project – the part he was passionate about. And it was important to him that he do each project just right. Perfectly.
As a result when he was working on a project he would often shut out the outside world, working long hours. But, in spite of the long hours, his sense of perfectionism and passion led him down so many rabbit holes that he over promised and under delivered, missing deadlines time and time again.
And, in order to avoid any negative feedback, like he received at his previous position, he didn’t want to share his work with his clients until he was completely done and the project was perfect.
Unfortunately, this lack of communication along the way often resulted in greater delays when he had to back track. So, while Bob was trying to avoid the shame of negative feedback, his sense of shame and blame just increased.
He decided things needed to change. We started to work together, and he also started to see his former therapist, again.
1. Bob was able to start to turn this around by first recognizing that his perfectionism and passion, while helpful in some contexts, were leading him to spend more time that was warranted by the scope and specification of each project. He adopted the mantra, “Perfect does not exist! How can I do this so it is good – good enough?”
2. He also became more aware of how his attempts to avoid negative feedback and shame by not soliciting feedback early in the process were hurting him. So, next, he created a process for working with clients that included specified times for feedback. And when he saw how it helped him he grew to appreciate the feedback, rather than fear it.
3. His also addressed his perfectionism and hyperfocus in part by
• reminding himself how much he valued spending time with his family
• clearly outlining the objectives for each project and a rough time line that he reviewed weekly
• starting each day with concrete objectives / intensions
• using a timer each day set for 1 hour increments so he could check in regularly to see whether he was on track regarding his intentions for the day
4. For added accountability he also emailed me each work day with his top 3 priorities for the day.
Like Sue, Bob learned a great deal about his unique best practices for working effectively.
How About You?
Are you aware of how your emotions both positively and negatively impact your ability to both manage your ADHD and reach your goals?
How are you leveraging your emotions to help you and not get in your way?