ADHD adults make mistakes just like everyone else. You will do something whether it is “an action, decision, or judgment that produces an unwanted or unintentional result.” And you may wonder on occasion, “How can I stop screwing up?!”
Well, of course, it’s impossible to avoid making mistakes. You know this. Yet, you may beat yourself up whenever you make one. Maybe even going into a shame spiral. And, when you’re feeling like this, the last thing you want to hear is how your mistakes will help you grow stronger! So, I’m not going to tell you this. You’re welcome. 😊
However, the way you think and feel after making a mistake may lead you to behave ways you later regret. So that your response to making the mistake makes the situation even worse for yourself and others. Think of the last time you made a mistake. Would you have liked to have handled it differently?
The good news is you can adopt techniques to act with integrity and in sync with your values after making mistakes.
Types of Mistake You Make When You Have ADHD
Obviously, the consequence of a mistake is an “unwanted or unintentional result.” But what about the actions that caused the mistake? Eduardo Brince̴no co-founder (along with Carol Dweck) and CEO of Mindset Works, describes 4 types of mistakes.
When you make a stretch mistake you could not have foreseen the consequences because you’re reaching beyond your current capabilities. These are inevitable and only problematic if you repeat them instead of improving your skills to minimize the chances of their reoccurrence.
Then there are those aha-moment mistakes where you achieve what you wanted, only to find out later it was a mistake. Typically, these happen because you didn’t know any better. For example, to be helpful you might offer unsolicited advice to a colleague, which they resist.
Sloppy mistakes are the ones ADHD adults find most frustrating because they might be avoidable. For example, converting the time wrong and then missing a meeting is a sloppy mistake. You know how to convert times for meetings, but maybe you were distracted or trying to do it at the last minute. Sound familiar?
When you make a high stakes mistake the results can be potentially catastrophic. This may be because there is an element of danger, such as speeding on an icy road. Alternatively, it may be a high stakes mistake because the goal is so important, such as arriving late to a job interview.
As Brinceno notes:
Mistakes are not all created equal, and they are not always desirable. In addition, learning from mistakes is not all automatic. In order to learn from them the most, we need to reflect on our errors and extract lessons from them.
What you do after making a mistake is important. Because the impact of your reaction can have far-reaching consequences for both you and others.
Step 1 – Diffuse Your Thoughts and Feelings
As I pointed out in the previous post, Do You Want to Get Rid of Your Negative Thoughts and Feelings? learning what to do with your “negative” thoughts and feelings and treating your ADHD go hand in hand. I know your inclination may be to try to get rid of negative feelings after making a mistake. Maybe you try to think more positively or distract yourself. How is that working?
If you are like many people who try these strategies, you know they often have the opposite effect. That is, the very thoughts and feelings you’re trying to get rid of expand, rather than dissipate. The alternative is to acknowledge them and use strategies so that they do not hook you and influence your behavior.
One way to do this is to use techniques to stop battling your thoughts and feelings, stay in the moment and allow your feelings to be, rather than trying to avoid them. For example, once you realize you missed the meeting because you converted the time wrong and are thinking, “I’m an idiot,” try the following:
- Take 10 deep breaths as slowly as possible and notice the sensations as you inhale and exhale.
- Tell yourself, “I’m having the thought that I’m an idiot.” You could expand on this and tell yourself, “I notice I’m having the thought I’m an idiot.”
- Sing “I’m an idiot” to the tune of happy birthday.
Try this with a thought you’re having now. What happened to the thought? Did you get some distance? Click here for more info on practicing diffusion.
Step 2 – Take Time to Address Faulty Thinking
Then, when you can get some distance — are not in the heat of the moment — you can reflect on your thinking. And, if you find the source of your angst are cognitive distortions, you can address this faulty thinking. So, you can act how you want in the current context and in similar future situations.
For example, when your colleague emailed you to remind you of the time of this afternoon’s meeting, did you jump to the conclusion she thinks you’re incompetent? After all, you thought, “We all got the same email with the details of the meeting. Why would I need a special reminder?!”
The first thing you can do is diffuse the thought — get some distance — so you don’t get hooked by it. Then, if you realize you fell into the trap of personalizing you can use your self-talks skills to remind yourself:
I did miss the meeting last week because I converted the time wrong. And they were understandably frustrated. Her reminder doesn’t mean she doesn’t like me or thinks I’m incompetent. Maybe she’s just anxious about the project and wants to be sure I’ll be there to contribute. I get it. Maybe I can figure out a way to minimize the chances of converting the time wrong nect time.
The more you practice addressing your faulty thinking with techniques such as self-talk, the more automatic it may become in the moment. And this can also help you not to get hooked by these thoughts and feelings.
Step 3 – Acknowledge How Your ADHD Is A Contributing Factor
Your ADHD symptoms will occasionally be a contributing factor when you make a mistake, for sure. You know that. Knowing how your ADHD impacts your ability to operate the way you want can help you adopt workarounds to minimize your chances of making mistakes.
The following quote from a former client is a great reminder that you’ll need to figure this out in a way that works best for you:
Every now and then even streams and rivers have incredibly tough obstacles between their starting points and where they want to meander (like mountains!). But over the years they just keep on chipping away and turning and finding other ingenious ways to access where they’re going. So, I’m not fluid like an established flowing river, but I’m slowly carving out a crooked sort of flow. Ok off to do some eroding.
You too can discover ingenious ways to work around your ADHD and minimize potential mistakes. This will include leveraging your strengths, as well as addressing your ADHD and other challenges. As you do this, you’ll significantly increase your chances of success.
Because you will be breaking through the barriers — doing some eroding. When it comes to mistakes what eroding are you doing today?
Step 4 – Determine What You Could Do Differently Next Time
When you make a mistake, taking some space, addressing faulty thinking, and recognizing how your ADHD may have gotten in the way are all good steps to take initially. You could stop there, and decide, “Oh well, stuff happens.” If you did that, chances are you might repeat the mistake.
Alternatively, you might fall into the trap of black and white thinking. And determine you should either go full speed ahead and try harder or just give up. Just trying harder, when how you are operating is not working, will likely not help. While giving up will, of course, not help either.
The other possibility is to acknowledge you made a mistake and ask yourself: “What could I do differently next time?” In the example of not converting the time correctly, you might decide that next time you will:
- email to confirm the time of the meeting
- use an application, like worldtime buddy to check the time, rather than do it in your head.
- put the meeting in your calendar and double-check the time.
- set an alarm to remind you of the meeting.
Rather than defining yourself by your mistakes, ignoring them or just working harder, you can figure out what to do differently going forward. So, you can minimize the chances of repeating the same mistakes. And definitely get support, if you’re not sure what to do differently.
Always, Always Practice Self-Compassion and Shame Resiliency
At the end of the day, despite your best efforts, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s just part of being human. And, because of your ADHD, you may make more mistakes than your neurotypical peers. While you can work on preventing some of these, you’re going to slip up. And expecting otherwise is just a set up for frustration.
One way to counter this frustration is to practice self-compassion. As Dr. Kristin Neff points out, if you are treating yourself with self-compassion:
instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?
It is also important to develop shame resiliency. Sure, you may feel guilty after making a mistake. And you might want to figure out how to make it right, as well as prevent similar mistakes in the future. But the mistake is not a reflection of who you are.
If you think it is, you may go down a shame spiral after making a mistake. That is, you see yourself as “inherently flawed and, as a result, are unlovable and don’t belong.” Then you’ll have a hard time recovering and moving forward positively, right?
If you feel shame about a recent mistake, how can you reframe it for yourself?
You know you are going to make mistakes, and you didn’t need to read this article to learn that.
Think of a mistake you made recently. Got it? What can you use from the above suggestions to address it differently?
It would be great to hear what you came up with! Let me know.