If the rules you are following right now are getting in the way of creating the type of ADHD-compatible life you envision you can change that. And you’ll want to if you want to live a life that’s in alignment with your values and allows you to more easily reach your goals. Here’s how to do that.
- We all have internalized subconscious rules we follow.
- Some of these rules are helpful.
- However, some rules you learned along the way, which may have been helpful earlier, may no longer serve you.
- To work well with your ADHD, you’ll want to be aware of your rules.
- And keep those that help you, and drop those that don’t.
- You can do this by learning strategies to notice and address your rules/shoulds so they are ones that work for you.
Happiness Trap, Russ Harrison
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life by Byron Katie
The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harrison
Do you know what your shoulds are and how they are either helping you or getting in your way? Probably not, at least not all of them. But you need to if you want to create a life that works for you.
You’ve tuned into Scattered, Focused, Done – Reimagining Productivity with ADHD, a podcast for ADHD adults, like you, who want to learn how to adopt the best strategies, tools, and skills, to be able to get your essential work done in a way that works with the way your brain is wired. I’m Marla Cummins. And I’m glad you decided to join me today on this journey to reimagining productivity with ADHD. So, you can get what is important to you done without trying to do it like everyone else.
If you frequently feel ashamed or disappointed in yourself, it might be because you feel you are not measuring up to unrealistic rules or shoulds that you have internalized. These rules are cognitive distortions because they’re just not based on facts and often are just well inaccurate. But when you engage in this type of thinking, you believe, at least in that moment, that these rules absolutely are true. So, you have to, you must and should follow them. There’s just no flexibility. No gray area.
There are times, no doubt, when this black and white thinking is helpful. So, when the carbon monoxide detector alarm goes off, you should leave your home and call 9 1 1. You shouldn’t deliberate about whether it could just be faulty batteries.
But the problem with many of your shoulds is that you haven’t decided yet whether they’re helpful or not. You just follow them because, well, you do.
So where did these rules come from?
Sometimes these internal rules, like the instinct for fight or flight when in danger, are baked into your DNA. And you learned somewhere that the alarm from a carbon monoxide detector indicates danger.
Many of these rules, though, are ones you’ve internalized from attempting to meet your needs from childhood onward.
The first rules or shoulds you adopted were because of the need to have your parents’ approval. So maybe you learned the rule that you should finish all your work before you can play from your parents. But now, because your work is never done, it may no longer serve you, right?
And as you got older, you adopted other beliefs from the need to feel a sense of belonging with your peers. You just wanted to fit in with your peer group. But maybe now you’re tired of trying to fit in with everyone and are looking for peeps who accept you how you are.
The third way these rules are formed are from a need to protect yourself emotionally or physically. Maybe you decided I shouldn’t talk a lot because you’re afraid of being impulsive and being looked down upon. And now you need to figure out the context where you can just be you and where sometimes you may need to reign it in.
Wherever they came from you’re probably not very conscious of many of these rules, But, if left unexamined and addressed, these expectations or shoulds will continue to get in the way of creating your ADHD compatible life.
Because maybe they’re ones you simply can’t follow. Or maybe they’re just not in alignment with your true values. And there are some that don’t work with how you operate best, maybe because of your ADHD brain wiring or some other reason. And then there are those that actually may get in the way of pursuing your goals. Other rules or shoulds don’t sync with your preferences or how you like to roll.
And then there are those that just don’t allow for the cognitive flexibility that you need to consider various options in various situations. And some give you the false assurance you can stop bad things from happening if you only follow the rule.
Let’s look at some examples of these shoulds and their impact on the person who holds them.
One example that may resonate with you is: “Once If I learn the right way to work with my ADHD, making these changes should be easy.” But this just isn’t true. Because the primary challenge for ADHD adults is performance, taking action, not knowledge. But if this is one of your rules, you may be tempted to give up when you try to follow a tip that seems simple enough.
In another example, a client who is a software engineer, has the rule that “I should be able to do more at work.”
And so, when ideas for tasks come up in team meetings, he offers to take them on even though he doesn’t have the bandwidth to do more. As a result, his list of undone tasks keeps on getting longer and longer, which is contributing to the shame and overwhelm he is feeling. And these feelings are getting in the way of focusing and attending to his work each day. So, as a result of his rule, “I should be able to do more,” he is actually doing less.
This third example I’ll share with you is from a professor, another client, who we figured out is holding the perspective or rule that “writing should be easy.” Underlying this rule was the belief that if they were really qualified and smart, the words would just flow easily. So, when it inevitably was hard to write, they told themselves I must be stupid.
I know many of you are thinking that, well, writing is hard. And she knows that too. But once they were aware of this formally unconscious rule that they were holding, they began to work on addressing it so it didn’t get in their way.
You can see from these three examples, the potential impact of unrealistic rules or shoulds.
So here are some questions you can ask yourself to uncover the shoulds you may be holding onto that may or may not serve you.
The first question you can ask is: Where am I procrastinating either in doing something I committed to myself or others.
Another question that might be helpful is: What do I feel guilty about whether it is something current or in the past?
And another question that you could use is: Do I have a heavy sense of obligation about something? What is it?
The last question that I’ll offer is: Do I feel conflicted about something. That is, am I torn between what I want to do and what I think I should do?
If you have examples that arise from any of these questions, there might be a should or internalized rule that is prompting these responses.
And one way to lessen the hold these unrealistic rules have on you is to practice diffusion, an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Technique. You can do this by acknowledging your thoughts and feelings related to the unrealistic rule and learn to struggle less with these thoughts and feelings. So, you can stay in the moment. For example, if you have a rule that writing emails should be easy, but you are struggling to write ones. You may then think to yourself, subconsciously, I’m a failure. Then you might actually procrastinate on writing the email. But if you can bring this thought to light, you can then say to yourself, I’m having the thought that I’m a failure. You can even go further and tell yourself, “I noticed I’m having the thought that I’m a failure.
If you’re interested in learning how to use acceptance and commitment therapy techniques, I really encourage you to check out the Happiness Trap by Russ Harrison. I’ve included a link to his book and his website with the podcast on my website.
And then, once you’ve gotten some distance, you can explore where these thoughts and feelings might be coming from. In this example, you feel you’re a failure because you’re not living up to your rule, which is writing emails should be easy.
You could go on to explore the veracity of this rule. One way to get curious about this is to use Byron Katie’s Four Questions, as well as her, what she calls a turnaround. And those questions are:
- Is it true?
- Can you absolutely know it’s true?
- How do you react? What happens when you believe this thought?
- And the fourth question is who would you be without this thought?
So, in the example of writing emails should be easy. You could answer to these questions.
- Yeah. They should be easy.
- And then the second question, well, I can’t absolutely know that they’re easy.
- And then the third question, well, when I think they should be easy and they’re not, I procrastinate
- But if I didn’t think they should be easy, I might be more willing to get help or come up with an approach for the ones that are hard.
Then after you answered these questions, you could try what Katie calls a turnaround. That is, you turn around the thought and ask is the opposite as true or truer than the original thought. The turnaround for the email scenario could be: Writing some emails is hard for everyone.
And if you’re interested in learning more about how to use the Four Questions and Turnarounds, I’ve included a link to Katie’s website with the podcast on my website.
The last technique I’ll share is writing evidence for and against your shoulds.
Again, I’ll use the example of writing emails should be easy. Evidence for the rule that emails writing should be easy is to may be include:
- I’ve been writing emails forever. So, I have a lot of practice.
- Another evidence for this is: It’s not like it’s a dissertation, it’s just an email.
- And the third one, I thought of: Emails aren’t the final word. We could always hop on a call.
So, then you would write evidence against the rule that email writing should be easy. And that evidence might include:
- It’s not always clear what the other person is trying to communicate.
- Or. Sometimes there’s a lot of other work to be done before I can write an email.
- Another bit of evidence is: Some emails are high stakes or at least seem like they are. And so those ones are hard.
- And the last bit of evidence that I came up with is: I don’t want to muddy the waters by not being articulate in my emails.
And after you’ve been practicing with the above techniques for a while, you’ll be able to catch yourself in the moment and use more helpful self-talk to address your shoulds or your rules. Here are some examples.
So one should is: I should be able to make changes easily to manage my ADHD once I know the tricks. The self-talk might be: What seems simple in theory is actually hard to put in action. So it will take me time and I may need support.
And another should is: Writing should be easy for smart people. The self-talk might be: That’s what my mom told me. Unless I’m writing the same thing as I did before each new proposal or paper I write are going to have their unique set of challenges.
So another should. My parents and teachers always said I wasn’t living up to my potential. I should be able to do more at work. The self-talk you might use in this example: Everyone has their limits, including me. If I can figure out the right amount of work I can handle, I’ll be able to do better work with that.
Go ahead and give it a try. What is a should you are holding on to now that just doesn’t serve you? What self-talk can you use in the moment to counter it when it comes up?
Don’t let your shoulds go unexamined. Get curious.
Hold onto the rules that are realistic, flexible, serve your values and goals and are ones that you’ve decided you want to hold onto.
And then work on letting the others go.
That’s it for now. I’m really glad you joined me and stayed until the very end. If you’re interested in learning more about my work with adults, with ADHD, please do check out my website, marlacummins.com. Of course, if you’ve learned a thing or two from today’s podcast, which I hope you have, please also pass along the link to anyone else in your circles you think might benefit. And, until next time, this has been Scattered, Focused, Done. And I’m Marla Cummins wishing you all the very best on your journey to reimagining productivity with ADHD.