The Bully of ADHD

Aug. 28th, 2017

The foundational issue of ADHD is that of attention. It isn’t, however, as so many believe, a lack of it. Just because I can’t focus on something really boring doesn’t mean my attention doesn’t exist, it just means the attention is somewhere else. For example, those people across from me at Starbucks, laughing and chatting, are way more engaging than this blog that I already know a lot about. My attention isn’t on the blog as much as I’d like, it’s on the people.

So what happens when there are really important things, like blogs, that we know need to get done, but we find our attention drifting away from them? I’ve been developing a theory about that. Every ADHD person I’ve informally polled about this has told me I’m right on the money: we bully ourselves.

Now, some people may view this as a good thing. At least there is some mechanism for getting that really difficult, boring, or scary task done when it really needs to get done. I am using the word “bully” intentionally here, however. I, the person from whom I first got this idea, my parents, clients, and friends who I’ve asked all agree it’s like your own inner voice is bullying and belittling you into doing things you don’t want to do.

My “bully” even punches me in the gut. Whenever my chronic stomach condition flares, I know I’ve been bullying myself. That’s right, my bully causes me actual physical pain.

It has taken a long time, but I’ve slowly begun to get a handle on how to fight back. The reason we have these bullies is we lack the motivation to do certain things on our own. Who wants to do dishes, ever? The bully does and will tell you exactly how worthless you are if you don’t do them. Bullying ourselves gives us that little extra oomph (or dopamine, actually) in order to focus and finish the task.

I’m fairly sure this only works on tasks of a certain size, that the motivation only lasts so long, but I could be wrong. Maybe there are people out there who have bullied themselves through a doctorate? 30 years of a career? Their entire lives?

So the solution, the weapon we need to fight back against our bullies, is another form of motivation. There are some fantastic resources on lack of motivation in ADHD, and one of the best and most fun ways is gamification. I have three or four different systems in my life that provide the dopamine I need, without the need for bullying.

One of my favorite techniques, that I don’t think I read in association with motivation, but nevertheless works for me, is called “mental rehearsal” or visualization. I call it “riding the wave”. I’m lying in bed or deeply entrenched in playing a game, and I can’t think of a good enough reason to get up and do the boring thing. I close my eyes and picture something I really want, such as some ice cream or even a clean kitchen. I immerse myself in that thing until I get really excited about getting it. In that moment, I ride the wave of excitement and stand up and do the thing. Then I get a little ice cream or admire the beautifully clean kitchen as my reward.

One warning on this technique, if you don’t actually give yourself the treat you promised, rewards will stop working. You have to trust yourself to actually follow-through or there’s no motivation.

Do you have a bully?