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ADHD Help: INCUP: Passion

ADHD Help: Passion and Strong Emotion

Lately I am learning much about myself and about ADHD (or VAST) as I examine my behavior. (Even us therapists have to do this…and sometimes especially us therapists have to do this!) It’s rather widely know that Creatives like you and me are motivated by things that are Interesting, Novel, Competitive, Urgent or that evoke Passion. This theory is known by the "INCUP" theory of motivation, and it has been proven consistently true by many of us ADHD’ers. One of my more painful yet beneficial points of revelation has been that these same INCUP qualities can also evoke strong emotional responses. For instance, I can easily get caught up in a board game and feel anger, have intense anxiety, or have ruminative thoughts. The same is true for interesting and urgent things in my life, as well. I’m probably going to feel quite deeply about these things, whether I ever actually get them done or not. And then there’s the passion… Oh, the passion. Passion is the one element of INCUP that’s really lead me down the road of self discovery lately. Let’s dive in.

I’m passionate about music. I enjoy finely crafted songwriting, I write songs myself, I perform them, I once played music consistently, I run sound at church - I just love music. I’m not really “good” at making music, but I’m quite good at letting my mind run down the gravel roads of Americana and alt-country songs. I wash dishes nightly to Jason Isbell, Tyler Childers, Brandi Carlisle, and Willie Nelson. I’ve got a crappy little page on SoundCloud full of basement recordings of the songs I’ve written. It’s a hobby, a muse, but mostly a passion. By definition, a passion is something that arouses great enthusiasm in someone. But, we have to be careful. That enthusiasm can get us into trouble!

We have all seen children get “too excited” and become rambunctious, perhaps clumsily breaking a piece of the family china while excited about the birthday gift they just received. For us adults, the emotional impact is typically more covert. When engaging in a passionate pursuit, we may become less mindful of the intensity or our emotions. For me, I have learned that I love passionate projects partly because I can allow at least some of my emotions to fully release while working on them. Just this past weekend, I was running sound and felt the emotional bliss of getting a good mix on the console again. In my case, there’s also the blissful acceptance of feeling that my work matters to the larger group. Lastly there’s the autonomy and “power” I feel when in control of so much volume when I play the board like another instrument. Here’s the rub, though - I gotta be careful with that! I’ll get so caught up in the passion I’m pursuing that I don't even realize when I've let my emotions go unchecked. Pretty soon, I’m likely either feeling self-righteous from the performance I’ve turned out or extremely let down from the lack thereof. This always blindsides me. I never see it coming. I wind up emotionally spinning, hurdling toward the deep end of the pool, with no awareness that I’ve even been triggered. Because of this blindness, I’m left assuming that others are wrong or wrongly motivated. In reality, though, I’ve come to learn that it was usually me. Or, in the words of Ms Swift, "Hello. Hi. I'm the problem. It's me." (More accurately, the Variable Attention Stimulus Trait is the "problem," but Taylor never wrote songs about that, sooo....)

This kind of prolonged internal emotional struggles can make us question our own maturity. For the ADHD/VAST'er, this is an ongoing concern. BUT, it's totally normal, even for the most mature and neurotypical people, to have trouble managing out internal worlds. In fact, maturity isn't what we might think it is. Maturity isn't the state of not needing to actively monitor our emotions anymore. Maturity is taking responsibility for our feelings and then using appropriate skills to monitor and regulate them. Maturity is picking ourselves up when we've fallen down in this area and finding the strength to forgive ourselves and try again. Maturity is shutting down the blame, shame, doubt, and regret in our minds frequently enough to be able to listen to the voice of our own true selves telling ourselves the truth with compassion and self-empathy. Maturity is knowing that tomorrow the sun will rise again and that I'll have another chance.

As a counseling therapist, I've seen the passions of my clients lead to more problems than I can count. The problems generally lead to the creative and passionate person feeling profoundly misunderstood and even rejected in a moment of surprise overwhelm. It comes when they didn't expect it, and they're left with little to no idea what to do next. So, what can help us avoid this effect? More Situational Awareness. During any passionate pursuit, we've got to first become aware of the passion. Once we develop an understanding in our brain that passionate feelings will likely lead to impulsive decisions and trouble, we can regulate our responses much better. While this may sound like I'm trying to zap all the fun out of our most enjoyable activities, I'm not. I'm actually saving us all some headaches by introducing some reality. The next time you feel passionate about anything you're doing, try checking yourself. You DON'T have to miss out on the passion, either You can feel it and let it flow through you, just as you would with anxiety, ager, frustration, and any other emotion. When you feel passionately, ask yourself questions like: What specific emotion am I feeling right now? How intense is my feeling on a 0-10 scale? What is going on around me? What do I need to do? These questions build emotional awareness and provide a foundation of understanding on which to base your choices. Once you have identified how you're feeling, how intensely you're feeling it, and why you're feeling it, then your brain can logically determine what to do. This practice returns our brains from an emotionally flooded state to a more logical, rational, reasonable state.

Many people have trouble quelling the hurricane of emotion that they feel in the moment. It happens. You're not bad or weak for feeling it. Most people benefit from having a go-to activity to take the edge off. As you can imagine, this activity needs to be something healthy so that it doesn't turn into an addiction. I like using walking and/or working out for this. Others use puzzles or games, sitting outside in the sun, curling up in a blanket, listening to music, or reading, among several other options. These activities help us lessen the felt emotion until we can ask ourselves the questions I listed above.

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I hope this post has been informative and helpful. If you’d like to speak more about this or other types of symptoms, please give me a call at 770 615 6300. You can also schedule a session and learn more about my practice at

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