This one’s a vulnerable post, but you’ve been duly warned. I wanted to take at least one post and discuss the tendency for those of us with ADHD to be emotionally sensitive. It’s a well-documented fact about us, and it makes sense to me. I think our sensitivity is often misunderstood, though, and might often be better attributed to impulsivity. I don’t possess a broad knowledge of neurology (which should be painfully evident in this blog to anyone who does), but I do know the general concepts that make this true. ADHD carries a lessened ability to engage in Executive Function (EF). EF is the brain’s ability to direct itself, or to focus on various tasks, or to manage where it is spending its energy. Think of an executive running a large company - they have to regulate the flow of resources to the multiple departments of the business to make sure business flows smoothly. Your brain’s EF is its manager that makes sure the thinking part and the logic part and the planning part are all functioning and that the feeling part or the freaked-out part aren’t running amok. It helps to remember that EF takes a lot energy, and it generally reduces in effectiveness when we’re very tired. It also helps to clarify that folks with ADHD do not have zero EF, we just have a little less than most people. So, now let’s get to the vulnerable part:
I love jumping to conclusions. I must love it, anyway, because I keep doing it despite the negative consequence it brings my way! Several months ago, I came across a very interesting article that confirmed my suspicion that a certain group I am part of does things differently than they should. The more I sat with that notion and thought about it, the more I realized that it was true. I went to the next meeting of that group carrying the inner knowledge that I was right and they were wrong. Over time, I kept thinking about it because it was highly interesting and stimulating to me! Seeing things this new way affirmed that I was not wrong, they were. Looking back, I began to expect the group members to have the same new perspective I had just recently gained. I wanted them to affirm my rightness and change their errant ways. But, if you can believe it, they didn’t. I know, right? Come on, people! Now, to be clear, I hadn’t actually said anything to anyone that might foster a changed mindset, I had only hoped they would change. Also, I’m not in a position to actually lead any change or teach on it or influence it, but I somehow still expected it! How, you might ask, did I so quickly form these unrealistic expectations? I honestly believe it is a part of ADHD. The new revelation I had developed had become hyper interesting to me. I mean, it really lit me up! It was so stimulating because it finally connected what felt like a million dots in my brain all at once. This was epiphany-level stuff! Therefore, all of my mental brakes were off. In forming my expectations of others, I didn’t use my logical brakes, I didn’t think to use the brakes, I didn’t even know where the brakes were, because I was right and the others were not. Before I knew it, I was running 90 miles an hour on this line of thought without ever even knowing it.
This bullet train ride finally stopped for me when I was replaced out of a key role in that same group. The replacement had nothing to do with my revelation, because no one even knew about it. It was a matter of logistics and talent only. I. Got. Pissed. “Oh, the injustice!” I thought. “Here I am with my newfound truth, which is the right answer to something super important, and no one even wants to ask me the question!” I kept on, “If only they weren’t all doing it wrong and could see that I’ve got a perspective they vitally need!” As you can imagine, this lead to a good bit of pouting and wound licking from me for the next few days. Now, I knew in my heart that my indignation didn’t feel 100% legitimate, but it was all I had to run on at the time. Emotion was still overriding my logical thinking ability. My EF was non-existent about this topic.
So, as you can imagine, I came across to others as being “sensitive” when I was replaced. And yes, absolutely, I was. However, I think “sensitive” doesn’t do it justice. It put me in a state of being emotionally disregulated, not practicing executive function, and therefore emotionally overwhelmed. It was painful for me.
So let’s talk about this big epiphany I had. I won’t go into the details, but having the realization gave me fuel! I was ready to share some truth, and not ready to be kicked to the curb. I liken my approach after receiving the epiphany to the attitude of Pancho in Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”: “Pancho was a bandit, boys / Horse as fast as polished steel / Wore his gun outside his pants / For all the honest world to feel.” See, because I had this revelation that I now knew was correct, I had a weapon. I was ready to sling some truth bombs! To me, this revelation was one that everyone I knew absolutely needed to hear, and I was ready to bring the heat…if only anyone would just ask. Looking back with wisdom, I’m very glad they didn’t ask and still haven’t. It will come in it’s own time when and if they are ready to hear it. Perhaps even when and if I am ready to say it.
In counseling, we talk a LOT about boundaries. My boundaries are there to keep me in and keep threats to my sanity out. I can never use my boundaries to force my will on others. My boundaries only ever speak of what I will do in response if treated poorly or inconsiderately. Others cannot cross my boundaries, because boundaries exist solely within me. I am human, so others CAN sometimes offend me and/or act in ways that I do not like. When this happens, my boundaries determine what I will do in response. Boundaries are self-protective and not wrong.
I’ve had the boundaries thing down pretty well as a trained counselor, but then I started to realize that many of these same concepts are true for our revelations. I shouldn’t ever use my revelations to force my will on others. My revelations are only mine to deal with, because they exist in me and not in others. I don’t get to use my revelation to unduly influence others, and I can’t expect anyone to have the same understanding of them or to give them the same weight as I do. I certainly shouldn’t weaponize my revelations or use them against others in any way. If I want to share my revelations, it is my obligation to find a safe, effective and responsible means to share them.
When a person with ADHD (or a “creative” or an “artist”) gets passionate about something, we often become given to the creative process. It likely means more to us than anything in that moment. It’s all we want to do, and we impulsively give ourselves to its pursuit. Think about painting something, building a piece of furniture, mixing a song, and remember how that feels to be blissfully given to the process. If anything threatens our pursuit of our muse, we’ll often get quite sensitive about it in an effort to keep it. Sensitive? Well, yeah, but more than sensitive - impulsive and passionate!
So let’s respect each other out there and remember that passionate pursuits are healthy and good. Revelations are healthy and good, too! BUT, neither passionate pursuits nor revelations are worth putting others down unnecessarily. Let's remember to never assume malice when incompetence will do. And let’s check ourselves more often, even when we feel ourselves beginning to get passionate about something…no, make that especially when we feel ourselves beginning to get passionate about something.
I hope this topic was helpful! If you’d like to talk more about the ways anxiety or ADHD or neurodivergence are playing out in your life, then I hope you’ll schedule a session! There’s a scheduling button on my website at www.altmancounseling.com and you can call me at 770 615 6300. I look forward to meeting you!
Helping creative professionals take back control over anxiety, ADHD, depression, and much more!