From the Therapy Room

Shame spirals and procrastination and strategies, oh my! Or, how I negotiate a daily truce with my ADHD brain

Anxiety, procrastination, shame, overwhelm, and…..ADHD. If some or all of these sound like a familiar combination of feelings - you’re not alone. For many adults with a later in life diagnosis, there can be a reckoning process, examining the many ways that various symptoms have manifested as experiences of feeling incompetent, unable to keep up, or somehow just…too much. As a therapist, and as part of a collective where many of us share neurodiverse identities, my own diagnosis has been a helpful piece of how I work to understand my clients perspectives and experiences. I hope that by sharing some of my lived experience and strategies here, I can invite you into new or renewed ways of feeling support in your journey.  

I woke up this morning with a familiar knot in my stomach. It’s a knot made of undone to-do lists, mostly, with the occasional flash of total debilitating overwhelm in the face of multiple competing priorities such as staying housed, feeding myself and my dependents, and keeping the internet turned on so I can do work that I love and attend to the other two priorities.

It’s a familiar sensation and I’m friendly with it, most days, kind of like an annoying pet that will never have enough pets. Always bumping up against your knee like hey, hey hey HEY HEY HEY! In my experience, there is no single tool that will work - just a rotating cast of hopeful tryouts, some of which work better than others, with no way of predicting what will stick on any given day.

The pre-requisite for any of these to work is this infuriating thing called acceptance. *note - later I’ll write about acceptance vs approval, but that’s a different column.

If I can start with the premise that I’m not a jerk with zero follow through but am in fact a self employed single parent with a whole shit ton of things to do AND a couple of diagnoses which make daily life skills harder I am already halfway to getting started. It took years and years to even get to this place though so if that’s feeling daunting - I believe you, and it’s worth the struggle. Therapy helps, medication might help, literally believing that it doesn’t have to be this hard and the problem isn’t some failure of effort can really help. If it was easy, we would, right?

Here are some thoughts. I wrangled them just for you, so that maybe you, too, will feel a degree of possibility and do ‘the thing’, whatever it is that is also calling you. 

First: the urgent vs important matrix. Seems like a great idea, right? Coaches LOVE it. In my brain, typically everything *feels* like is either in the top right or the bottom left corner. Doing the most urgent and important things as a steady state has benefits but lots of drawbacks (oh hi, chronic anxiety and insomnia). 

Urgent and Important // Urgent but not Important

Not Urgent but Important // Not Urgent and Not Important

I have done this as a priority map and made it fun, color coded, and attached to dates for deadlines. Key here is making it fun and not boring. It can also be valuable to look at what the feeling of urgency and importance is doing for me - is it true that I need to respond to that survey? Probably not. But is it true that I need to attend to the unexpected information coming to me from some larger authority with significant power over my life? YES. DO NOT FORGET THIS. Set the alarm. Put it in the calendar. Twice. Early so it’s a reminder on top of a reminder. Tell someone about it. Whatever it takes. Some things really are urgent AND important. And holy crow, the feeling of accomplishment and taking care of one’s own business is worth pursuing. Bonus feature is that sleeping might also happen more easily. Example of this: I put a reminder for May 2024 so I can get my kids bus passes sorted. Because Sept 9th of this year was a sinking pit of the ‘ohhhh shit I didn’t do it’ feeling…again. 

True story: ADHD hates being bored. Call it lack of meaning or something else, if I’m not engaged in some way that feels connective and alive, I am struggling to stay checked in. Particularly with excruciating mundane tasks that nevertheless must be done: body doubling is my go-to. Working in tandem with someone else, even if they’re doing something totally unrelated, is incredibly helpful. Sometimes I’ll call my partner and we’ll sit in silence, doing our work, absolutely not engaged in any way, but the feeling of not being alone with the tasks at hand is significant.

Last thoughts: accountability. The tricky thing about this strategy is that it’s subject to external relational pressures - which, in my case, are super effective but can feel mostly terrible. The way I’ve found to do this better is by making high stakes but low-shame agreements with myself and people who love me and who can hold me accountable.  Sometimes I make before and after videos of the chaotic kitchen and send them to my friend who will shower me with praise and never shame me for allowing it to get that bad in the first place. This isn’t about having a clean house as a meaningful existence (and believe me, I will write more about how this particular koolaid started being sold to people  women), but as a tool for normalizing my own existence and seeking solidarity in the daily struggle to adult effectively. 

There are so many ways to get through the day. I lean on community, humor, perspective shifts, understanding neuro-diversity, a critical perspective on capitalism, and sometimes a healthy dose of nope, not this, not today. We develop ways of coping and sometimes they stop working.

In my work as a counselor, I have the great privilege of getting a glimpse of people’s lives and walking with them through some of the most challenging parts. I am constantly reminded that we are human together, first, and that my struggles are no larger or smaller than anyone else’s, and therefore no less worthy of support and solidarity. I can be that person who helps with effecting change, offers positive reinforcement, reframes how shame works (it doesn’t!) and creates emotionally safer spaces to explore what’s getting in the way of living the life that wants to lived, whether the dishes are done or the novel is getting written. 

December 6, 2023 10:39

Erica Dolsen