Once considered a childhood condition, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) has become a much more common diagnosis in adults. This is post FOUR of a series in which I cover misconceptions about ADHD, some of its challenges, plus advantages it gives those of us who have it.
I can still hear the laughter of my friends as, overcome by excitement at the prospect of going swimming later that day, I did a caveman dance around the room. I was ten or eleven. Most of the girls my age were starting to fuss over their hair and clothes, glance at boys, and try to act “cool.” I couldn’t hold my emotion in, though.
Then there were those times as a young adult coming home from work, I’d know that a situation with a family member at home was going to be irritating or frustrating. I’d try to calm my brain and emotions down to “handle it” and “be cool,” but not long after I hit the door, I’d find myself raising my voice or even crying.
What was going on?
Difficulty regulating emotion is one of the classic symptoms of ADHD, and it is due to the fact that our brains work and are shaped differently from the normal human brain. At the same time, as we’ll discuss, these intense emotions can also become one of our superpowers.
Let’s dig in.
In this post: the fifth frustration people with ADHD face (social awkwardness/emotional regulation) plus three ADHD superpowers.
In this series, I’m covering five frustrations that people with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, or ADHD, face:
- Rejection Dysphoria/Guilt Complex (covered in my first post on the topic)
- Recognizing only two timeframes—“now” and “not now”
- Difficulty with neatness, organization, and prioritizing (2 & 3 covered in my second post in this series)
- Two sides of the attention coin—lack of focus/hyperfocus (covered in the third post), and
- Social awkwardness/emotional regulation
I’ve also discussed misconceptions about ADHD, for example that despite its name, it is not an attention deficit—it’s an attention difference. I’ve also looked at a couple of superpowers: the ability to see all sides of an issue and hyperfocus.
In this post, I want to wrap things up by discussing the frustration of challenge #5—social awkwardness/emotional regulation—but I also want to talk about three more ADHD superpowers. Actually, they’re all part of the same superpower, empathy, but they are three aspects that can make people with ADHD some of the most empathetic people you’ll ever meet! They are:
- Lack of discomfort with people who are different
- Being fully present. (Huh?!? Yep, not all the time, but when we are, we REALLY are!)
- Not writing people off as failures
Frustration: Social Awkwardness/Low Emotional Regulation
To this day, I embarrass myself in front of my husband. He’ll say out of the blue, “Are you all right?” Suddenly, I’ll “come to” and realize that I’m clenching my fists and/or my teeth and breathing heavily enough to be audible. What’s going on? I’m just thinking about the rude driver from earlier or having a hypothetical argument with someone whose Facebook post just annoyed me.
Alternatively, when I’m happy or excited, I’ll bemuse the dog by cackling with laughter, doing silly dance moves while asking him in a crazy voice to join in, all while singing terrible rhymes that a person with as much love of language and literature as I am should never be found guilty of creating.
This is not bipolarism, as it’s sometimes confused with. Usually something in the day’s circumstances triggers either of those reactions. Still, when I feel something, I feel it! As we’ll see later, this can also be a superpower, but a lot of times, it causes problems for us socially.
Note about women with ADHD: Like many women with ADHD, I’ve learned to mask my symptoms in front of people. Girls tend to be more socialized to fit in and get along with those around them, so many of us learn early to hide some of our more attention-grabbing symptoms.
When I was younger, I would behave the ways I describe above in front of whomever was around. I got made fun of a lot. As an adult, though, while I was single, I made sure no one saw those behaviors unless I was standing in front of a mirror. Now my husband is an occasional witness, but I still manage to stuff most of it down in front of other people. Yet it comes out—I may start tapping my foot, chewing on my hair, or clicking a pen. Alternatively, I’ll jump up and walk out to go to the bathroom, grab a snack, or take a few brisk laps through the halls.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts on the topic how the brains of people with ADHD physically differ from neurotypical people and that certain of our neurotransmitters—the hormones that help the nerves and brain communicate and function—don’t work the way they do in other people.
I won’t get into the biological science, but suffice it to say that understanding this makes sense of the fact that ADHDers often have a harder time controlling impulses, anger, sadness, frustration, and so on. We have a much lower threshold of control over how we feel. (There’s an upside, of course: when we feel excitement or joy, we feel it—but I’ll get more into that later.)
As you can imagine, the uphill struggle to regulate emotion can have negative effects on the ADHDer’s friendships, family life, romantic relationships, and even interactions with strangers. I avoid driving as much as possible, especially during heavy traffic times, because—especially if I’m late or upset—it’s all too easy to fly into a rage that affects how I handle my vehicle. It’s not just me—I hear other ADHDers say similar things.
On the other hand, when something makes me happy, it’s bear hugs all around to anyone within range, raucous singing, and dancing or shadowboxing.
Superpower: Being in the Moment
In this blog series, we’ve discussed how people with ADHD can hyperfocus, how our sense of time is only “now” or “not now,” and that our emotions can overpower us.
If you have ADHD, you can turn this into a superpower. I’ll use myself as an example.
People in both my professional and academic careers have told me that I’m a good interviewer. From personal conversations to thesis research, I’ve had people say, “I’ve never told anyone that,” or “How did you get her to tell you all that?”
When I’m in the moment, I’m in the moment. The hyperfocus, the extra sensitivity to feeling, and the sense of no time but the present contribute. I focus on the person completely, absorbing what they feel, and they reciprocate. (As I’ve said, ADHDers have two modes of focus—hyperfocus or distractibility, so the distractible mode does NOT lend itself to this superpower.)
Interviews are not the only place I fully appreciate the moment I’m in. I love to take nature walks, and I never wear earbuds or headphones. The color of the leaves in the sunlight, the bird songs around me, the scent of grass and dirt and water keep me grounded in time and space. I the world around me in a way that I do not see many others enjoying it.
Superpower: Including the Wallflowers
“You’re really good at noticing who’s sort of on the fringe and getting them to warm up to the group,” a friend once told me.
I can thank my ADHD for that, in large part, for a couple of reasons.
- Remember in my first post how I talked about the rejection dysphoria many ADHDers have? If not, here’s a quick recap: because our behavioral differences tend to annoy others or make us stand out as a little weird, we ADHDers have often had up to EIGHT TIMES as many negative reactions to our behavior as other children by the time we’re thirteen. What that means is that we feel rejection more deeply than others, or even feel it when it doesn’t exist. For example, took me a long time to learn not to take it personally every time someone doesn’t return my call, email, or text.
Yet sensitivity to feeling rejected has opened my eyes to see when others might feel that way, too.
- Distractibility—remember how I said some people think this symptom developed as a function of the brains for people who guarded their community? The idea was that the guardian would never focus on something so much that a movement or other potential danger could not catch his attention.
Well, that works in social situations, too. No matter how hilarious the class clown is or how magnetic the belle of the ball, they don’t hold my attention so much that I don’t notice the people hanging on the fringes.
These qualities have helped me make friends, as people who felt shy, uncertain in a new group, or on the fringe have told me how much they appreciate me reaching out and pulling them into a group.
(Sidenote: This, along with the ADHD attraction to new, different things, has given me a level of comfort around people from other countries who often feel like outsiders. That, in turn, has helped me learn more about other cultures, and ultimately, has made me more comfortable in those cultures when I travel abroad.)
Not Giving Up on People
Some of the same traits I mentioned before also mean that I don’t give up easily on people. Of course, with maturity I have realized the need to set boundaries with people, but still, I often feel that I befriend and try to help people that others blow off or prefer not to hang around much.
For me, because I have struggled so much with things like:
- keeping my room neat,
- paying bills on time,
- not blowing up at someone I love, or
- having a meltdown at work,
I believe that this helps me see people with different eyes. I am not as quick to judge when someone is annoying, has a reputation as a grouch, or doesn’t dress well. Life has been such a struggle for me even when people looking on can’t tell, that I realize it is probably that way for many others.
I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a saint. There are still plenty of people I prefer not to be around. Yet I’ve noticed that there are fewer people I feel that way about than that many other people feel that way about. Knowing what it’s like to feel disapproval even when you’re trying your hardest—that’s tough. And that is what we ADHDers feel a lot. So I’ve learned to turn that into compassion for others.
In Sum . . . .
ADHD does not automatically “grant the user” the superpowers I’ve talked about. If you have ADHD, you must choose to turn the challenges our brains give us into superpowers. Superman did not choose where he was born, and Spiderman did not choose to have a radioactive spider bite him. Superman could have sat with the pain of his past. Spiderman could have griped about his freak accident. Or, they could have chosen to be supervillains.
If you have ADHD, you didn’t ask to have a different brain. Yet just as Superman chose to use his outsider abilities for good, and Spiderman turned a freak accident into service to his community, you can choose to let your differentness help others, too.
Having a different brain can make life super hard, sometimes unbearably so. Yet like I said earlier, the good moments, the beautiful moments—those make all the rest of it so worth it. Especially if you turn your challenges into superpowers.
Till now, I’ve covered:
- Misconceptions about ADHD and some of its neurological divergence from the normal brain
- Five challenges ADHD presents (guilt complex/rejection dysphoria, time blindness, organization/prioritization, lack of focus/hyperfocus, and emotional regulation/social awkwardness), and
- Five superpowers (the ability to see all sides of an issue, hyperfocus, the ability to be fully present in the moment, including the people on the outside, and not giving up on people).
Having ADHD is neither good nor bad. It makes life challenging, but you can also turn those challenges into something beautiful. If you don’t have ADHD, and especially if you don’t but you’re close to someone who does, I hope this blog series has given you new perspective. If you do have it, I hope that you feel empowered.
What are your thoughts?