I recently stumbled upon another annoying ADHD symptom I hadn’t notice before.
It started during a fight with my mother.
“Maybe I should tell YOUR friends about you.”
The statement hung in the air. The absurdity of it wasn’t lost on me.
Forty-one years old, and my mother was threatening to socially isolate me.
I was dragging an old turquoise suitcase down the enclosed steps in her house. Her steps are like a little tunnel, so when I laughed it echoed.
Laughing sounds like a strange response, but anything I said would be meaningless.
I’ve spent years defending myself from accusations of being cold-hearted and lazy, even though I’ve always known it wasn’t true.
As I left my mother’s house that day I put down the last box and said, “Just because you say it, doesn’t make it true.”
Then I walked to my car and drove away wondering how to best process another negative interaction with my mother.
I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to balance two disparate ideas of who I am.
Am I lazy and unkind?
Or am I a grown woman with an ADHD brain?
Psychologists call this type of mental discomfort cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is defined as the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes at the same time.
My beliefs about myself are in conflict with the messaging I’ve been getting for most of my life about who I am.
You might’ve received similar messages about yourself growing up with ADHD.
You’ve felt that discomfort – knowing that you DO CARE, and you DID TRY – but people judge you based on your results.
Believe me, I’ve tried conversation, nicely worded emails, anxiety medications, and even avoidance to relieve the tension in my mind.
Only one thing has ever worked consistently.
I recently asked the ADHD twitter-verse if they are verbal processors. Over three quarters responded that they are.
If I’m synthesizing information from research I write.
But verbalizing my thoughts and feelings is the only thing that allows me to process input from other people.
I’ve developed an odd personal habit to help myself through particularly fraught interactions.
I process my thoughts and emotions with people who aren’t there.
Anne Lamott explains this odd habit of mine in her book, Bird By Bird,
“Left to it’s own devices, my mind spends much of its time having conversations with people who aren’t there. I walk along defending myself to people, or exchanging, repartee with them, or rationalizing my behavior, or seducing them with gossip, or pretending I’m on their TV talk show or whatever.”
I too talk to friends, family, and my therapist in my head all the time.
Sometimes I go back through conversations like the one above, and come up with little one-line zingers I should have said to defend myself.
Conversational rehearsal allows you to try on different aspects of your personality. It allows you to see all the corners of your mind in privacy and without judgment.
Talking to yourself solidifies your identity, easing the mental tension.
The ADHD brain needs a release valve, and for some of us verbalizing serves that purpose.
Cognitive Dissonance and ADHD
Your brain has a tough time sorting through conflicting evidence.
Trying new things, or getting started on something you feel a little iffy about is damn near impossible. It feels like you are wading through mud like the kid in The Neverending Story.
You want to provide wholesome meals for your family. But on the other hand, cooking is boring and tedious and requires you to think ahead so you avoid doing it.
Life is full of situations where your self-perception doesn’t align with your actions. This creates mental discomfort.
Most of the behaviors that get us into trouble are connected to our ability to process information and respond. These are the symptoms of ADHD that others perceive as bad behavior.
In social situations we suffer with fear of rejection, so we might not speak at all. Or we get nervous and talk too much in an attempt to fit in.
If you’ve dropped the ball or forgotten an important obligation, you know the mental anguish of regret.
What’s telling is how you respond.
You might “ghost” the other person because you don’t know what to do.
Your actions didn’t line up with your intentions and you feel you’ve made a bad impression.
It’s hard for the ADHD brain to hold the truth of your efforts and intentions alongside the reality of how you behave.
Beliefs are what make this cognitive dissonance so difficult for us.
Beliefs are the foundation of your sense of self. They are incredibly influential in how you hold your identity.
If you make a mistake that challenges your perception of who you are, the dissonance will be much more painful.
For example, when my mother calls me selfish that runs up against my beliefs about myself and who I know I am, causing cognitive dissonance.
Inevitably, I’ll have to talk to myself to process that interaction and get myself back to baseline.
If you have a number of conflicting thoughts – which most ADHDers do – you will feel uncomfortable a lot.
You can’t access the logical parts of your brain to, “think” your way out of a shame, anxiety, and embarrassment spiral.
Managing Cognitive Dissonance
You already know I like to talk to people who aren’t here. It works for me and it might work for you.
If you aren’t a verbal processor, but this cognitive dissonance theme resonates with you, the first thing I’d look at are your core beliefs about yourself and your beliefs about the ADHD diagnosis.
Core beliefs impact how we show up in the world.
If you have the opportunity to examine your beliefs with a therapist, or a qualified (trained) ADHD coach – I highly recommend you take it.
If you don’t have access to those services, find a person in your life you can talk to. An outside perspective is helpful for us to see our blind spots.
Whatever you do, you must*** find a supportive person, not someone who will judge you.
Cognitive dissonance is another symptom of ADHD for some of us.
It plays a role in our behaviors and how we cope with all that life throws at us, and it affects our day-to-day decision making and mood states in a profound way.
Here are a few links if you are interested in the subject. (not an endorsement of any of these sites.)
If you want to go deeper on this topic and others related to ADHD women,