Self-talk is essential for better emotional management with ADHD.
Self-talk is also one of the most overlooked, and underappreciated tools we have to scaffold our executive function deficits.
Basically, your brain needs a little more dopamine, and you need the dopamine to travel across the neurons more efficiently.
Without proper suffusion of dopamine we are not able to regulate our emotional responses or motivate ourselves to action. SOURCE
Imagine yours truly at home on a Tuesday evening with my son. I ask him to pick up his dirty socks from the floor. Five minutes later I notice not only has he ignored me, but he has not put away his Nintendo switch.
My self-talk goes like this:
I thought that thing was on a timer. Is he ignoring me?
If he is ignoring me he is being very disrespectful.
He must therefore be disrespectful toward other adults.
If he is disrespectful to other adults he won’t do well in school.
He won’t have any friends.
If he is disrespectful, and has no friends, and doesn’t do well in school he will not be a successful person.
I’m a failure at mothering. And he will be living in my house when he is 40.
Does this sound familiar to you? I like to call it..
The negative thought vortex
Why do we have so many negative thoughts?
My theory is that this happens because we don’t have the self-talk in place to soothe ourselves that neurotypical adults have instinctually.
ADHDers have a problem with what is called behavioral inhibition. Behavioral inhibition allows us to exercise restraint, “to disengage from an ongoing behavior and to…hit the pause button in order to transcend the in-the-moment experience and decide how to react.”
Check out this book for more on behavioral inhibition and CBT. That’s where I got the quote above. (affiliate. see my full disclosure)
Self-Talk in action
Our thoughts stream all day in the background. And most of your mental chatter occurs in the first-person.
“I am a bad mother.” Or, “I always screw up everything.”
Research has indicated that using non-first-person language, and talking to ourselves out-loud when we try to process a difficult experience is actually more beneficial. SOURCE
So, instead of falling into negative internal self-talk I might tweak it a little ,“Liz feels like a bad mother right now.”
As crazy as this sounds, vocalizing it – literally talking to yourself in the third person, creates some needed psychological distance.
Talking to yourself
Vocalization in general is extremely helpful to process an emotional experience. And for us, everyday things can be very emotional.
All Humans have an inner voice. We with ADHD need to process things deliberately, or even externally, because we don’t have the wiring to do it in our head.
“self-talk is a ubiquitous human phenomenon. We all have an internal monologue that we engage in from time to time. The current research demonstrates that small shifts in the language people use to refer to the self as they engage in this process consequentially influences their ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress, even for people who are dispositionally vulnerable to social anxiety.”
With this information in mind, I went into the ADHD Enclave and started a conversation about self-talk. What follows is heavily influenced by that conversation.
Name the emotion
In order to even begin to change the self-talk, we have to first identify the emotion itself.
What would you do in the scenario above with my son?
Double-down on your attempts to control his behavior? Yeah. Me too.
Truth: I was feeling frustrated and slightly angry. (Naming the emotion.)
If I had better behavioral inhibition I might have walked out of the room, and then identified my frustration and anger, allowing me to process it in a less reactive way.
This could be as simple as asking myself, “What are you really feeling?”
Determine what you need
You know what it feels like to be in your brain and body when you’re stressed out.
Many ADHDers describe this as a “blank” state of mind, when in reality your thoughts are racing.
When your thoughts and emotions flood you, the result is often yelling at your family. Or doing/saying something else that you will later regret.
In the Enclave we discussed the importance of asking yourself, “What do you need right now?”
If you train yourself to do this, the answer will often come to you.
Ex. I am feeling frustrated and angry, and I need to be away from him for a few minutes so I can decide next steps.
Since we are talking about self-talk and processing emotions we must consider the options for doing so.
As I admitted above, I often talk to myself to work through difficult situations. On the advice of one of my group members, I’ve even recorded my voice or a video.
Other options to process your self-talk:
-creating a mantra/affirmation to get you through the situation
-a one minute meditation
-stepping outside for some fresh air
It’s not important how you do it- just that you get the thoughts out somehow.
Bring them to the surface so you can work through them more effectively.
The last step is the hardest because we often create our inner dialogue based on our experiences and our beliefs about ourselves.
After you pause to identify the emotion and start processing it, you have to figure out what it means to you in this moment.
Question the meaning you assign to this experience
Part of why we so easily get sucked into the thought vortex is because our brains assign meaning to every experience.
If you don’t get a promotion at work, it means you aren’t good at your job.
If your house isn’t ready for guests, it means you are a lousy housekeeper
If your child doesn’t listen to you, it means you are a terrible mother.
You and I both need to question the meaning we assign to everyday experiences.
It’s not about the actions of another person, or even our own actions – it’s about the meaning we assign to those actions.
***Half of the time the meaning we assign is overly negative and not even factually accurate.
The bottom line on self-talk
You cannot swap out negative beliefs for positive beliefs and just talk yourself out of a bad situation. It’s nearly impossible to walk yourself through these steps at the point-of-performance.
But you can become aware of your own self-talk and start to practice using it to your advantage.
Name the emotion/s
Determine your needs
Process it your own way
Create more meaning(ful) self-talk
Remember, Self-talk is essential for better emotional management with ADHD.
For more info, listen to this podcast episode with Dania Chebib where we talk about going into our body in the moment.
You will still have bad days and moments where you find yourself in the downward spiral of negative self-talk. Practice. That’s all you can do.
And don’t be afraid to talk to yourself. Nobody is listening anyway.