Emotional Modes with ADHD: Empathy

Episode 114

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Shelly and Cam continue to explore emotions beyond ‘emotional dysregulation’ looking at a phenomenon they call emotional modes. Because of emotional variability and volatility, those with ADHD can be prone to ‘lock’ into a preferred emotional stance. They illustrate this autopilot approach by looking at how empathy tends to present in their own client population. 

Cam shares how he sees two distinct polar presentations of empathy – too much empathy for others with zero empathy for self or zero empathy for others resulting in isolation and lack of connection. Shelly brings in a metaphor of a swinging pendulum to describe this empathy imbalance and how listeners can start to loosen the emotional lock down and let the pendulum swing to allow for empathy for self and empathy for others. The hosts pull concepts from earlier shows like ‘seeing oneself in the picture’ and the importance of developing a curious practice to further explore the dilemma.

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Episode Transcript:

Shelly: Hi, I’m Shelly. 

Cam: And I’m Cam. 

Shelly: And this is translating ADHD. Before we kick off this week’s episode, just a reminder that we are now accepting applications for our next coaching group. The topic of this group is project X. And it begins Wednesday, April 13th at 8:30 PM. Eastern time to learn more about the group and to apply, visit the website, translating adhd.com and click on the group coaching tab. So Cam, where are we going today?

Cam: So Shelly where we’re going today. Last week we talked about cultivating trust and you had that, wonderful client example where. the learning was hard but worthwhile for your client around when she put trust first versus letting trust be something that evolves over time. And I think that. In that vein continuing on, around looking at emotions. And right now we’re looking at positive emotions, right? So trust today, we’re going to look at empathy

Shelly: Hmm. 

Cam: And what we’re trying to do here, listeners is introduce language and concepts beyond this basic thing that’s out there around.

Our understanding of ADHD and emotion, right? And it’s this sort of stop sign type thing of emotional dysregulation, right? If you have ADHD, you have a hard time regulating emotions, so don’t get triggered, watch your emotions. And that’s what we got. And so Shelly and I are really diving into the nuance signal of emotion.

It’s more than just regulation. And I think this is a great example of how positive emotions can manifest.

Shelly: Empathy is such a timely topic too, with the state of the world, the way it is right now, many of my clients, if not all, are struggling with empathy and struggling to. Work with their empathy and their strength of empathy, rather than having empathy work against them. And that’s really what we’re going to dig into today.

And cam I love your language about, so much more than just dysregulation, right? You’re regulated or you’re not. That’s not the reality. And when you try and look at it that way, I think that that can itself create these maladaptive behaviors where I have to protect my regulation. So this is again where awareness work and orienting to what’s true for you.

Around an emotion, positive or negative what’s happening for you with that emotion right now is a much more helpful way of looking at this. And that’s really what we’re going to get into today is a different way of orienting to a positive or negative emotion and evaluating what’s going on for you.


Cam: Yeah. And it’s like, gosh, they’re spending so much time on emotion. Can you just help me plan my day? And listeners We’re spending so much time on emotion because it is in the works. If you’re feeling behind, if you’re feeling urgent, anxious, emotions at play there, and if we can develop some awareness of how that emotion is in play, is it helping us with agency in our day, or is it really getting in the way.

I think that emotion can be this kind of the catalyst or, this thing that kind of, we have make meaning, and then bring in the emotion that kind of accelerates or intensifies that meaning that belief. And so, yes, it’s in play. And even if you really struggle with recognizing emotions and how they’re coming into.

You can create some curiosity and awareness around this.

Shelly: Absolutely. And I will add to that, that the other pitfall is waiting for the right emotional state.

My client and eloquent mode that shift from waiting for eloquent mode to how do I enable eloquent mode? What helps me access that way of being it’s a subtle shift, but it’s what. Puts that client in the picture gives him agency instead of the emotion being in control.

I have to wait for eloquent mode in order to be able to do certain things well, I can make way for eloquent mode and I’m learning what gets in the way of eloquent mode. So let’s kind of take these concepts and start to translate them to our topic today of empathy.

Cam: Yeah, i love what you just said there about waiting because. the add piece there is that kind of responding to and waiting for our environment to dictate. And so the interesting thing that I’ve seen recently with empathy as an example, right. It can be different emotions too, but sort of like a locking into a certain mode.

Right. It’s just going to set it on autopilot. And hold it there. And I think it’s, again, a way to regulate emotion is to kind of lock into a certain mode and we see modes with you know we’ve introduced that with doing and doers, and planners kind of in that inertia, whether you’re in motion or you tend to stay in motion, it’s a certain. Or you have a hard time getting started. So you’re in a mode there. I’m just seeing we have a preference of a mode we lock in and then when something goes sideways, we’re not prepared to deal with that emotionally.

So we’re just using empathy as an example, but I think again, you can look at other emotions, are you locking into a certain way? So this is the thing that I’ve noticed. And by the way, just a caveat, like I’m not a researcher, I’m not a behavioral scientist, I’m a coach. And I do notice behaviors, right? People come to me to help them change behaviors and understand their ADHD.

Shelly: Cam, I will tack on to that, that while our information is observational, one of the amazing things about this show is you and I coming together to get to the heart of why we know what works in coaching, because we’ve both been doing this a long time, but when we start to. Step back from this individual client and this individual client and work together to look for these bigger patterns.

These things that we can pretty confidently say are true based on our body of work with our clients. That’s the learning that informs the show. So while we don’t have quantitative data, gosh, we’ve got tons and tons and tons of observational data from our collective experience doing this work.

Cam: Yeah. So this is sort of goes back to Mount Rainier a little bit. And Mount Rainier we illustrate that in episode 63, 63 and Mount Rainier is a volcanic mountain in Washington state and it’s giant, it’s massive. It has its own weather patterns. And. It might be a desert on one side, very dry, and there’s a rain forest on the other.

And part of that is, again, your manifestation of your ADHD can be very different. And so this is the interesting thing that I see with this empathy presentation. And I just want to illustrate these two. To further discuss this whole idea of kind of locking into an emotional mode. And that is this idea of an emotional, or excuse me, an imbalance around empathy, that there are those who are extremely sensitive and pathic and intuitive, right.

To others, to a. Situation or circumstance or a cause they go weigh in just like your client did to sort of helping her community. There is an empathic element there. What happens though is fascinating imbalance I’ve seen is there, it’s a tremendous empathy for others outside of oneself. And then when we talk about self-care, we talk about self-compassion. There’s very little of that there, Shelly, this is fascinating to me, how someone could have so much caring for things outside themselves, but it would come to themselves. There’s a real absence of self-compassion and self.

Shelly: Absolutely. And my client last week was a great example of that, but I also want to talk about the other way. I see this manifest with my clients and that client’s case it was over action diving all the way into the detriment of self. But particularly in today’s world, there’s also this manifestation where my clients freeze to the same end, but it’s just a different manifestation.

The world is on fire and I care about this and this and this group. And this policy and this thing that’s happening, so many things are on fire and I’m one person with one bucket. What can I do? And so there’s this freeze, but they’re still just as deep in it. It’s all-encompassing all the time, unable to find a direction.

Or an action and those both exist on the same side. And by the way, I think it would be helpful here to introduce this idea. You talked about an imbalance Cam and we were talking before we hit record that we don’t really like, the phrase imbalance when it comes to emotional regulation, because as we just said, you’re regulated or you’re not, it’s more nuanced than that.

I like to describe it to my clients as a pendulum. Right, you have this pendulum swinging. And so we just described one side of the pendulum swinging way too far out and here in a moment, we’ll describe the other side of that pendulum swing. And the idea here is not defined perfect balance in the middle because that’s a lie, but it’s to find a swing pattern. That doesn’t include those extremes. That’s a little more controlled that honors who you are and put yourself in the picture because that’s, what’s in that middle space, those slower swings. And on either side, when we get to swinging wildly, there are negative effects. So Cam why don’t you describe that other side?

So we have this over empathy. It takes agency out of the picture that takes self out of the picture. That’s all about empathy for others to detrimental effects, whether it’s over action or freezing and no empathy for self, not even seeing the impact on self at that point.

Cam: And we’ll get into that a little bit again. How does the ADHD come into play? Because we have some ideas there. So on the other side of that, the other side of the other extreme is where I think it’s often where people they have challenges around relationships. And so again the work that I do with Melissa Orloff and a lot of the people that come into my group coaching class um, where they’re completely flummoxed by this idea of empathy for others and they don’t get it.

And the argument against them often is they’re not emotionally available. Your self sense. But it’s again, this fascinating thing where trying to understand the other’s situation emotionally, right? This is what empathy is, is to have a sense and feel for the other’s situation that they’re unable to do that.

And so they withdraw, they circle the wagon. And they just kind of focus on what they feel they have control over. Right? If you’re overdrawn, we’ve talked about safety as a necessity for trust and vulnerability. And if you’re feeling unsafe, what are you going to do? You’re going to pull those wagons in.

You’re going to pull and tighten in. And so it’s then focused on self and that’s the other side is. Again, not able to really access or have empathy for other situations or be able to articulate it. Right. I think it’s important to bring that distinction. And again, that translating piece.

Shelly: This again, illustrates why I love the pendulum as a metaphor for this. Because on this side we have what looks like agency and putting oneself in the picture, but not in a helpful way. It’s in a toxic way, just like on the other side, caring for others and having empathy for others, not in a helpful way, in a toxic way.

And so we can very much get into this mentality of it needs to look this way, or it needs to be this way, but the reality is. Either side can be too much, there can be too much putting yourself in the picture to the detriment of those around you, to the detriment of your relationships, to the detriment of how you’re showing up.

And that’s a really interesting thing to talk about as much as we talk about agency and putting yourself in the picture, boy, when that pendulum swings wildly that direction, like you said, it’s circling the wagon shutting down and that has negative impacts as well.

Cam: And again, listeners, you’re doing what you’re doing. I think that we kind of take that metronome or pendulum and lock it in place because it’s kind of scary to have it swing right. To actually be kind of going back and forth and it’s swinging all over the place. So what do we do?

We try to bring control to it, lock it in. Okay. I’m just going to lock in and into this mode. And then realize that, oh, this is helpful here, but in these other situations. So starting to think about what is giving that pendulum a little bit of movement, right? Just a little bit. If you’re in one of those camps where you’re too much empathy for others or none at all. Right to think about. Let’s just start with the too much empathy for others is considering what is empathy for self? What is seeing yourself in the picture? Because with ADHD, part of it is we just don’t see ourselves. It’s not that you can’t have empathy for yourself. We’re just not seeing ourselves because we’re just focused on attention. All those external stimulates. What’s got our attention.

Shelly: Again, my client last week. Excellent example of this. What did we talk about? We talked about putting herself in the picture. By way of examining that question of trust and another piece that I’m not sure that we talked about last week was reshaping that empathy a little bit. So instead of being one person with one bucket, trying to bail one person out at a time, she’s got bigger aims for how she wants to serve and support her community.

And the way that they’re doing this, or the way that they envisioned doing this requires resources requires money and other resources. So it’s that distinguishing that, not sharing my wealth. One to one, even though I could isn’t because I’m selfish. Or because I don’t care, but because I want to accumulate enough wealth to be able to do more for more people, to be able to do empathy in this bigger way that I envision.

Cam: The work that you did with her is that part of that equation is seeing herself in the picture, right? She is one of those resources. This is about sustainability, right? Like, Oh, in order for me to help and take care of others, I’ve got to take care of myself. And so there it is, is again a Kate Kelly, one of the early coaches and authors in ADHD land talked about putting your oxygen mask on first, that we hear so often out there in ADHD land. And yet it’s hard when. Again, there’s so many big signals coming from the outside. And so again, this sort of, okay, what’s a gesture for this group on this side of Mount Rainier. What’s a gesture on the other side of that pendulum, what would it be? The thing that I’m challenging, my clients who are showing up this way. Is like starting to just bring a little bit of balance, not too much, but what is fair? Right? You’re so invested in others. What is it to invest in self what’s that gesture? What’s that practice? Shelly. And I’ve been talking about where we’re going next year. We’re going to cultivating practices. This is a practice.

How can you have empathy? You do it. It’s gonna feel like too much or, oh my God, this is a luxury I’m not worthy. Yes, you are. You are worthy. And this is about sustainability going forward. Can we have both? Can we have both?

Shelly: Cam, I just want to interject a personal note here on this side of the pendulum. It was a hard place for me, starting in 2016 after the election, I was one person with one bucket, looking at the world, going it’s on fire. What do I do? And I swung all the way the other way and said, I can’t watch the news. I can’t be engaged. I can’t care. Which is very unlike me. I like to be informed. That’s core to who I am. Finding that middle ground for me was realizing that I have a number of clients. Like the one that we talked about last week that have the unique strengths, the value, and the ability they’re uniquely positioned to do something for the greater good in some way.

And there is a time when I was all the way on the one side with my one bucket that I would have thought that’s not nearly enough, but I’ve come to realize that it is enough. That’s how I contribute. That’s how I use my one bucket. And that was an important realization for me and I am enabling others to do their greater good.

And if I’m not taking care of myself or if I’m shutting down, if I’m too far on either direction, I can’t show up and do that good work to make that happen.

Cam: That’s seeing yourself in the picture.

Shelly: A hundred percent and seeing my own unique strength and value and what I’m uniquely positioned to do. I’m not uniquely positioned to do what my client is doing or what any of my clients who are doing amazing things are doing, but I am uniquely positioned to enable them to make those things happen.

Cam: So as we finish up here, we talked about that one group that’s sort of on the focused, and this is about where their attention is. The attention is out around them and how to see themselves in the picture for those who are more isolated and have circled the wagons, kind of like, again, shut down these connections are starting to reopen. I think this might be a whole other episode, Shelly, but I will say that there are resources outside the two of you that are in ADHD land and not right. There are those who have gone before you who have resources that can help you in making connections with others. Right. I make that distinction because there’s ADHD in play.

There’s also, again, modalities and love languages and just how people make meaning. We said this a couple of weeks ago around trauma. That connection is so important. And for this group actively fighting this kind of default mode to isolate. Right To do that uncomfortable thing to reach out and find that community. This is the interesting thing that I’m seeing is these small groups of community that I’m creating in my positive change initiative, around positive intelligence.

There’s something happening there. I see it in our group coaching we’re coming together and that community of support. And focused on one area, right? We’re looking at agency right now, project X is next. There’s something really powerful there that helps again, create connection, that connection. What is that?

People, there are emotional elements, veteran play there. So listeners, as we finish, again, an opportunity to see, do you fall into this practice of kind of locking into an emotional mode? Just try to try to put those on autopilot and what is a little bit of leeway or movement in that pendulum look like?

Shelly: Well said, Cam, and I think that’s a great place for us to wrap for today. So, If you like what we’re doing here on the show, three big ways you can help us out. You know what they are. The first is don’t keep us a secret, share us with the other neurodivergents in your life. Second, leave a rating or review wherever you listen for reviews, in particular, help other people find the podcast and let people know why we’re different, appreciating those of you who responded to our call for some new reviews in the last few weeks. Thank you very much for those. We appreciate that feedback as well. And finally, you can help support the show financially by becoming a patron. Also gives you access to our discord community, where our listeners are working together to do their own, understand, own, and translate work.

To do this, visit the website, translating adhd.com. Click on the Patreon link in the upper right-hand corner. And for $5 a month, you gain access to that discord. And you are helping Cam and I pay for our podcast support team, which we’re very excited to say we just leveled up. So our assistant has just taken on a number of new roles.

And the exciting thing about this is this enables us to keep carrying our work forward to do more. And so we’re so grateful to those of you making that possible for us to sit down and do this work every week to deliver this content to you. We’re so passionate about it. And the more bandwidth that Cam and I can free up to keep our focus on that, the better we are.

So thank you. Thank you. Thank you to everyone. Current and past patron, we appreciate you so much. So until next week, I’m Shelly.

Cam: I’m Cam.

Shelly: and this was translating ADHD. Thanks for listening.

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