Trusting our Brain when the Relationship Turns Toxic

Episode 127

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Shelly and Cam continue with the relationship thread and when we have to travel the ADHD path of discovery without the support of our partners. Today Shelly relays a client story where the real challenge was not related to ADHD at all, but how ADHD can make it difficult to trust our own brains. ADHD can distort our own sense of reality, our perception of time and our recollection of events. Add to that a toxic partnership, and getting clear on what is actually happening can be extremely challenging.

Shelly shares how she first reframed the coaching work to help the client ‘strengthen my position’ so she could trust her brain and get a better read on the situation – to buy time and work on her own stuff so she could make an informed decision about the larger relational problems. Client and coach worked to gather more accurate data, distinguish the challenges from the greater challenges of the relationship and establish some consistencies in self-care practice. Listen as the client moves from making excuses for her partner’s behavior and blaming herself to a stance of choice and agency. A fascinating story of reclaiming one’s power and trusting one’s brain.

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Episode Transcript:

Shelly: Hi, I’m Shelly.

Cam: And I’m Cam. 

Shelly: And this is translating ADHD. Couple of group coaching announcements. First, applications for resilience are still open. That course begins Wednesday, June 22nd at 8:30 PM Eastern. Class description and application available on the website as well as all of the information for enrolling in the course, including costs.

Secondly, Cam’s got a new offering of his own that he’d like to take a moment to tell you about. Cam, what you got?

Cam: Yeah, Shelly. So very excited about this. We’re actually offering a whole next level of group coaching offerings. These are advanced offerings. These are in the realm of our own passion projects. And so one is Purpose with Shelly. Another one is Equanimity with Cam. And so the Equanimity class is coming up July 12th – Tuesday evenings at 9:00 PM Eastern as an advanced offering. You want to take one of the essential classes that we already offer or get permission from the instructor, being Cam of course here. And so, Equanimity, I’ve been playing around with a statement and it is emotional management beyond just regulation.

So that’s what Equanimity with Cam is all about is emotional management, as a resource and not just regulating emotion beyond the triggers, beyond the flooding to really turn it into a resource. And so I’m really excited about it. I’d love to see some people sign up.

Shelly: Information for both of these classes is on the website, Group coaching dates for my Purpose class are TBD. So there’s a description up there for that one. But as far as when we’re actually going to start those courses, that is upcoming.

All right, Cam. So we’ve been in the realm of relationships. For our last couple of episodes. And today I think it’s really important that we look at a different scenario. One that very fortunately you and I don’t have the lived experience around, but I have a client who does And who very graciously gave me explicit permission to talk about our coaching work in light of her marriage. And what we’re talking about today is a relationship where ADHD is not the thing impacting the marriage. There are deeper problems there. But ADHD can get in the way, can make it hard to distinguish those things out, can make it hard to know what’s true. And so we’re going to dig into some deep work I did with a client around these things, because I think it’s so important to discuss this other type of scenario, one in which there are problematic behaviors from the spouse up to and including abusive behaviors.

Cam: You know, so often we coaches and folks in ADHD land are presenting this idea of, to fix that relationship, to fix that situation, to resolve things that some things are better not resolved or that the resolution is not this keeping the union together, but to go separate ways. And I love the larger theme here that’s related to this is trusting our own brain, right. to getting clear on what’s mine. Is it compatible with the hour? In the mind, yours, ours scenario, and making that very difficult choice, but also really empowering. So really looking forward to this topic today.

Shelly: So when I started working with this client, we were struggling to gain traction and I knew that she was married. But we hadn’t talked too much about her spouse. Other than the initial questions, I ask about a relationship when I’m getting to know a client and that’s any client who has a primary partner and two or three months into our coaching, it came out that there were some pretty significant issues here. And it came out in the coaching because my client couldn’t talk around it anymore. The thing that was impacting our ability to make progress was this toxic environment in her home, this toxic marriage and the ways that it was impacting her.

So when that came out, first order of business as a coach is to right away do some distinguishing what, if anything are our opportunities here in coaching? And what, if any other work do you need to do? Is there emotional work? There is there therapy work there. And so this client and I talked about. Over the course of a couple of sessions and what we came to is what she really needed. The work she really needed to get some clarity about her marriage was being able to trust her own brain. So in this situation, this client was being gaslit by her spouse. And I want to be really clear in saying that that is not something I ever told her was happening. That is a conclusion that she came to, okay. But when we started with being able to trust my own brain, she didn’t yet know is a gaslighting or is it not? Because she didn’t trust her own recollection of events. So there’s an argument and maybe a revisiting of that argument by way of discussion. And she’s recalling things one way and he’s telling her that her recollection is incorrect and she honestly does not know what is true there. And people, this happens to those of us with ADHD, my partner, and I both have ADHD.

So we have those moments sometimes where we sit down, it’s like, I recall it this way, or I saw it like this and he recalls it a completely different way. So I want to be really clear that just because that’s happening doesn’t mean that there’s gaslighting at play. Can we talk to a few episodes back when we did that metaphor episode, about how differently your brain operates than mind does?

So the way that you and I would talk about an event that we were both at, or a scenario that we both experienced together might look different and we might need to do some translating work there to figure out whether or not we’re on the same page to figure out what the truth of the matter is. And that’s something that you and I can do. And that’s something that my partner and I can do. However, in this situation, this client was actually being gaslit. And she was able to come to that conclusion because we spent a long time coaching around trusting her own brain. What did that look like? Looked a lot like all the other coaching work that we do. She was articulating her experience, picking through her words to figure out what’s true here, what’s not, you know, with my support telling her what I’m hearing. Not telling her what’s happening, but helping her hear her own experiences and to make meaning from those along with building some consistency in other areas, which is an important part of my work with every one of my clients, I would say most of my clients come to coaching with some mistrust of self.

Whether it’s a mistrust in one’s ability to be consistent, to have meaningful change, to have a different experience. And it makes sense because we have a lifetime of evidence that says we can’t do those things. Building consistency and some other places along with making space for her to break apart this scenario, this situation, this relationship, and figure out what was true for her. And that was just step one, right? It’s not like she went okay, I trust my brain now. Now I know what I need to do. There was a lot more work from that. 

Cam: I’m really appreciating, hearing this, listening to you talk about where you began with this client, because you’re doing this really important work in coaching of really defining context. When I’m teaching my coaching classes, I’m always drawing my zoom window, the significance of identifying the work, identifying the opportunity. We really benefit coaching client in that partnership benefit from that frame to see what are we working on without that it can be sloppy.

It can be far-reaching and it can be actually dangerous. So I love what you said there in the sense of you’re really identifying our swim lanes here and looking at, is there other work, right? Is there emotional work? Is there couples work? I’m doing that with my clients all the time is building awareness to identify potential areas of work. Be it that other work, the emotional work. Couples work, where they can have a third party, they’re working with them to decipher and translate their experiences. So love how this is beginning. And I love what you said about how, where we are of a mistrust in ourselves. We’re not really sure what is that orienting to the dilemma. And if you’ve got someone actively disrupting or doing something to undermine that can make for a really extremely challenging situation. And as you said, absolutely toxic.

Shelly: I appreciate that cam and I especially appreciate the note on context when cam and I say your context matters. We don’t just mean things like your modality preferences. Things like what might be urgent for you in this moment? We’ve talked about urgency work, being a difficult thing to coach around, or a potentially difficult thing to coach around, but your broader context matters to what’s going on in the rest of your life.

And how is it impacting a non-relationship way that this shows up for a lot of my clients is when they’re put into a caretaker role. When an elderly parents health starts to decline. And when that clients need to be involved and manage, and the time and effort required there goes up. So your context matters.

And if this client had never disclosed what was going on in her relationship, there is a very good chance we would not have been able to do effective coaching work. This was having an impact and it needed to be in the room. And again, it wasn’t the only thing we were coaching about. We were building consistency and doing work in other areas while also coaching about this.

So in addition to trusting her brain, now we got to bring one down and the blame sponge back into the world. And actually when I reached out to this client to seek explicit permission to talk about this, she reminded me of her biggest aha moment in our coaching because she suspected that her now ex-husband is also neurodivergent in some ways. And so there was this excuse-making, there was this playing up of her own challenges and how that was impacting the marriage and this downplaying of his treatment of her. And so I said to her clients, you are neurodivergent. Would you ever treat someone the way that you are being treated? She went, wow, no hates versus collapsed distinction of his neurodivergence and the abusive behavior. And with that collapsed distinction, there was this excuse-making on his behalf. This discounting, this stating that it’s not intentional, which maybe it’s not an, maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know, but in the way she was stating it wasn’t intentional.

The more important thing, she was discounting the impact on her. And she was linking neurodivergence and abusive behavior together to make excuses for him. And that was keeping her stuck. And so just that perspective, Shange allowed her to bring some awareness into her days into her weeks, into her interactions with this person, see them differently. Start to build more trust in her own brain and how she was perceiving things. Now that this story wasn’t driving the narrative. And she was able to detach from that and just observe and take it at face value and name the impacts on her without making excuses for his behavior and why he was impacting her that way.

Cam: Shelly, I’m appreciating some ADHD stuff going on here, right around regulation aspect. The plaintiff. Her own challenges, the downplaying of his behavior. And so there sort of that ratcheting up that making meaning, but that’s in the realm of ADHD management and regulation right there. And so spotting right to notice that that’s happening when we can spot it, we develop that awareness. Then we can start to build some mechanisms of control, get some consistency there, an accurate picture. And then we start to build trust in our experience and trust in our cognition, our brain. The other thing that you’re doing again, To notice that, and then that all-important skill of distinguishing, we tend to just collapse things into this larger meaning and pulling them apart, right. that pulling his neurodivergence away from his behavior to see them separately, independent, it’s really important work.

Shelly: Before I continue. I do think it’s important to say that I’m using the word abusive because it’s a nice shorthand. The behavior specifically in this scenario was a gaslighting behavior. That’s the behavior that we’re talking about as relates to my client, I would never want to use language in a scenario like this, or apply language in a place where it’s not mine to apply.

And I had that conversation with this client as well. She brought gas lighting into our conversation. I did not suggest that was what was going on. And I don’t actually recall whether or not she and I used the phrasing abusive. So I think it’s really important again, in this scenario to say that gaslighting is the behavior that we’re focusing on and I’m using the term abusive more broadly to speak to any of you that might be in a situation where your spouse intentionally or unintentionally has some problematic behaviors that have nothing to do with your ADHD.

I’m in no way qualified to tell you what’s abusive behavior and what’s not. So just thought that was a really important disclaimer to toss into the mix before we continue. So here’s where the work got really interesting because now she’s having this ability to pause, observe, distinguish, see things differently yet. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with that. Do I want to dig in and figure out what it would look like to give this marriage its best shot to offer the opportunity for us to work on this together. Or do I want to step out? Shouldn’t know the answer to that. And so instead we came to this really cool notion or she came to this really cool notion here and I’m not going to take any credit for this. This was all her. Of what would it look like and what would I need to strengthen myself to leave this marriage? So what was happening in our coaching work here is she hadn’t yet made a decision and we detached from the outcome of a decision and instead attached to this outcome of. If I strengthen myself, if I feel like I am capable of being independent and capable of being on my own and capable of navigating the pain portal of a divorce of having to tell my friends and family, his friends and family.

This community that we share that is not aware of any of the challenges that we are having a does not see that side of our relationship, then what does my decision look like? So it wasn’t about doing this to get to a decision or even doing this to get to I’m leaving. It was about. Reclaiming her own power, getting back in touch with the self and feeling confident that she could navigate either scenario while putting herself in the picture, being at choice and knowing what she would and would not stand for.

Cam: No last week we talked about the difficulty of doing any long-term positive change in a relationship when your back is against the wall, right. that sense of urgency. And yes, you might be in a relationship where it feels like. It’s about to go south, or it is going south and you must do something. But what I’m appreciating there is that place to insert choice, right?

To look at this in the sense of what is mine, what can I do here? what is agency for me? Agency being choice and control. To find that and to create some space for herself to fortify, to strengthen so she can be ready for whatever’s next. I think that’s a wonderful thing for listeners to be thinking about wherever they are in their relationships is how can you create, how can you build out the edges a bit to feel like you’re at some choice or that you have choice in your life?

Shelly: And Cam, we’ve talked extensively about what’s yours, what’s mine, what’s ours. This put the coaching firmly in the realm of mine, of what belonged to this client.

Detaching entirely from what was going on with him until such time that she was ready to say, I have a decision here, or I have the starts of a decision here. Cause not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition, it’s not necessarily stay or go. And for this client, by this point, it certainly was not stay or go. It was do I stay and try and put in the work to save the marriage and see if that’s possible before I go give it its best shot. Or do I go? And again, we did some really interesting and important distinguishing work there because there were some stories there about should. We said until death do us part shouldn’t I put in the effort before I go shouldn’t I give this one last shot to really work, to be sure.

And that was a big question she had is, did she need that? Did she need to take those steps with him to invite him to work in the realm of what was his and what was their as together in order to be able to make that decision? And if so, what does that look like? And we talked about all of those things, you know, so her getting clearer, still about.

Here’s what I will not stand for. Here’s what would need to change. And even if those things change, even if I gave it its best shot and everything I’ve laid out has changed. And we’re theoretically in this new place at this point in this relationship, is that enough? Is that even enough? And she’s not the only client I’ve coached in the realm of tricky relationships. I’ve had several, right. And the work for each of those clients looks very similar. Here’s mine, ours. How can we orient the coaching in the realm of mine doing that discovery work, doing that distinguishing, putting oneself in the picture.

But what that looked like for each client was different. So this trusting my brain, this distinguishing, this strengthening myself. To leave this marriage, not as a decision point, but as a way to orient to the work that we could do while still acknowledging this client had one foot in the door and one foot out finding a way to anchor to something in that situation so that we could keep moving forward in the coaching work.

That was uniquely that client’s experience. So I don’t want you to hear the scenario as a prescriptive way to deal with your own relationship challenges. The bigger theme here is back to yours, mine, and ours. And in doing that distinguishing work. And we talked about this in a workplace episode before where I’ve had clients who come with their back against the wall at work. And when that happens, I invite them to do some yours, mine, and ours work, and to see if they can detach from outcome, because if they’re attached to that outcome of, I have to keep this job come hell or high water. We’re not going to be able to coach, but if we can get up above it a little bit and detach from that outcome, and that’s not possible for everybody, by the way, for some people that paycheck is crucial and they’re not going to be able to get up above it and that’s okay.

But the idea here is taking the urgency pressure off a little bit. Putting yourself in the picture and being at choice, this workplace dynamic, isn’t just happening to you. You’re in that picture to this relationship dynamic, isn’t just happening to you. You’re in that picture too. And with ADHD and one down, it can be really easy to spin that up into a scenario that is 100% our fault. And in this case, Based on what I know about this client. And I know about this relationship, I can pretty confidently say that her ADHD was not anywhere in the realm of what the high impact challenges in this relationship were. And she could say that as well, but when we first started coaching about it, she couldn’t see that she couldn’t distinguish between the two. was absorbing a lot of the blame and making a lot of excuses for her partner. And so by being able to detach from that outcome and attached to a different outcome, not rooted in urgency and only rooted in what was hers. That is how she got the clarity. She needed to know what was right for her on this journey.

Cam: Wow. Amazing. So as we finish up here, got the picture we’ve talked about river rocks, and it just feels like to me that when our back is against the wall, we think we have one choice, right? Do I stay in this relationship or do I go one decision? And in this work, whether you’re working with a coach, someone else, doing it by yourself, you start to distinguish mine from ours and theirs and creating space around the opportunity right now, right? With that whole push toward, you know what, I see an opportunity to strengthen myself here. It’s all the sudden she’s got some river rocks to play with right to step on. And this is at the core of human sense of purpose, fulfillment, motivated. At the core of any kind of motivation for change we want to feel like we have a path forward, and Shelly what’s so cool here is that in the coaching you did with her that was provided, right? The fog lifted, and we could see a series of river rocks to stand on, to take a next step. And that was just a really fun to listen to.

Shelly: Thanks, Cam. Yeah. And the last thing I will add is being in that realm of mine and also detaching from should, I should give this relationship its best shot. And instead look at what would it look like to be at choice staying in this relationship? What would that mean for me? What would need to happen?

Putting herself in that picture? Recognizing the impacts that this relationship was having on her. And that was probably the biggest part of the work is really seeing the impact. And then examining those impacts because along with excusing for him, there was discounting of impact. And there were impacts that she was misapplying to her own ADHD that were not coming from ADHD, that were coming from the emotional weight of this relationship and how it was affecting her. I think that’s a great place for us to pause for today. Client just want to give you a lot of love and a shout out for allowing me to share this story on the show. I’m so grateful to you for that.

For the rest of you, if you like what we’re doing here on the show, three big ways you can help us out. Number one, leave a review wherever you listen. This helps other people find our show and lets other people know how our content stands apart. Number two, don’t keep us a secret. Share us with neurodivergent coworkers or friends, share us on social media tweet at us and let us know what you’re liking about whatever episode it is you’re listening to.

And finally, you can financially support the show, which helps Cam and I cover all of the costs of bringing you this show each week, including our editor and our assistant, which makes our lives so much easier. And we’re so grateful to you all that we are able to engage that support to do that. Visit the website,, click on the Patreon link in the upper right-hand corner and for five bucks a month, not only are you contributing to keeping this show running, you also gain access to our discord community, where our listeners work together to do their own understand work. So until next week, I’m Shelly. 

Cam: And I’m Cam. 

Shelly: And this was the translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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