ADHD and Relationships: Emotional Regulation and the Big Signal of Drama

Episode 155

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Asher and Cam launch a new episode arc on relationships and ADHD. Relationships have already been covered in episodes 83-86 but the cohosts revisit relationships to explore specific ADHD challenges when we interact with the people around us. Today’s episode centers on drama.

The hosts orient listeners to different factors that contribute to drama – that drama is a big signal (episodes 109-110) that can elicit a strong emotional response and challenges with emotional dysregualtion. When we explore those emotions and look at the stories associated with those emotions, we can start to find traction to change dramatic outcomes.

The hosts share a number of tools from the emotional pool (episode 92) to the Karpman Drama Triangle. With ADHD we can assume all roles of the triangle moving quickly from victim to prosecutor to rescuer or easily jump into someone else’s emotional pool. Both Ash and Cam share stories of how roles, environments and internal one-down stories can trigger an over-sized emotional response.

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Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Ash: Hi, I am Ash,

[00:00:01] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:00:02] Ash: and this is Translating ADHD. We have two group coaching courses starting in late January – Agency with both Cam and I, and Purpose, which is just with me. Information on both courses, including pricing and applications is available on the website translatingadhd.com. Click on the group coaching tab.

So, Cam, where are we going now that we’ve finished up this series on ADHD and hierarchy of needs?

[00:00:31] Cam: So, Ash, we are looking in the direction of relationships. We’ve done episodes on relationships before. There’s just so much more to look at here. And today we’re gonna be talking about navigating drama.

[00:00:47] Ash: Ooh.

[00:00:48] Cam: As we launch into this foray around relationships because it’s really interesting in doing the needs work and recognizing when relationships are not working, it’s often that someone’s needs are not getting met. This is what I often see in the relationship class that I do, is that one or both of the individuals in a relationship are not getting a basic need met. So needs are in play, expectations are in play, and it’s just more than what we are seeing out there in general ADHD land.

And so, if they start talking about certain stuff and we feel like, wait, there’s just so much more opportunity here. I think it’s our responsibility to bring more tools and skills for our listeners. And what I’m talking about here is again, this prescriptive approach to emotional regulation. I’ve just seen it, I’m seeing it again and again, and it’s around this idea of DESR.

So DESR is a term that, Russell Barkley is championing. It is deficient emotional self-regulation and bringing in emotional regulation into the conversation about ADHD management and diagnosis and treatment is important. It is very important, but the approach here is prescriptive. It’s one-sided. It’s focused on, here’s the symptom you need to manage the and it’s around this performance that, you know, strong emotions are not okay. Being passionate is not okay. And so it’s really about, okay, I’ve gotta be able to identify my emotions and regulate.

And for us, regulation can often be this suppression, which is about masking. We don’t wanna encourage masking. We wanna encourage authentic representation to see yourself in the picture, and to be more of who you are to advocate for yourself. So listeners, you know, here on the podcast, we bring this coaching perspective, number one. Number two, there’s more to explore here. So the same thing with emotional dysregulation, DESR. There’s more to explore here than just it’s something you have to do. So we’re gonna start with looking at drama. What is drama? and how might we be able to navigate drama more effectively?

[00:03:34] Ash: Cam, you ask what drama is and the first answer that comes to my mind as relates to ADHD is drama is a big signal, massive signal.

[00:03:46] Cam: Ash, I have that right at the top of my page here. That drama is a big signal. And so guess what? We focus on big signals, and this is where our attention goes to everybody in the dynamic, everyone in the room in that situation, if there’s drama, all eyes are on.

So we get focused on the drama and trying to fix the drama or navigating that drama, regulating that drama. And there’s so many different factors that contribute to drama. Drama is a product of certain factors that are in play, right? These structural elements that are hard for us to see. just like needs are hard to see and appreciate.

We talked about how needs, when they’re not addressed, become stressors, that dynamics that are not addressed then become drama. And so often it’s like, you know, how do I, deal with drama? How we deal with drama is to look at what are the factors that contribute to a dramatic situ. and you floated this Karpman Drama Triangle out a few weeks ago. That was really interesting and was part of the impetus for this move in this direction.

[00:05:02] Ash: Yeah. A client actually turned me onto this model, and a simple Google will bring up an infographic. It’s just a triangle with three roles, one at each point. There’s the persecutor, the rescuer, and the victim. And what I love about this model is just saying that much already paints such a picture. As ADHD people, we often find ourselves in that victim role, particularly when we’re being persecuted or we feel like we’re being persecuted.

That’s one way that one down can manifest. I’ve had clients in relationships that fall into this dynamic where the non-ADHD partner is taking on this role of persecutor and the ADHD partner is taking on this role of victim, neither one really realizing the roles they’re playing.

We can also be rescuers as ADHD people, jumping into somebody else’s pool. That’s another big signal and another way that we can sort of maladapt to handle our own one.

[00:06:19] Cam: Ash, I’ve even seen some individuals with ADHD in the persecutor role.

[00:06:26] Ash: Absolutely. 

[00:06:27] Cam: When they’re pushed to that situation where they lash out. And again, we can occupy all three of these roles. And as you said, when we know and we’re aware that we’re in this role, it gives us really valuable data that we can start to do something.

[00:06:46] Ash: Before we say more about that, I actually wanna say a little more about the persecutor role in particular, because I read something really interesting about that role that I think is so relevant to the ADHD experience, and that’s when we’re being the persecutor, you’re not flexible. You can’t be vulnerable, and often that persecutor role comes from fear of becoming the victim.

[00:07:15] Cam: Yeah, what I wanna do first though, we’re jumping into roles and I wanna back out for a second. To roles are something we wanna pay attention to, and we’ll come back to these three roles. I love that again, this cause and effect that is happening here, that we will go to persecutor for fear of becoming the victim.

So if we can notice these dynamics at work, then we can slow that train down that’s heading toward that drama. So navigating drama really begins with orienting two the factors that contribute to drama. So roles is one thing we jumped right in with Carman. Another one is parent child, That I often see in relationships. Where someone assumes the executive functioning and the other kind of hitches their wagon to that executive functioning and hear me carefully here, it looks like parent child. It is not parent child cuz it’s not a child. It has that appearance though someone is latching onto someone else’s executive functioning power, and then it creates a dynamic of resentment and bitterness defensiveness and dismissiveness that creates this drama as a result. But before we get into roles, we wanna look at, again, these higher level pieces to pay attention to. environment, that’s the people and the roles they play. and then certain situations that create a certain dynamic. And I have a story that I want to share, Ash, that I think illustrates this sort of how environment, people, the dynamic contribute to a situation that created drama as a result.

So historically, December is just not a favorite month of mine, and it has been, I would just say trigger, in my relationship with my spouse historically, and so to set this up is that Christmas is something that is really important to my spouse. It has been, and her love language is acts of service. Acts of kindness and she sees that Christmas is a place to give to others to show her appreciation and gratitude For me, December is this end of year push to take care of my work stuff to finish up my five classes. To finish up end of year fiscal stuff, right?

The office shuts down for two weeks. For me, the office doesn’t shut down. I have to step out of the office. Meanwhile, I have end of year things to do. But that lack of structure with expectation around the holidays, my own story here, people, my own story of not being able to deliver the goods around Christmas and giving creates emotion for me. So here’s this emotion that is coming up and welling up and can look like emotional dysregulation. when in fact it’s just emotion, their feelings. And what we’re taught to do is to sit on those emotions, to regulate, to manage, when in fact that emotion is amazing. Data to look at, needs to look at, expectations to look. Roles and dynamics that produce the drama.

[00:10:56] Ash: When I talk about the difference between coaching and therapy, I say that therapy is about moving through an emotion. Grief or the emotions associated with trauma. Moving through those in some way. Coaching is about getting up above the emotion, and one of the reasons I suspect that coaching is so powerful for ADHD people is because it is centered in awareness and because we have this big signal. We have this emotional response to that big signal that’s real. The emotion is real. But what comes along with that so often is a story that’s not real. So the emotion starts to misinform us.

I have a client for whom we’ve done a ton of work on his relationship with his spouse. He has ADHD, she has anxiety, and so when things become urgent, they can fall into those roles of persecutor and victim. and what has been so cool about the work that we’ve done is just how much agency my client is realizing he has in those situations. When her anxiety is showing up in the room, he’s showing up differently because he’s not going into that victim story anymore. He’s not letting it knock him down. A bunch of pegs, not letting it take the wind out of his sails for multiple days. He’s distinguishing and recognizing that this isn’t about him in this moment, although that’s the story he told himself for a long time. It’s about her anxiety.

[00:12:50] Cam: Well, it’s about her anxiety and again, the dynamic that sets up between his ADHD and her anxiety and your tool around distinguishing what’s mine, what’s yours, what’s ours? And I’m also thinking about the emotional pool your client is moving from that, you know, help by fallen into the pool. Panicky one down, creating a story that then. It’s the word I’m looking for. 

Creating a story that reinforces that belief reinforces the victim, but finding agency, starting with awareness of these roles and the stories we create. Start to move from that place of awareness to safety, right? I don’t like this situation. I can’t control it, but I can handle it to mobility and that, you know, having some skills in this situation, all the while then mitigating or diminishing the drama that is produced from that dynamic.

[00:13:59] Ash: Just as a reminder to listeners when we talk about the pool, that’s a metaphor we use for the Olympic system for being in that emotional brain. And Cam, in this case, I agree with you that the difference is my client isn’t getting all wet, but here’s where I’m gonna disagree a little bit, is he’s not jumping into her pool anymore.

That’s something we tell our group coaching participants class one, when we’re talking about building community, when we’re talking about how to show up in a coach-like way to support the other participants in the class. , one of the things we stress is don’t jump into someone else’s pool because if you jump in now you’re both all wet and that doesn’t do anyone any good.

So where do you wanna be sitting as a coach or as a spouse showing up differently? When you recognize that your partner is in her pool, you wanna be sitting on the side, you’re there. You know that they’re not gonna drown even if they feel like they. At the moment, and you’re able to offer support, which you can’t do if you dive into their pool, and that’s the dynamic that was happening between them. Previously, she would be in her pool and he would jump right in headfirst with her.

[00:15:16] Cam: Well, and this is the power of the big signal, right? Back to, you know, here’s this situation and we respond to a big signal. So that big signal there is to, jump in and help to rescue or to play a certain role. And here’s this opportunity to pause, disrupt, and pivot to pause and notice what is my urge here? What’s my desire? What is the role that I’ve been playing all these years that I don’t have to play anymore? They don’t have to reinforce. Because if you start to change your behavior, the other individual has to change their behavior. it is part of dynamics if you are not playing your role that you have played in the past, then there’s no energy there. For that scene to play out.

So I’ll go back to my example, Ash, of around again, the holidays and around the holidays and managing expectations and sort of, kind of noticing all these different factors in play. So I’m going in with my eyes open and I love what you said about the difference between therapy and coach. Is that therapy is about moving through the emotions where coaching is, more of this awareness thing. We’re doing emotional work, but it’s different. So this recognition, and this is the first barrier of ADHD, the barrier of getting to awareness. Cuz I would every December come in, in that one down and play this role of not being good at the whole Christmas thing, and it elicited this emotional response that I’m getting emotional having DESR, right?

Showing D E S R to the world, but I’m not really aware of it. I’m in my story of feeling like I’m being persecuted, but in the last several years, have been working on this, working very diligently on this, my spouse and myself, around expectations around how can we make Christmas work for both of us, for our whole family, to make it more about experience than about actual things, but still, regardless of that ash. It is a couple days before Christmas and I am going to meet my family at a very popular mall and there’s lots of traffic and I have a low tire that I gotta fix, and I’m supposed to hit my mark and meet them at a place, and I’m managing my time and I’m managing expectations saying, yeah, I’ll be there in this amount of time. but I’m making up a story that, well, they’re doing stuff, they’re not waiting for me and I have a little wiggle room here, so I’m getting gas and I’m checking into my son and I’m filling my tire full of air and I come in and all these different factors. It’s not just the people, it’s the environment I’m going in.

As an empath, I’m going into this highly stimulating environment. Environment with this history around not being effective, right? This is esteem on the Maslow’s chart of effective around performance with respect to buying nice gifts for people. and I can just feel the anxiety welling up in my body, agitated, my nervous system is getting frothy. I can sense it, and I could have simply just picked up the phone and said, Hey, this is what’s going on for me right now. But I didn’t, that would’ve been the place where I could have nipped it in the bud, manage expectations to communicate effectively. But I didn’t and came in and it had this turned out they were waiting for me and there was heated words and I had a response and there was drama that everyone played a role.

So we went back and dipped into this past experience, you know, of years. and this, I think is how kind of trauma can kind of become ingrained and, even though you’ve done a lot of work, you can have these emotional experiences that generate drama, but it’s that opportunity for that third barrier of learning I got all this data now that I can look at and say, you know what? Here’s this learning that I can apply forward to look. It’s not about them and me being the victim and being one down. It’s really about, there’s all these factors in play to create awareness so that when I go into that situation again, I can go in like your client, Ash with agency and not jump into my spouse’s.

[00:20:04] Ash: Cam I, wanna call this out because I see this so often with my clients, and that’s Do you see how not only were you playing the victim, you were your own persecutor,

[00:20:18] Cam: Ooh,

[00:20:21] Ash: And that’s the rub of one down. You said something a few episodes ago about the drill sergeant and I have a client that that just so resonated with so much, so she’s adopted it as a name, that voice for her. And she talks about this interplay between the drill sergeant and the rebel, and we could put that in the language of this model, and that would be the persecutor and the victim, right? The drill sergeant saying, you should, this is how you’re supposed to be. This is why you’re not good enough. This is how you’re failing. And then the rebel or the victim, right? Just wanting to shy away, run and hide from that. Rebel against that persecution.

And it’s so interesting with ADHD on board how we can play both roles for ourselves and cause ourselves to freeze. We just layer on all this should, all this expectation falling into old roles, having. Old emotional responses to new situations, and we persecute ourselves. And that’s not to say by the way, that we don’t face many other persecutions as ADHD people. But gosh, the bulk of the work I do with my clients is working on that self persecution, seeing self differently.

[00:21:42] Cam: We can freeze, but we can have all those other limbic responses, right, of the fight, flee, or freeze. In that situation. So as we finish up today, listeners, this is the place to, look first the stories that we are creating for any situation to look at the story and what is the belief at play. being perse? Is there a situation where I absolutely have to help this person? I need to jump into their pool with a pool noodle and help them. We rationalize our behavior because it’s hard to change behavior with ADHD, so then it’s a coping mechanism. We use our stories to rationalize what we.

But if you start to look at the story, the roles of the characters in your story, and really, Ash, back to what you said, this inflexibility, this is the ADHD part. It just is, Cam, this is the way it is. They won’t change. That inflexibility is cognitive in nature. One of the telltale traits of ADHD is cognitive inflexibility.

So, the fascinating thing about ADHD is for a creative, spontaneous group of people, we can get locked into a way of looking at something, and I think, Ash, it’s a self-preservation thing. We protect ourselves by this story, but starting to look at it like, okay, can we look at this? And, how is this helping me? How is this helping them? How is this helping us? So often my clients, it’s about winning. I gotta win big signal, pounce, gotta. So are you trying to win? Are you trying to prove a point or blame just starting there and getting awareness of the dynamics at work that create the drama and separate the dynamics from the drama first.

Next week we’ll start to look at really chapter two of what to do next, but I love what you said is starting with that awareness piece and orienting to the drama so we can start to navigate it better.

[00:24:04] Ash: We may very well dive more into this next week, but just one little thing I wanna add that statement of they won’t change.

One of the most important things here, another big tenant of coaching is detaching from outcome. No, you cannot make another person in a dynamic change. And we’ve talked a lot. About clients that I’ve had, be it a relationship or a job who have chosen to move on because they see that even with the change that they’ve created for themselves, that they can’t invite that other person into the our stuff for whatever reason.

Whenever I start this kind of work with a client, the focus is first on what is yours? What is yours, client, let’s start there. Let’s get you showing up differently and let’s see what happens, and learn something from that and take it from there

[00:25:02] Cam: And it’s why we focus on self. Right. Something that’s in their wheelhouse that’s relevant to.

[00:25:09] Ash: I would say drama. You asked what drama is. I said it’s a big signal. It’s also what attached to outcome. Who’s right, who’s wrong? So detaching from outcome creates the opportunity to put both people on the same side of the table. It takes both people to do that, but as you said several times in this episode, Cam, when we change the roles, it takes the energy out whether or not you can do anything more than that.

So start there with what are your stories? What role are you showing up in. How can you create that pause moment, that opportunity to show up differently in this dramatic situation? And then just as we would tell a client, go have that experience. What’s the learning that informs what you do next?

So I have no idea which of our three things we’re on, so we’re just gonna pick one at random. If you want to financially support the show by becoming a patron, visit the website translatingadhd.com. Click on the Patreon tab. Our patrons cover all of our costs of running this show, which is amazing. Our editor and our assistant are our lifesavers, and the reason that we can keep doing this show week after week for all of you. So thank you to each and every one of you who has ever financially supported us in that way. You also gain access to our Discord server, where our listeners are working together to do their own, understand, own, and translate work.

So until next week, I’m Ash.

[00:26:37] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:26:37] Ash: And this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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