Short Circuiting the ADHD Meaning Maker

Episode 168

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Cam takes Ash and listeners on a field trip to the land of ADHD causation, introducing listeners to Cam’s own Meaning Maker (MM). Veteran listeners will recall the challenge for ADHDers to get to causation from the Mt. Rainier Model introduced in episode 10. They will also recall Cam speaking about his Big Idea Generator (BIG). The Meaning Maker is first cousin to the BIG and is a part of everyone’s belief system – the neural system that makes sense of the world and that rationalizes choices and actions. Confirmation bias is a result of selectively picking data to reinforce a position. ADHD can super-charge the MM by plugging into our contextual processor. Informed by urgency and ARC activity, we can infuse our belief systems with “what if!” scenarios that generate doubt and worry. This gives the MM a spotlight on the stage – and an undeniable big signal.

Cam shares his own experience as a teacher more than 20 years ago when his Meaning Maker was very active, reinforcing a story that entrenched him in a perspective of one down. Ash explores this experience with Cam, extracting valuable understanding and perspective. When Cam understood the presence of the MM and what gave it its power, he was able to short circuit the system. The hosts leave listeners with steps to discover and observe their own Meaning Makers.

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Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Ash: Hi, I’m Ash.

[00:00:01] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:00:02] Ash: And this is Translating ADHD. Cam, tell our listeners what we’re talking about today.

[00:00:08] Cam: So today, Ash, we’re gonna continue on with where we were last week. As I was thinking about this, this is translating ADHD in a way. I think that some people think that translating ADHD is like translating our ADHD for others. And before we can translate our ADHD experience for others, right, in order to advocate, in order to identify and manage boundaries, in order to resource, we’ve gotta be able to translate it for ourselves. And that when we start to see the ADHD in play, and when we bring a fresh perspective to that experience, when we bring curiosity, when we bring presence, when we bring journey, we are actually starting to change what is happening in our brain. So often people are focused on how do I manage my ADHD? And I think what we’ve been saying all along here is, how do I understand my brain better so I can optimize its functioning? Your brain is more than just your ADHD, and when you understand the processes that are going on beyond ADHD, right, dipping into the neuroscience, then you can start to tether to what is actually going on.

So last week we were talking about how our inner critic can fabricate these limiting stories. We shared three examples. You did a brilliant job of distinguishing experiences in those examples. And again, this sort of cause and effect where it is in the story, there’s emotions associated with that story. I’m not enough or I’m not able to share my opinion or just go with the flow or, you know, it’s other people’s problem. They don’t get me. So what we did last week was sort of look at how the ADHD comes into play to influence that experience.

And when we actually go and start to look at that, we start to introduce a different experience. We disrupt what is actually happening. And one of the things that this week we’re gonna focus on one thing in particular that can really exacerbate that negative thinking, and that is the meaning maker.

So last week I talked about the big idea generator. We’ve talked about the big idea generator and stuff at causation, things that are at causation, like our perception on time, and how it’s very dynamic. Often people talk about not now, or time blindness, I would say it’s much more nuanced than that. That’s ADD showing, and that meaning maker is kind of like the big idea generator. It’s that high contextual processor, right? We process for context looking at different situations and context matters, right? This is why we do the what if thing, what if, or it depends, right? It’s situational. Our friends might get really frustrated with us because it seems like we don’t take a firm stand on something. Well, it depends on the situation. It depends on the context. So we can quickly move our positioning there.

The way that this doesn’t necessarily work is that we will rapidly take very little data and make meaning from that in the world. This is what’s called confirmation bias, and this has just been sort of coming out in neuroscience in the last couple years. Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry pick information that confirms our existing beliefs or ideas. So that can be about the world, it can be about our situation.

And last week as we talked about that just really tough situation where there’s the big signal of, I’m not good enough, or I’m not doing enough. That one down. That first example, we used, Ash, and there’s the big signal. They’re the feelings associated with it. And at that same time, our memory of who we are and why we are and what we’re up to, and our most recent wins just fades into the back. And we have nothing as a backstop there to counter those strong feelings. We’ve got those strong feelings.

The other thing we’ll do is we will have confirmation bias or to infer about a situation. I call it the meaning maker. We do it out of survival, right? To rapidly assess and make meaning of a situation. But if we’re plugged into that negative neural network, right under the shadow of ARC and urgency, it’s informed by our fears of what’s wrong. And so that’s in. That is coming into play and if we can start to just question that or pull the plug to short circuit that a bit to introduce a pause, disrupt, pivot it, which is really hard because this is this place between stimulus and response that life coaches love to talk about.

Victor Frankl’s quote of the power between stimulus and response. ADHD collapses that space. And you and I and our coaching help our clients start to develop space between incoming stimuli, whether it’s external from other people or our world, our environment, or it’s internal, where it’s coming from, that inner critic or that limiting thinking. So starting to notice, bring the keen observer. How are you making meaning? Is confirmation bias in play here? Everybody has it. It’s part of our survival, To reinforce our belief system. It’s what is really in play with a lot of our challenges in the United States right now. Of people will not agree on what they see and that the truth, reality is there’s a space there.

So let’s start with that first example. I’m not good enough or that one down. And what do you do there, listener, to start to make meaning around that or to confirm that position? If you can start to just take a step back and breathe and notice what the tendency is there, the habit – it’s habitual – then you can start to construct or find a different behavior there other than going quickly to reinforce. Okay. Yep. There we go. Yep. There I see the evidence that suggests I am one down.

Ash, I’ll say I was thinking about this this morning and when I was teaching school, just, again, exhausted because I wasn’t a good manager of all the things I needed to do, so I was one down physche. And it didn’t really matter what people said. A lot of people would give me feedback that I was doing a good job, that I was a good teacher, and I would dismiss that cuz I would go to the, again, this making meaning this powerful meaning maker in my brain that would cherry pick the data. That became the big signal that got my attention. The facts, which were more nuanced, of at a lower level. I really missed that. I didn’t really equally weigh the facts versus my own belief system and the meaning I was making. This reinforces imposter syndrome and it’s this wicked cycle. You get up the next day, it’s not like you’ve taken steps forward, sort of, you’ve circled in the wagons and you’re in that crouched, defensive position that you talk about, right? Like a caged animal in a way.

[00:08:51] Ash: So, Cam, when I am talking to clients about how we’re going to get some distance from the emotion, how we’re gonna start to distinguish, I like to say, and I’ve said it on the show before too, that part of the challenge is the emotion itself is real. It’s there, it’s real. It’s real in our bodies, but what we’re attaching to it may not be so real.

And so Cam, I’m wondering if we can’t look at your experience and kind of break it down. What was the emotion that you were having? What were you attaching to it? Let’s start there.

[00:09:34] Cam: The compelling story was, I didn’t belong. Again, this compare, right, the compare. We have this ability to compare. We’re looking at others, and when I looked at the other staff at this school, they were so impressive. They were so talented. They had multiple skills. Not only were they good teachers, but they had interesting lives, and they like could play the fiddle and the do bro, you know, just these talents that were just off the scale. And so that was sort of the, I don’t belong and when are they gonna find me? When are they gonna find me out?

And so, I’m having a visceral response back to that, again, the emotion. It’s a physical feeling that is real, but it is just a response to that story. And that’s what’s so interesting, is that even though the emotion is real, it’s not the actual reality of the situation. I actually did belong, but there was that very compelling story, and it just sort of, again, allowed me to focus on a battle that didn’t exist.

Ash, it’s sort of like Don Quixote in the windmills. And I think that this is, what is the really the shame? The big challenge with people with ADHD is it’s finding the right battle to fight. So here I am fighting this battle of, I don’t belong. So, therefore, I can’t screw up. I can’t make a mistake. Well, that’s like right under the shadow of, right, that fight flight center – always vigilant, always on guard, can’t mess up. The emotion, back to your question, I think it’s fear, shame, dread. So many people with ADHD that we talk about the dread pirate and dread being there, talk about with Covid and the last five years and the sense of dread, and climate crisis and the sense of existential dread, 

[00:11:56] Ash: That’s a big one that is coming up more and more with my clients and is a part of our work, is that bigger existential dread in how to deal and manage that with ADHD.

[00:12:10] Cam: Right, so part of it was fighting these windmills that actually didn’t exist. So the emotions were very real, but all this energy and focus and bandwidth, Ash, bandwidth, all this bandwidth was going into this war that didn’t really exist. It was confirmed in my fears. So ADHD puts the big focus on what’s the big signal, what’s the big signal. You gotta just focus here and don’t focus anywhere else. And guess what? So then I couldn’t focus on building bridges and tethering to resources and, you know, what’s the good, what’s possible? What’s the opportunity, what’s my purpose?

Talking about purpose and sort of tethering to these other areas, there was no space for Cam in that situation, and it was finally when someone really called me out, a peer coach called me out on this confabulation and construction of all these stories of like, man, that sounds exhausting. I remember when she said it, it was like, that just sounds like hell. Really this question of like, why are you trying to think about what other people are thinking about you? Like why are you trying to read their minds? They’re gonna think whatever they’re gonna think, and this was this whole, understanding my sort of first real understanding, well second, right?

The first understanding of ADD was I had an awareness I didn’t complete. The second awareness of ADD was there are things I can control, and there are things I cannot control. And that’s ADD people. ADHD makes it very difficult to distinguish what we can and cannot control. This is Serenity Prayer part four, right? The wisdom to know what I can and cannot control.

[00:14:20] Ash: I’m gonna jump in and say probably some blame sponging going on here too. When we aren’t distinguishing what is and isn’t in our control, we’re generally also not distinguishing what negative outcomes are a direct result of our actions and which ones are not.

[00:14:43] Cam: Yeah, definitely. So blame sponge and back to not having an understanding of my brain. Back to the beginning of our session today or episode today. Not really appreciating I had an ADHD diagnosis, Ash, but I didn’t understand how it was showing up.

And so what do we do? We fill in the blank. It’s like blame sponge because I couldn’t find a culprit. I couldn’t understand like what the culprit was. Therefore, I assumed the worst. And again, assuming the worst is big signal, big drama. That’s my focus. And guess what? Last week you were talking about agency and choice. No agency, no choice whatsoever.

So I’m bumbling and stumbling through until, again, that coach called me out on this and just was that distinction between what you can and cannot control. So this is tethered to priority. I was trying to control all factors, right? I was trying to like this image police. It was like, well, if I can’t do it, well I gotta at least try to look like I’m, you know, faking it here. So that was my coping mechanism. How’d that work? Right? How’d that go for you, Cam? But starting to see, oh, okay, letting go detaching from, of people are gonna have their opinion.

If I can kind of quiet down that hyper-vigilant, you know, seeking of, oh, that little grimace that that person’s showing in their facial expression, it might not be directed to me. And realizing that that sensitivity was really this sort of intuition, this hyper empathy for the world around me. And I was like, oh, okay, I’m like a super-sensitive telescope that picks up the most nuanced little things out in the world. And if I don’t kind of take care of that, then I can get over stimulated with too much data and then it kicks me over into this place that’s just no good.

[00:17:00] Ash: I’ve said so often in recent episodes of the podcast that strength and challenge are two sides of the same coin. And for you, that hyper empathy is an amazing demonstration of that. It was absolutely a challenge in this one down place where every bit of negative emotion that you’re picking up on, you’re kind of sucking up into your blame sponge. You’re crafting stories around that tiny piece of information that put you at the center somehow and at blame or at fault somehow.

However, that very same thing I would say is one of the things that makes you such an excellent coach, and I get the privilege of seeing you coach quite regularly in our group coaching. So I’ve had experience of you coaching a number of different clients around tough topics. And there’s a real safety that you can create for a person there by picking up and noticing those nuanced signals when they’re there, when someone else is uncomfortable or afraid or it might be difficult for them to talk about a topic.

I think that’s so interesting, because I think sometimes coaching work can sound like we’re gonna learn more about your brain, so you can have a different and better experience by just doing things differently. But a big part of coaching work is uncovering and tapping into strengths. And so often with my ADHD clients, those strengths are things that can cause them challenge. So, they only know that experience as a challenge. They don’t yet maybe know or understand how to tap into it as a strength.

[00:18:56] Cam: That’s a really good point, Ash, and it’s something that we can start to point our listeners towards. And so, last week I love what you were doing there as we were sharing those three examples, you kept bringing in these important distinctions around, again, when you have awareness, when you have curiosity, that it can be a game changer. It can really change the script.

We talked about it around going with the flow in our second example and being misunderstood. In our third example, and here the same thing applies, is that first and foremost, giving yourself a break, assume that there’s more good data out there than you are acknowledging. This assumption, we wanna counter that assumption that it’s all bad. That’s what I was doing. I was assuming the worst. So in order to disrupt that is to assume that there is some good, assume that there’s good intent on others. Assume that there’s good intent on your own by yourself. When you start to bring curiosity here, you actually start to disrupt this whole neural network, this setup where you’re kind of going into this crouched defensive, heightened on-edge place. Start there first.

[00:20:35] Ash: Another place I like to go with my clients is checking in with other people. So often we can craft a story about what’s going on for someone else. And so if it’s safe to do so, and it’s not always, this is the yours, mine and ours, right? And we’ve talked about clients of mine in the past for whom that would not be a productive step because of the other person and their stuff.

But if it’s a productive step, getting in the habit of checking in with the people around you, and for me personally, I will articulate why I’m checking in. And the people that are close to me know that, right. I will just point blank say I’m checking in because I’m noticing this. Cam, you and I had that experience not too long ago where you were going through a bit of a rough time, and you were showing up differently to the podcast, and I was starting to wonder if it was me or the podcast because of how you were showing up. And so I asked. And the really funny thing there is not only did it have nothing to do with me or the show, it actually evoked some awareness for you about something else that was going on that you weren’t yet quite aware of in a way that you could do something with it.

And so I could have sat, you know, for several, several more weeks. Gosh, that situation played out over a couple more months, right? With increasing storytelling, increasing panic, increasing worry that somehow the other shoe in this partnership is about to drop. And it would’ve been miserable. But there’s a time in my life that that’s exactly what I would have done. But I know you better than that, and I know that in this dynamic I can just check in and ask. And even if it is something between us that that’s a starting place for a conversation.

And that’s another thing that coaching kind of teaches our clients, is I try and tell my clients we’re always on the same side. This is co-created. And you can bring that notion of co-creating a relationship into your other relationships dilemma doesn’t necessarily have to mean conflict. What if you could sit down at the table together and figure out how to approach the dilemma together in a way that’s going to work for both people?

[00:23:12] Cam: I really like that example. It actually takes emotion and turns it into a resource. You were talking earlier about, again, challenges and strengths. Two sides of the same coin. So often we address emotion and emotional regulation when it’s too late. Right? When we’re flooded, when we’re triggered and it is too late then. But this kind of noticing of frustration and annoyance. Yeah. What’s on your mind? What’s going on? Let’s check in. Right? Recognizing if we’re having this meaning maker that can be in play is to nip it in the bud and go seek the facts. What is going on for you? What is happening? And do that mine, yours, ours thing, which is distinguishing. 

[00:24:10] Ash: Yeah, I agree. What that does is our brains want the context, and if we don’t have the context, they’re very good at filling in the context. So yes, I’ve learned to get the context to let that thing, that little inkling, that little emotion, wherever it starts that previously could have mushroomed out into a story, into a one down into a recurring big signal. I’ve let that become an informer. There’s something to check in on here.

I do it with my clients, too. I always tell my clients if something’s ever hinky on my side, I will bring it up, and we will talk about it, even if I’m not sure what it is. And those are some of the most rewarding coaching conversations I have. Nine times out of 10, those conversations result in a stronger coaching relationship between me and my client, and that 10th time the discovery is that coaching and or coaching with me is not the right support for that person, and that’s okay too. Once again, the beauty of co-creating is that it doesn’t say anything about me. I’m not firing them. They’re not firing me. We’ve had a conversation, we’ve unearthed what’s going on that was putting that thing in our dynamic that had my attention, and we’ve discovered something new for the client that there is other work to be done that does not involve me, and that’s okay, too.

All right, listeners, so we haven’t made an ask in a while, so I’m gonna go ahead and ask you if you haven’t yet left a review for the show, please do so. Those really help us out by letting other people know how we stand apart from other ADHD podcasts and letting people know that our show is worth giving a listen.

So until next week, I’m Ash.

[00:26:06] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:26:07] Ash: And this is the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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