Being Misunderstood with ADHD: Childhood Origins

Episode 170

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Ash and Cam begin a new series on a ubiquitous ADHD experience – being misunderstood. ADHD operates out of sight and in the background, yet its impact can have enormous consequences. Additionally, ADHD and related executive function challenges make it very difficult to bring the ADHD out into the open to generate new understanding and awareness for the individual and for others.

The hosts kick off the series by looking at how childhood experiences of living with ADHD create misunderstanding for all parties and lead to a sense of One Down later in life. A focal point for being misunderstood is the challenge around the universal question from episodes 10 and 11 Why do I not do what I ought to do? and the subsequent fallout from failure here. This ADHD behavior does not make sense to the observing brain, especially lack of follow-through. When children don’t do as asked, others will assume the worst. They rarely think that the behavior is due to cognitive challenges with executive functioning.

Ash shares a client’s story and his own story where the common theme was about being misunderstood. He then shares how to use the coaching skill of distinguishing to tease apart the ADHD from the experience and to differentiate yours, mine and ours. The hosts leave listeners with some ideas of how to start to shift thinking around One Down and seeing oneself in the picture.

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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. Group coaching announcement. Our next course is available for registration. That course is Resilience. It begins Tuesday, June 13th, and meets at 8:30 PM Eastern. Pricing and information about the course, including the application, are available on the website Click on the group coaching tab.

Listeners, this week we’re diving into the topic of being misunderstood with ADHD. And this topic is so important because for all of the ways that ADHD manifestation is different for different individuals, which is the hallmark of this show, when we boil ADHD down to what are the universal experiences, this is absolutely one of them. And being misunderstood is the thing that informs that one down perspective. So that doesn’t come from nowhere. One down and the maladaptive behaviors that come with it over a lifetime. And we’re gonna talk about that today by digging into some childhood examples of where that starts. 

[00:01:21] Cam: That’s great. As you said, this is one of these universal shared experiences with ADHD that all of us have our unique presentation and our experience. I don’t think I’ve ever run into someone who hasn’t felt misunderstood at some point in their lives.

I’m really excited to look at this because this is something that we’re gonna look at again with the childhood experience, but then also how that manifests into adulthood, and what we can do about it. So bringing in elements of the whole understand, own, translate. So where do you wanna start?

[00:02:02] Ash: Cam, I wanna start with a story that a client of mine told about his childhood. And gosh, I wish I was the storyteller that he was because when he told this story, it broke my heart. And you could tell that even though this man is in his late thirties now, this still impacts him. And what he was talking about is a particular teacher who would give a piece of candy for turning in a homework assignment on time, and he would talk about how he knew, he desperately knew that he wanted that piece of candy. And all of his best intentions would be set on getting that piece of candy. Yet time and time again, he was the only kid in his classroom who didn’t get the candy and he just could not do it. This little third grade client of mine just could not understand why he was unable to get the candy

And so let’s break down that experience a little bit. Number one, this client did not have a diagnosis in third grade. Most of us that are that age did not have a diagnosis that young. This leads to number two: This client had no idea how to have a different experience. All he knew was that the adults around him were telling him that it should be possible for him to do what he needed to do to get the piece of candy, and that every other kid in his class could do what they needed to do to get the piece of candy. Yet he couldn’t do it.

[00:03:54] Cam: He couldn’t do it, and he couldn’t articulate why he couldn’t do it. Yeah, and I think this is the basis of, you know, the origins of one down, around being misunderstood, is because the teachers in our lives, this is human behavior, Ash, human behavior is, hey, follow these, quote unquote, I’m putting in air quotes here, simple directions. Do X, Y, and Z and deliver X, Y, and Z on said date. And then you will be rewarded. And here’s this idea of, you know, you put the carrot out there. And if it’s a strong enough carrot, like a piece of candy, then that individual will go ahead and have the motivation to work on X, Y, and Z and deliver it on said date.

And then this is how ADHD is so insidious working in the background, working underneath, around time and attention and priority and distinguishing exactly what is X, Y, and Z. So when that doesn’t happen, then that’s when judgment comes in, and we go up that ladder of inference that we’ve talked about both teacher and child. What is going on to explain this behavior?

[00:05:18] Ash: Cam, I’m glad you said that because here’s the thing, is we don’t know anything about this teacher, but for argument’s sake here, let’s assume best intentions.

[00:05:28] Cam: Yes, absolutely.

[00:05:30] Ash: Because I’ve seen this play out with best intentions in mind. So the teacher is doing what she knows to work with her students, and when it doesn’t work with this student, with her context, she doesn’t know why either. And that’s why this podcast is called Translating ADHD, is because not only is our experience a mystery to us or can be, it’s a mystery to those around us too.

Cam, I had this experience with my parents throughout my childhood. I just did not make sense to them. My parents said to my face many times that I was so smart, but so lazy. And they would say it in a way that was disappointed. They were both blue collar workers, early to bed, early to rise, capable of keeping a schedule, and my inability to do what I said I was going to do or what I was responsible for doing in a timely fashion made no sense for them. And like my client, I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. I didn’t know what was wrong with me either. I just knew, looking at the example of my parents and setting my best intentions to do what they were doing that was making them successful, I just couldn’t do it, and I didn’t know why. 

[00:07:00] Cam: So then what happens there to start to create that one down. How does one down then start to manifest from that point of challenge or not knowing?

[00:07:12] Ash: If you don’t have a better answer to why you’re not doing what you know you ought to do, and if what the people closest to you are telling you is that you’re lazy, maybe I’m just lazy. I say that in my bio to this day on my website, as I spent a long time thinking that I was just more lazy and less motivated than most people. 

[00:07:38] Cam: You know, and just to follow up on that teacher, right, of assuming best intentions is that parents can, you know, not say that right? They might be what’s wrong with you and maybe not use damaging language like lazy. We can fill in like the other ones that come out. It’s that what is often coupled with ADHD and the challenges around, integrity of task is this sensitivity of acceptance. And it’s not just the language, it’s that, as you said, the tone of disappointment, of discouragement. And it could be, again, the parent is discouraged because they’re focused on, you know, I’m not being a great parent. But that what’s getting passed back and forth is all those messages of you are not putting it, you are not doing what we want to be doing here. And that discouragement, frustration, anger, all those negative emotions are getting passed back and forth And along with that, all these assumptions.

And meanwhile, we’re not getting to what is actually going on. We go to character, we go to willpower, we go to, well, if they really wanted it, they’d go get it, right. Here’s the candy. And I so appreciate you sharing that example of your client as a third grader because it takes me right back. It was third grade and fourth grade where it seemed like everyone else in the class was getting some kind of owner’s manual of how to be a successful student. It just was like they’re sitting down and they’re writing a paragraph and I’m like, what is that? What is that thing that they’re doing that I’m not getting? Again, in that moment, we fill in the blanks. Here we try. So yes, here are the sort of elements of what is going on.

I wanna come back to this idea of we can’t advocate because all of those skills around distinguishing, right? Sequencing to observe objectively and look at what’s going on and to really see these executive function breakdowns. They just don’t present like other things. They’re very much in the background and it looks like lack of motivation, lack of interest, lack of determination, lack of any kind of desire of achievement. So this is where it starts, and you can see how then we can go through with this challenge of being misunderstood but also struggling to articulate what is going on for us. It’s twofold there.

[00:10:35] Ash: Cam, the examples we’ve giving thus far assume best intentions, but then there are also the places in our lives where people react without good intentions. I was perpetually in trouble in class for talking. So Cam, with your inattentive type, if you were checking out of class, you’d go into a daydream. 

[00:10:59] Cam: Oh yeah, and I was not a problem. I was a teacher’s dream because in the classroom management I was looking out the window and just million miles away.

[00:11:10] Ash: Whereas I would go to talking to my classmates without realizing what I was doing. So often I would get busted for talking in class and not even realize that I was being a disruption. But that would cause teachers to label me as a behavior problem and to start to treat me like a behavior problem.

That same client whose story I just shared has another story from a different teacher who would threaten to dump out desks if they weren’t tidy enough, and all the story of his desk and all of his possessions being dumped out, and the embarrassment and shame about how messy he was. Yikes. And so it is both the well-intentioned people and the not so well-intentioned people. The people that just see us as a problem or a frustration that layer on over time and form this sense of one down.

[00:12:14] Cam: I really appreciate, Ash, that we’re looking at this whole area of being misunderstood because I think it really is the basis. It sort of lays this unfortunate and sort of untenable foundation below us. And so when we start to do some work here, then we can really build that platform in order to create real change. Right?

So seeing ourselves in the picture and doing this understand, own, translate work, I just wanna bring in one quick example of remembering someone we can get into this sort of rejection sensitivity place, this one down and seeking validation, right? The big signal around acceptance. I just need to be accepted by this person or this group or this organization. And there we are kind of clawing for acceptance but not really understanding ourselves and our ADHD and how it’s coming into play. And so this is work of understand, own, translate is to really come back to understanding.

It’s not so much about appreciating, but seeing how the ADHD is coming into play now and how it came into play back in third grade, right? So we can start to tweak those old stories, right? This is this healing aspect that we’ve talked about around when you get a late diagnosis. So the question I have is that client who struggled so mightily with the candy. What was some of the understand, own, translate work that they started to do to start to shift their one down thinking?

[00:13:56] Ash: Cam, it’s a great question. And this was really about drawing parallels to where my client was in the current time, which was he had been let go from a job, and he had been told that he should find a different line of work. And that created a huge limiting belief for him that it was him and his ADHD at fault here.

The work we were doing, both with that relatively recent scenario and with some of these older scenarios was going back and distinguishing, building some awareness about ADHD and how it was showing up in these scenarios. And also distinguishing what was his stuff and what wasn’t his stuff. Both with the adulthood scenario and with the childhood scenarios. It was about acceptance. Acceptance of what happened, acceptance of the role that ADHD played, and also awareness about What wasn’t ADHD.

[00:15:03] Cam: I so appreciate how there’s this interplay of your concept of what’s yours, what’s mine, what’s ours, and in any kind of relationship stuff, it gets messy. Right. Whether it’s professional or personal, with judgment or feelings are at play, it’s hard to really separate out and determine what is ours, right? What is yours? What is mine and what is ours?

And also on top of that is this understand, own, translate piece. And listeners, as you’re listening here and you’re going back and thinking about your own experiences, because as Ash is, you know, sharing this third grade story, I’m going back to my own early childhood stories, and that not to make you feel bad, but to go back and to really start to create some understanding. So then you can accept, and it’s not about seeking acceptance from others. It’s accepting yourself first, right, at all parts of you that you are perfectly imperfect. That’s a really hard place for us to get to.

[00:16:24] Ash: Because we’ve cultivated this one down perspective and we’ve gotten used to taking on the blame. When you’re in third grade and you’re told it’s your fault, that you are not doing or not being what you’re supposed to do or who you’re supposed to be, we tend to take that at face value. And when that’s the belief you carry into adulthood, it’s a tough thing to struggle with.

Cam, I remember the first time I advocated for myself with my parents, and I had no idea I had ADHD by this point. I was in high school. I had a car. I was driving myself to school and to my afterschool activities and to a job, and I was showing up for those things. I also wanted to sleep in on the weekends. I tended to prefer to sleep in as long as possible, and I often got jostled out of bed in a jarring way by my parents who thought I was wasting the day.

[00:17:26] Cam: I remember your mom splashing water on your face was one story. 

[00:17:31] Ash: Oh yeah. And so I just happened to cross this article. I can still tell you the title, that’s how much I remember this called Let That Sleeping Teen Lie. And what the article was about is the science behind puberty and why teenagers need more sleep than adults do. So I took that article to my parents and I showed it to them and I said, look, I’m showing up where I’m supposed to be showing up. I’m passing all of my classes. I’m working, I’m doing what I need to do. If I’m sleeping, please let me sleep. And here’s why.

The important thing about that story is it was my coming across the article first that gave me the awareness that I wasn’t wrong or bad. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. My body legitimately needed more sleep. That then allowed me to go advocate for myself. We just don’t learn how to do that as ADHD people, particularly people of our relative age group, right? Talking thirties through however old. We grew up in an environment where differences were not acknowledged or appreciated, where one was most successful at school or at work if you could fall into line.

[00:19:00] Cam: Even people who are diagnosed when they are children, I’ve heard lots of stories from clients where they were diagnosed at 6, 8, 12, right, these very young ages. But it meant nothing to them because the understanding is really at this surface level for all parties.

The other thing I want to go back to is, as you were saying about how blame is generated and then often that blame sponge and how we will absorb the blame, or we will reject the blame and dispense it out to others, right? My parents, my school, my teacher, this teacher, you know, this person. Society, right? That here’s this energy, this negative energy of blame that we have to do something with. And the thing that I wanna invite listeners to think about is how’s that blame generated in the first place? Right? Where does it come from?

It comes from misinformation, misunderstanding. This assumption of, and then this stamp, as you said, you are a behavior problem. So the child then starts to assume, like, okay, I guess I’m a behavior problem. And I know a thing about kids is they’d rather look bad than look weak, you know? And so it’s that alright, you got a problem with me, I got a problem with you. And so that blame gets distributed right back. We’re not building connections, we’re not building understanding. So if you want to start to build this understanding, it’s do your own work first. Back to yours, mine, ours, is do mine, right? Work on yourself to understand. And notice how negative emotions like blame are generated or sustained.

I have a client who’s in his seventies, and that emotion from childhood is still there. The feeling is still there. It’s just so strong and it will be if you don’t work on that. Whether it’s through coaching, and as Ash said, and I’d like to say is doing the work with a professional who is trained to do that work. And whether it’s your history, and again, emotional work with a professional is really important, whether it’s a therapist, and doing that work in tandem with or before ADHD coaching.

[00:21:50] Ash: Cam, I just wanna take us out by talking about where I’m at today because that little glimmer of awareness and that glimmer of self-advocacy, that wasn’t the end of the story. I had a very complicated relationship with my sleep patterns, with what works for my body. For a really long time. In fact, that was part of our coaching work as well.

I had this limiting belief on board that I ought to be able to get up early. I ought to be able to keep a schedule. I ought to be able to do things a certain way that I’ve spent years cultivating awareness around, which brings us to present day and how things are kind of coming full circle. I am once again in puberty. Ha ha ha. But really, I am, and just like the first time, I am sleepier than normal. My body requires more sleep than it has in many, many years. And in a different place, in an uninformed place, I would be beating myself up about that or I’d be panicking about it. I would believe it said something about me, I must be depressed or something must be wrong. I must need to fix something. But because that was such a pivotal moment for me, because I’ve done so much other work around acceptance and ownership of my own ADHD and what works for me as a human being, I’m rolling with the punches. And I just need to sleep more, and that’s okay.

[00:23:39] Cam: That’s a wonderful place to finish, Ash. I really appreciate you sharing that, and it’s the language there around a glimmer of awareness. Listeners, you have this awareness, you’re here listening, and so the power of knowledge to be understood. To really work on that understand part of understand, own, translate. So really great story to take us out today.

[00:24:04] Ash: So, listeners, if you like what we’re doing here on the show, one way that you can support us is by becoming a patron. Our patrons help pay for all of the costs of running this show, including our editing and our assistant, and we’re so grateful to all of you who have continued to support the show. It’s a huge difference maker for Cam and I, and it’s a big reason why we can keep bringing you this podcast.

Becoming a Patron also gives you access to our Discord server where our listeners are working together to do their own understand, own, and translate work. To find out more, visit the website, and click on the Patreon tab. Until next week, I’m Ash.

[00:24:46] Cam: I’m Cam.

[00:24:47] Ash: And this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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