Being Misunderstood with ADHD: In Relationships

Episode 171

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Cam and Asher continue to explore the topic of being misunderstood with ADHD. Nowhere does this play out more dramatically than in our primary relationships. It’s nearly impossible to articulate thoughts and feelings and advocate for oneself if you are not clear on what is actually going on. The first barrier of ADHD is awareness, and we can feel the frustration and emotion from a particular situation. But ADHD makes it really hard to get to the root cause. ADHD and executive function challenges are a part of the root!

Ash shares a fantastic example of a client who feels like his spouse is ‘tossing a basketball in his face’ every time she asks him to do something, eliciting a response of frustration. As Ash and his client look ‘under the hood’, the client starts to appreciate and understand how his ADHD was coming into the situation with his spouse. With the understanding that it is a challenge with effective transitioning, he can articulate his needs to his spouse. She in turn can develop some empathy for his situation. Cam brings in the concept of context switching and how it can be difficult to shift from work mode to home mode and back.

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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. Quick note about group coaching. Our next course is open for registration. It is Resilience, and it begins Tuesday, June 13th at 8:30 PM Eastern. For more information, including pricing, course content and the application for the course, visit the website and click on the group coaching tab.

So, Cam.

[00:00:29] Cam: So, Ash, I know what you’re gonna say. You’re gonna say, what are we looking at today?

[00:00:37] Ash: Wow, you’re like a mind reader.

[00:00:40] Cam: A mind reader.

[00:00:41] Ash: Wow. How’d you know that?

[00:00:45] Cam: Add that to the list of the dropdown menu that is Cam.

[00:00:48] Ash: Ah, well, since you already know it, I’m gonna ask, why don’t you go ahead and answer.

[00:00:52] Cam: Yeah, so last week we kicked off this series around being misunderstood. And this is one of the experiences that is just absolutely ubiquitous with the ADHD experience. Every person that I’ve ever spoken to that has ADHD, every one of my clients, every one of my students, always talked about this and again, that ADHD operates invisibly. It’s in the background. So you might see the symptoms of distractability and forgetfulness and challenges around time management. But for the operator, it’s not so evident, it’s not so obvious, and this is why it’s so difficult to create change here.

So, last week we talked about the childhood origins, and you had that great story, your client around the, you know, do this and you get the reward, you get the candy. And so today I think you brought this up with great topic, and it’s really rather insidious, the challenge around being misunderstood when you don’t understand yourself, right? And it’s not just understanding yourself, but understanding what is going on with ADHD.

To get accurate information with my clients, I know you do this, too, is that we invite our clients to start to develop accurate feedback loops to get better information, better data for how time passes, how they address their day, how they engage with certain relationships, and how they don’t. And that is one of those things that’s in play. So today, we’re gonna start here, listeners. And Ash has a great example as a lead-in here. Again, where it’s so difficult. How do we advocate for ourselves when we are unsure about what we’re advocating about or for?

[00:02:49] Ash: Or when we don’t even know what’s going on, that there is some unmet need or some different way of going about things to have a different experience. And that’s where things start with this particular client. He came to a session wanting to address this particular sort of dynamic that happened between him and his spouse, and that was that she would walk into the room often when he was in his home office, but not necessarily always when he’s in his home office, to share some bit of information or to request that he do some chore or attended to something.

And my client recognized that that information or that request wasn’t out of line, was something that he wanted to pay attention to and wanted to attend to. Yet he was also noticing that his initial response in those circumstances was frustration. Which led to a misunderstanding on his spouse’s part because here the spouse is coming in, making a request that he attend to something or just listen to something and is being met with frustration. Right? What does that feel like? He doesn’t care or it’s not important to him, or he doesn’t want to attend.

And so that’s where we started: where my client knows that he gets frustrated in these situations and he knows to some degree that that frustration is leading to his spouse feeling a certain way about that interaction. But he doesn’t know anything else. He doesn’t know what’s going on under the hood there that’s leading to this type of interaction. All he does know is it’s not what his spouse currently thinks. It’s not that he doesn’t care, he doesn’t want to attend. So why the frustration? Why is that his default in those situations?

[00:04:56] Cam: And I think that we’ll pause there because we want to illustrate and highlight the dilemma of not knowing what’s going on. So how can you start to translate, articulate, advocate if you’re unsure of what’s happening? And as you know what this points to is the first barrier of ADHD.

The first barrier of ADHD is awareness, right? The second is action, and third is learning. This first barrier of awareness of getting to what is actually going on. I love your expression there of under the hood, right? That looking at what might be going on cognitively there? What’s going on with respect to the ADHD and how it might be informing? I think the other thing to think about here is that it’s not all ADHD. We are complicated and complex individuals, right? Human beings in general. You are not just your ADHD. Your ADHD is coming into play, comes into play in all kinds of different ways and the very skills and practices that we need to create awareness, right?

To separate and distinguish what is mine, what’s someone else’s, or what is ADHD and what is not. We talked about this last week. These are executive function intense practices, so it’s sort of a double whammy. People are coming and they want to create change, but they don’t have the awareness of what is actually going on, and so thus this conundrum that we’re talking about today, being misunderstood, but really not understanding what’s going on, not understanding ourselves in that situation.

[00:06:51] Ash: And that’s really how our clients tend to show up, Cam, isn’t it? When we first start working with someone, is there is enough awareness there that they know that they have ADHD, and they know that looking at and examining their ADHD is the path forward. And for our clients who come via the podcast, there’s even this deeper awareness, this connecting to the stories that we tell on this podcast, the experiences that we share.

But there’s an inability to take that awareness and pivot it into a different experience generally, because while they understand their ADHD on a broad level really well, there’s individual factors under the hood that haven’t yet been examined that we haven’t yet got to. It’s like this podcast. If you binge this podcast, you get a great 10,000 foot view of ADHD and a whole lot of normalizing of your experience.

It’s not just you. Other people have these challenges. Other people have these thought patterns. Other people have this internal experience of ADHD that is hard to articulate and even harder for others to see and understand. But there’s no connection point there. How do we take that and connect it and pivot it into meaningful action into change, and that’s the work that we do with our clients and the work that we encourage you to do, listeners listening to the show.

[00:08:34] Cam: That’s well articulated, and this topic just had me go back a little bit. Last week we talked about the childhood origins, but I just wanna share my own. You shared yours and again, this sort of sticky place. Of being misunderstood and misunderstanding and how it just can be this sort of revolving door or this self-fulfilling process. It just feeds misinformation on top of misinformation.

I’m in my late fifties, and so when I was in middle school in the seventies, there was no such thing as ADHD. There was lots of learning on disabilities. Dyslexia for one was certainly there. My parents knew something was wrong. They knew something was wrong. The teachers knew something was wrong, but the resources that were available, we tried them, right? I’m just thinking about, you know, tutoring, testing, evaluation, tutoring, testing, evaluation, or just going from fifth grade to 12th grade and beyond. Tutor, test, evaluate, tutor, test, evaluate, and we’d get some information. I answered this mild reading disability. Some specific things that were not really addressable.

What they had in their pocket was tutoring. That was the big service – tutoring. And I remember going to the tutor and oh my goodness, I’m just remembering now Ash, when I went to the tutor for a whole summer and I didn’t do any of the work. And the last day of the summer, my mom goes to the tutor and says, so how’d we do? And the tutor’s like, well, he never did any of the work. Now you know, this may have been ninth grade or something. This may be on the tutor a bit to like, you know, maybe ring my mom and say, Hey, you know, this isn’t really working, which is lovely that it’s not working. I tend to bring it up, right.

We need to redesign the coaching alliance there, but there might be a little bit on the adults there. But here’s this cycle of misunderstanding, misunderstood, along with misinformation. And ooh, you can imagine the fireworks happened with my mom and realizing when I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain.

And again, what’s happening in the background is it’s ADHD. Of not being able to take an intention and deliver a week later when I’m supposed to, you know, go back to the tutor. And so she was frustrated. My mom was frustrated, I was frustrated, but we never got to the root. We never really looked under the hood to see what was going on in the sense of this isn’t intentional, this is a memory. This is an intention, problem, or challenge.

[00:11:34] Ash: Cam, it’s so interesting to me because our experiences are very different in childhood. Your parents were actively involved in actively seeking resources to the best of their ability with this misunderstanding in the middle. And I didn’t have that benefit, right. And interestingly enough, I find with my clients who had what you had, that can almost compound one down. They’ll look into their past and say things like, I had every opportunity, I had every resource. My parents invested so much in me, and yet I still couldn’t, or I wouldn’t be where I am today without those things. I had no role in this. It was because I had the privilege of attentive parents and or parents with the resources to do these things for me that I was even able to get this far. I’m curious if that was your experience too.

[00:12:39] Cam: Absolutely, it was. This recognition of second chances. I remember my mom saying, good thing that University of Maryland was so inexpensive, right? To keep paying for all those semesters and those do-overs. Right? So just having that chance and so that feeling. Lucky. And again, there’s not me that was making this happen. Right, we talked recently about the meaning maker, right?

So listeners, if you go back a couple episodes to the how we will make meaning around a situation, and that’s one of the things that contributes to not getting to accurate data. We don’t get to accurate data because of that inner critic, the meaning maker. We assume the worst. We don’t see ourselves in the picture of that one down place. And it’s by some chance, it’s by some luck, it’s by, you know, it’s certainly not us of what we did in order to create change.

So it is, I so appreciate you bringing that in of how everyone’s experience is different. When you listen to the podcast, and we tell these stories, they’re at a 10,000 foot level. You can connect to it, you can associate with it when you start to do your own work. And whether you’re coaching or something else where you’re really thinking about how do I create change? To stop doing what’s not working for me and start to really look at how can I address these challenges and move through this barrier here. This barrier of, again, not enough awareness to be able to articulate.

I wonder, Ash, if this is a good chance to go back to the story of your client. What happened there? Right. Again, this, sort of standoff and the frustration on both sides, and how did they break through that place of misunderstanding?

[00:14:38] Ash: Yeah, so we started to look at that frustration point. What is that? And my client came up with this great metaphor. He said, even if I’m not actively working, my brain’s in one place, and it’s like my spouse walks in and she, without any warning, throws a basketball at my head. I know, right? It’s great.

[00:15:04] Cam: Yeah, it’s beautiful.

[00:15:06] Ash: And so I catch the basketball, but now I’m here holding this basketball and I don’t know what to do with it. I just don’t know what to do with it. And the moral of that story is we talked more about what’s it mean when she chucks the basketball at you and now you’re holding the basketball? What is that? Is his realization that all he needed. It’s not that he needed her to never come into his office when he was working or never interrupt him if he even looked like his mind might be somewhere else, because if we did that, boy, they’d never have another conversation again. Right?

[00:15:44] Cam: Right.

[00:15:45] Ash: What it was about is he wanted some preparation, some warning, before she threw the basketball. So to put that into podcast language, this was really about transitions. The abrupt throwing of the basketball felt like this forced transition that his brain did not deal well with. It put him in this freeze place just holding the ball. But if she walked in and asked to throw a ball before throwing the ball, that made a huge difference.

And so you see the lovely thing here is first it was about figuring out what the unmet need was for my client, which was a little heads up, a little warning, a little preparation so that his brain could transition from whatever it was on to. Okay, now I’m focused on attending to my spouse and our home life. And number two, in doing that, in finding the unmet need, we also found all of this great language for him to take to his spouse to translate this experience. This is what happens for me when this happens this way. This is what it’s like for me.

And his spouse does not have ADHD. But that metaphor of just having a ball chucked at you out of nowhere is something anyone can connect to. Right? Which made it possible for them to come together and find a different way of doing things and to make this agreement that she would first tell him that she’s about to throw a ball before she throws the ball.

And two, even better, is once we got that far, we started noticing this same phenomenon showing up in other places of transition. So this wasn’t just a dynamic between him and his spouse, although that’s where it was the most painful and the most pronounced. This was a need of his in every area of life.

Sometimes necessarily at work, he needs to be interrupted. Someone needs to step in and interrupt him for a compelling reason, and he understands that. But that little prep work of, just give me a heads up that you’re gonna throw me a ball before you throw the ball, allows him to catch up and then be present for whatever that ball represents.

[00:18:21] Cam: And then think about all that negative energy that is avoided. Right? Last week we talked about blame and shame and how that can be generated so quickly and then it’s in the room, and then that’s where the big signal is. Right. That’s where the meaning maker goes or comes in of like, ah, why is she has to come in and do that? And like, ah, I just asked him to take the trash out. Why is he blowing up at me? Right. He’s such a hothead.

So I really appreciate how that starting place of kind of recognizing what’s the frustration, what is the unmet need. And back around the new year, we were talking a lot about needs, so they’re needs that are general needs, and then there’s also ADHD needs. And so starting to sort of separate and be curious about those. Transitioning is something that can be very difficult with ADHD. Whether you’re fast brain or big brain, you’re locked in, you’re in a place and all of a sudden everything changes your context. Someone’s asking you a question and you are coming into it about halfway and as you said, you’re like, you got the ball. And it’s like overwhelm, frozen and unable to move forward from that. There’s the under the hood stuff, and if we have some appreciation of that, as you said, this anticipating of we can really start to build a better transition ramp there to move from where he was to where he needs to put his attention.

[00:20:04] Ash: Cam, I particularly wanted to share that story because it’s one that I share with my clients pretty often as a jumping off point to some conflict that is happening around transition, where my clients may not necessarily recognize that the conflict is around transition. And in fact, I employed that metaphor myself when my partner moved in.

I went from being self-employed and having my whole house to myself all day every day, to sharing my space with my traditionally employed partner who works from home.

[00:20:43] Cam: And let’s not forget the cats.

[00:20:45] Ash: And the cats, although they’re not necessarily relevant here. By the way, the cats are getting along great now. 

[00:20:51] Cam: Oh, good. Well, I’m good. All right. 

[00:20:53] Ash: That’s all well and good. Well and good. No more airlocks. 

[00:20:56] Cam: I digress.

[00:20:59] Ash: And the dilemma that I was running into that I couldn’t quite articulate was similar to my clients, but different. I was used to having my workday be this space that was entirely mine to him weaving in and out of my workday in ways that didn’t work for me. And so my manifestation was a little different than my client and the basketball because in part my unmet need was I do need to have some amount of sacred space around my workday, even if I’m not currently with a client and not otherwise engaged in work.

That doesn’t mean that you can come into my office and start talking about something wholly unrelated because it’s disruption. It takes my brain out of my workday and puts it somewhere else. And in that way, it did feel like being thrown a ball. But for us, the solution wasn’t a preparation, it was a protection of my workday. You work from home. That’s our situation. We can’t do anything about that, but I need my space during the day because when I’m not working or I’m not with a client, that doesn’t mean that I’m not in a working brain space, that I’m not doing some mental creative work, that I’m not pulling on threads.

And so to not have that space between kind of put me at a standstill for a while because it made it really hard to attend to all of the things that aren’t fixed. Client appointments on the calendar, whether they be administrative things or creative threads or projects that I want to pull on for the future.

[00:23:01] Cam: So there’s transition in there. There’s also what Al Newport around deep work talks about context switching, right? As you said, it’s like you’re in your office and it’s like you’re just thinking around office things, work things, and it’s sort of like someone comes in and it’s like bring something that’s completely unrelated to, again, you’re getting into that head space that is work, and to ask you to kind of extract yourself from that world. From that context to a completely different context, and to then orient ourselves to that dilemma or that conversation.

You’re just reminding me of like, uh, just back up, just back up a little bit. Just back it up just a little bit, cuz she’ll say a person’s name and I’ll go off to thinking about the one person and it’s someone completely different, et cetera, et cetera.

[00:23:54] Ash: Cam, it’s so funny because you and I have that same experience with our partners in a very, very similar way. The number of times I have to look at ’em and say, I didn’t actually hear anything you just said. So can we, can we back it up and start over? 

[00:24:08] Cam: Just back it up a little bit. 

[00:24:10] Ash: Well, and particularly at that time of day, because oftentimes he would just be coming in to take a break and to share a little bit about his workday. It’s not even necessarily that there was an ask or a dilemma. He just wanted some water cooler talk because his job is very different than mine. He’s traditionally employed, and he’s either doing some task related to what his job function is or he’s not. It’s very binary, whereas I am often doing, as you described it, deep work that isn’t so easy to see.

So again, in our case, the basketball metaphor was a jumping off point. It wasn’t necessarily indicative of my experience, but it gave us a place of mutual understanding to start talking about what it is for me. To deepen my understanding so that I could then articulate that to my partner, and we could make some adjustments as to how we go about our days sharing this home as a workspace for both of us.

[00:25:24] Cam: Yeah, and you know, I’m thinking about when I do that, when I ask my partner to back up, what she used to do was take it very personally, right? Again, with this lack of understanding of what was going on and what would happen is just frustration and you know, aren’t you listening? You know, hello, hello? Marty McFly, McFly. She wouldn’t do that. That’s my own stuff. But what would happen is, there’s this understanding. So yeah, she might get frustrated if I’m asking to constantly back up. So I’m trying to do a better job to, again, that lead in with that transition.

But with this, when you are starting to look at this and articulate your experience, then empathy comes into the room, right? That long ago, trust was eroding in our relationship, there was no empathy because there was a lack of understanding.

The other thing I wanna say, Ash, I know that we’re coming to time. I think that sometimes people can look at this as, oh, this gives me a pass. This is a way to, again, to kind of buy time, right? I can use this, like my need for transition is an excuse to not have to listen to my spouse. We’re not saying that at all, right? This is about being informed. This is about getting accurate information so that we can then articulate and address a need in that moment so we can partner better. Right? So I just wanna bring that in, too. This is not about just making excuses for runaway ADHD, 

[00:27:10] Ash: Not at all. The overarching point we’re trying to make here is that misunderstanding is a two-way street with ADHD. There’s our misunderstanding or lack of understanding of our experience, and then there’s how we’re showing up. And then there’s how we’re showing up and how others interpret that. And we can’t have movement on that second part if we ourselves don’t know what’s under the hood in terms of how we’re showing up. There’s just no path forward.

If we can’t get past, well, that frustrates me or I don’t like that, or, this is how it makes me feel. Because, again, we say this a lot on this show with ADHD, oftentimes that emotion isn’t real. It’s about what’s going on underneath the emotion that tells the real story. And so if we stop at this frustrates me, don’t do it, imagine if my client would’ve done that, or imagine if I would’ve done that with my partner, right? This frustrates me. Don’t bug me during the workday. Period. End of sentence. How’s that gonna make my partner feel? My client said don’t come in with this home stuff pretty much ever, because that was a pretty universal experience between the two of them. Because like me, he’s a big brainer, just because he’s not speaking or not actively working doesn’t mean his mind’s not active. Can you imagine how his spouse would’ve received that? Just don’t bug me with this stuff, period.

So often when we’re doing this work with our clients, where there’s some interpersonal conflict that is resolvable, by the way, that’s back to yours, mine and ours. Right. But when both people genuinely are at the table – you and your partner, Me and my partner, my client and his partner – wanting a solution that makes both people feel good and seen and heard, there’s some unmet need that needs to be discovered behind whatever the emotion is that shows up for the ADHD partner. And once you find that, it’s a game changer. It takes it from a place of conflict where a situation happens, and you have your response as an ADHD person, your partner has their response, and now there’s conflict, to a place where now you’re on the same side of the table, and you’re talking about the unmet need and how to make adjustments so that the other person still gets what they need or what they’re trying to get that’s not working in a way that works for the ADHD brain, too.

[00:29:57] Cam: This has me thinking about, again, what can listeners do as we head out of the episode today? I’m just thinking about me relaying my experience with my partner, you relaying your own with your partner and then your client’s story, and what’s there is keen observer sort of looking at this objectively, right?

We talk about presence and curiosity on the podcast. This is a great place to exercise. Get present. Get curious, assuming good intent, right? It’s like, okay, I’m feeling like I’m a little bit under attack right now, or I’m being inundated by basketballs, but it’s like, can there be some assumption that there’s good intent here? And to step back, create this pause moment and to think about what’s the frustration, and is there a need that is going unmet, that is operating behind that.

I’ll just say one more thing, Ash, is that it might have nothing to do with ADHD. It might have nothing to do with the ADHD partner. Right. Back to your example of that client who he thought it was about his ADHD not being successful in a work situation and it turned out it was the work situation. Again, back to yours, mine, ours of what is mine? What is yours? And what is ours? It may not be ADHD at all right here.

Is it under this kind of the frame of misunderstanding, being misunderstood, not having good, accurate data, starting to pause and kind of think about how might my ADHD be showing up here right now? And as you said earlier, it’s like being able to stop and consider that. And when we do, not to take it as some character flaw. It’s the other thing that we do is sort of like, well that’s really painful to go and look at that.

So it’s just a transition challenge. It’s just an inability to switch context. To move from one world to another, right? So come at this with curiosity, presence, empathy for the other party, and empathy for yourself. Exercise those good emotions.

[00:32:21] Ash: Well said, Cam. Listeners, if you like what we’re doing here on the show, one way you can help us out is by not keeping us a secret. Post a favorite episode on social media or share us with the other neurodivergents in your life who might benefit from this content. And until next week, I’m Ash,

[00:32:39] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:32:40] Ash: And this is the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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