Being Misunderstood While Misunderstanding our ADHD

Episode 172

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Ash and Cam dig deeper into the being misunderstood theme by looking at the very unique ADHD phenomenon of trying to explain our ADHD when our ADHD is acting as a roadblock to new awareness and learning. Cam uses an example shared by a Patreon/Discord member on how she struggles with this challenge. The member illustrated the difference between “front” emotions and “underlying” emotions and how it is hard for her to get to the underlying emotion or need. She shares several examples – one of which where she thinks she is bored with company (front) but in actuality she is physically tired (underlying). Understanding this distinction allows her to better understand her ADHD so she can then articulate her needs to others. Getting to the emotional nuance and awareness is an ADHD challenge just like emotional regulation. So often we feel compelled to explain ourselves without fully knowing what is going on “under the hood.”

Ash continues the thread by sharing a humorous at times story about his partner wanting to install cat shelves late at night. What ensues is how the drama plays out in a series of misunderstandings for two individuals with ADHD. Ash finishes with sharing how clear communication leads to understanding, new agreements and appreciation and trust.

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Episode Transcript:

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

[00:00:01] Cam: I’m Cam.

[00:00:02] Ash: And this is Translating ADHD. Quick Group Coaching reminder. Resilience is our next course, and it begins Tuesday, June 13th, meeting at 8:30 PM Eastern on Tuesdays. For more information about this class, including pricing and how to apply, visit the website and click on the group coaching tab.

So Cam, what are we gonna talk about today?

[00:00:29] Cam: So Ash, what we’re gonna talk about today is, keep going in this direction of being misunderstood with ADHD. And I thought we were gonna go in one direction, but just some of the engagement in the Discord community had me thinking about a different direction here, and it’s really around this dilemma we have of being misunderstood while we are misunderstanding ourselves.

Just thought that that is a unique ADHD challenge and sort of what are the root causes of that that are related to ADHD. And so, I think that it really falls in some specific areas, and one is, people come up with these simple categories of the ADHD experience, right, around memory, around time around emotional management, emotional regulation, attention, motivation, sustaining energy, etc. Nifty nice categories, and as we’ve said, and I think why the podcast has been received so well, is that it’s much more than that, right?

None of us just have a memory issue. How it plays out, it’s a mix. And that this mix is happening right here. We’ve all had this experience of having to explain ourselves. Being one down, being misunderstood, having a lifetime of that not knowing what’s going on, not being able to articulate why we did what we just did, or why we didn’t do what we didn’t just do. Is that right there. ADHD doesn’t take a break.

Your ADHD is showing up right now. My ADHD is showing up right now. All our listeners, your ADHD is showing up right now, and so when we go to try to explain a situation, what is that? That is executive function intense because what you’re trying to do is pull data from some past event, right? There’s the time piece, the memory piece. Put it into a language that someone can understand and appreciate. So this articulating to explain oneself when we’re not quite sure what’s going on in the first place.

[00:02:56] Ash: And Cam, if this is happening in the moment, chances are we’re doing it under suboptimal conditions. We’re worked up, we’re in fight, flight, or freeze. We’re in that defensive crouch, which as you and I know, by way of what we do for a living, makes it impossible to be curious to get good, accurate information.

[00:03:27] Cam: Exactly. So falls in a couple different areas and, again, today’s episode was really prompted by a response from one of our Discord individuals, and I’m gonna read their post in a moment, but I just wanna come back to, you used the term ‘under the hood’ last week, of getting under the hood of what’s going on. So this distinction of yours, mine, ours first and foremost. Secondly is how the ADHD may be showing up in this moment. So with your client and the basketball last week, the spouse asking, Hey, can you do this? And it felt like someone was just throwing a basketball in his face and he wasn’t anticipating it. So it’s sort of boom – basketball in my face – and it just sort of caught him off guard.

So you did the work with him to find out how the ADHD is showing up in that situation in the sense of a need for transition to transition out of the current place. He is thinking, doing whatever he is doing to transition and switch the context to, well, here’s my spouse and they’re asking something of me.

So that’s one example of how ADHD can come into play. But what are we stuck with? Your client was stuck with or was living with the frustration. And not sure why. So as you said, it never is a controlled environment. And that’s the funny thing about like many ADHD tests, self-evaluations, any kind of evaluation or testing assessments are in controlled environments. And so if your boss has been, you know, seven times through a situation where it’s like, you know, Bob, you said you were gonna get that to me. 

[00:05:19] Ash: Oh, Bob, we feel you, Bob.

[00:05:24] Cam: I feel ya, Bob. You know, and is that boss gonna be completely understanding? No, they’re a human being and they don’t understand what’s going on. Here’s a smart, bright individual, capable that has shown they can deliver, and yet they didn’t deliver here and it just doesn’t add up. We humans are always trying to make sense of a situation. ADHD does not add up.

So then what do we do? We start to fill in and make assumptions. Lazy, stupid, crazy. And that can be from the outside, it can be from the inside. this creates this whole one down thing. So what we do is then the big signal is I gotta be able to explain myself. That’s where I was, Ash. And I would just remember if like, oh, if only I can just explain the situation. But what it came out as more than anything was often excuses, and it wasn’t really convincing.

And what was missing there was I wasn’t getting to what was really going on, right? So under the hood and being able to get to the root of what’s going on. So this is the opportunity here, listeners, to get to what is actually going on so we can get that accurate data and work from there.

So this whole idea of the big signal to explain oneself, I saw this in one of our classes one of the participants just felt this big urge or need to explain themselves. And again, the motivation there was to not be rejected, to be validated, to be accepted in some way. And there’s that outward looking attention that we have. We’re not often looking at the inside because it’s too complicated. It’s that undifferentiated mass you talk about, Ash.

But this whole idea of understand, own, translate. Translate is the explaining part. Start with understand. To be curious about what might be going on, to understand for yourselves first, then to accept it, right? The own part. Then starting to translate to others. The other thing, this is where the individual from Discord was sharing something, I loved her language because she made this brilliant differentiation between front emotions and underlying emotions. So I think it’d be best if I just read her post and then you and I can just riff off of that.

[00:08:08] Ash: Yeah. 

[00:08:09] Cam: So I just asked people like, you know, we have a channel in the Discord community around episode discussion. And actually it was not prompted. She just shared, and I’m just gonna go ahead and read that Ash, if that’s all right.

[00:08:21] Ash: Yeah.

[00:08:22] Cam: “I love the juxtaposition of being misunderstood but not really understanding ourselves.” So this is in response to what dropped last week around being misunderstood in relationships. “I feel like that really has to come first because then maybe we can take it a little less personally when someone else misunderstands us.” Right? So making it more objective, and we don’t take it so personally.

She goes on. “I think one of my big things is interpreting personal signals. Bored and tired feel the same. So I feel bad when I want to disengage from people late at night. In that moment, I think I’m bored and disinterested in them, when in actual fact I’m just out of juice.”

Another one is “Annoyed and hungry. They both feel similar. Fear and anticipation are difficult to distinguish, so I do a lot of avoidance of things I really want to do! And because I don’t know how to figure out what I’m really feeling, certainly not quickly, it can lead to misunderstandings when the front emotion tries to deal with the situation for me, and the underlying emotion doesn’t get a chance to express itself.”

I thought that was brilliant, Ash. Like look at that understand aspect and translating, and I think there’s a really important piece here. The key thing she said was it wasn’t that she couldn’t do it, it was that she wasn’t able to do it quickly or in a timely fashion in that moment. So what we talked about then was looking at how you might be able to take bored and be curious with bored. Is this a front emotion? Is there an underlying emotion that goes beyond bored? It might be that I’m really tired, an amount of juice, right. My annoyance that I’m feeling right now, could it be that maybe I’m hungry? So that these initial annoying emotions actually are a gateway or an opening to really understanding the underlying emotions and what we talked about last week. Unmet needs, right?

There’s a need at play there. I’m tired and I need to say goodnight and go to sleep. I’m hungry and I need to take care of my needs with respect to nutrition. I’m really in this moment of anticipating, and it’s got me scared a little bit, and scared is not bad. So how can I pivot around this and not avoid what I want to do? 

[00:11:11] Ash: Cam, one of my absolute favorite things about what you and I do for a living is stuff like this. So much of this show’s thought provoking content starts in a client session, in a group coaching class, in our Discord with someone else’s articulation of their experience, which evokes new awareness for you and I. And so I just love the way that she articulated this, and it certainly has my curiosity wheels spinning.

Where have I seen this play out? In my life, particularly right now, learning to live with a partner, a new partner in terms of living together, who has ADHD too and who has a very different manifestation of ADHD than I do.

[00:12:09] Cam: It also reminds me of our upcoming class, right? That resilience, the basis of that is, in order to be more comfortable with experience, it’s digging into causation. It’s looking at and seeing how is the ADHD showing up so it can inform. And we can sort of feel more grounded or tethered and not this sort of the sense of free fall or just floating or adrift. To getting a sense of what actually is happening here so that we can really advocate back to ourselves. Right. I don’t know if that’s a thing, but to articulate at least back to ourselves of, oh, wait, yeah, I’m seeing the pattern here and I’m recognizing what a need is, how my ADHD might be coming into play and tethering to. There was an episode about the disorienting effect of being untethered and how we can retether.

So here the community member is really, again, making sense of their situation, and it has a grounding effect from this place of understanding. This is understand, own, translate from this place of understanding. Then we can start to do something with that, and that’s what I would invite listeners to do, is as you’re perplexed with, again, ah, I’m just so frustrated with people not understanding me, that is a big, big signal. It matters. But what matters before that is that you understand yourself first.

Start there and to be curious about what might be in play. Is there a need that’s not getting met? Is there an underlying emotion that might be kind of hiding out behind this? What one of our community members is talking about – a front emotion, right? To dig in there and get curious about that. So, Ash, do you wanna say more about what’s going on with you and the home front and just what you’re learning?

[00:14:19] Ash: Sure, Cam. I was actually thinking of a pretty funny and recent example of this playing out in my household, and that is Alex wants to build cat shelves, but that’s where we start.

[00:14:36] Cam: Yeah, sorry. It just sounds great. 

[00:14:39] Ash: No, it’s okay. It’s okay. Alex wants to build cat shelves, so he wants to put shelves up in our living room for his cats to climb up on and perch on because they did have that in his old apartment. He is a very good cat dad, so his reasons for this are entirely rooted. And I want them to get more movement, more stimulation, more exercise. Cats like high places, so I wanna make sure they have a high place to be in every room, and so he wants to build cat shelves.

And the TLDR of the front end of this project is, we made some mutual agreements to make that work for both of us because aesthetics in my home matter to me. I want my home to look nice. And so we talked about things like layout, placement, materials, et cetera, and came to a mutual agreement that I was fine using this wall of the living room for cat shelves.

[00:15:31] Cam: Yeah.

[00:15:31] Ash: And that’s kind of where it got left for a time because there were so many and are so many more urgent things in our world. Until Alex decides one day that he’s gonna do this. And here’s the thing, is I have no expectation that Alex is only productive and doesn’t do things that he wants to do, even with the amount of urgent things we have on our plate. I like downtime. He should have downtime, but this wasn’t that. This is the other thing. And we talked about this on a previous episode where Alex runs it up the flagpole. He gets not just attached to starting, but attached to completion, which again, if that’s his thing, that’s okay. Here’s where misunderstanding enters the picture.

So let me set the scene for you. It is 10 o’clock at night. Uhhuh. Already trouble on my heaviest client day, and I have just finished teaching a class. I am ready to have my me time and go to bed as soon as I get done with class. Alex says to me, I’m gonna hang these shelves tonight, so I need to know how to lay them out well for my brain. I have to do things like tape cardboard on the wall that’s the appropriate measurements so that I can see if it looks correct or not. Particularly on this wall where center is not correct because of the way the living room is arranged. So this is a big ask.

Well, how do I respond? I respond from those front emotions. I’m tired, and now I’m frustrated. And so that’s what Alex gets back. I’m tired, I’m frustrated, and he knows better than to expect anything of me after class is the story I’m telling myself. So that’s how I respond. Like, Ugh, really? So then it turns into a bit of contention, and I finally relent and say, fine, let’s go do this. But we’re still misunderstanding back and forth because he sees my boredom or my desire to move onto what I call quiet time, that me time, as lack of interest, as disengagement, as not caring about his project. Or even worse is he’s telling himself a story that I’m mad at him for prioritizing this over other things, which had nothing to do with it.

And of course he, too, has his front emotions, right? Primarily things like guilt and shame. My cats need this. I need to get this done for them. I’m hyper-focused on the fact that I’m a little worried about my cat’s activity level right now.

[00:18:20] Cam: I’m appreciating when you have two partners that have ADHD.

[00:18:27] Ash: It’s a trip man.

[00:18:28] Cam: Yeah, it is a trip. Cause he’s got his thing, you’ve got your thing playing out and so it almost compounds the whole misunderstanding.

[00:18:46] Ash: As a sidebar, I will say, I don’t know how neurodivergent couples do it without being able to do this, right. I’m an ADHD coach, and Alex is no stranger to coaching. He’s worked with a coach before. So when we are not in that place of misunderstanding of front emotion, taking the reins and running with it, we’re generally pretty good about solving for this stuff in the moment. But sometimes we can’t. Right? Sometimes even with the knowledge we have, those competing front emotions, trying to advocate for the underlying need, his need to see this through to completion and my need to have my quiet time, they clash. They really clash.

It gets even more interesting. There’s just layers of misunderstanding because here’s how we ended up coming back to this conversation on the other side of cat shelves are hung, that was not optimal. Alex definitely recognized that he was running it up the flagpole, but we really hadn’t talked about anything else. So we were in the car, and Alex asked me in that way that he asks me something that he knows I’m not gonna wanna do. There’s a particular way that he asks me to do something he knows I’m not gonna wanna do. And so I’m bracing for what is this? And the ask was, if I buy two pieces of wood for a hammer handle – he has restored this old hammer – will you help me pick one out?

Yes, I’ll help you pick one out. That’s easy. Like, that’s fun. Why is this so fraughty? Because for him, part of the misunderstanding about the cat shelves was that when he asked for my opinion, I got annoyed. And that was becoming a universal truth for him. So when he asked me about this hammer handle, I made a connection that said, oh, you know what’s really funny is when you approach me in that way of I know you’re not gonna wanna do this, it goes one of two ways. You’re either spot on, right, and it really is something I don’t wanna do, or you’re so far off the mark, it’s not even funny, right? Because you think you’re taking the wrong lesson from what happened with the cat shelves.

I had no problem, so we sat down and talked about it. I had no problem with you prioritizing the cat shelves. Yes, there are other urgent things, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t get to do things that are important for you, that are not urgent. That was not the issue. I had no issue giving you my opinion. In fact, I demanded that as part of the process. They need to aesthetically look nice. I am the one that has the eye for that, so I need to see them before they go up on the wall to make sure the arrangement is correct. No issue with that. I had no issue helping you pick out stain or fabric or anything else. It was the demand of my time on demand, which can be problematic for me at any time. That’s the basketball, right.

[00:21:47] Cam: Right.

[00:21:48] Ash: And particularly more than once the demand of my time after 7:00 PM. Which Alex doesn’t get off work until six. So his frustration at the time was, I don’t get off work until six. So you’re basically telling me we have no time for this. No, it’s not that. It’s that the on demand was made. Right. Had we made a plan in advance, it could have been a different thing. He wasn’t there. He was in his urgency.

[00:22:17] Cam: Right and takes me right back to the running the flagpole. 

[00:22:21] Ash: Yeah. 

[00:22:22] Cam: Right. Of not just starting, but you know, committed and engaging and seeing it through. And you know, the time really didn’t matter. The time of 10 o’clock didn’t really matter. It was like this is front and center.

[00:22:38] Ash: This is front and center, and you are standing in the way of me being able to take my next step was his experience of this situation.

[00:22:45] Cam: Right? And how misunderstanding begets more misunderstanding.

[00:22:49] Ash: Mm-hmm.

[00:22:50] Cam: Right? So these different layers, as you said, these layers of being misunderstood. And as you keep going down these paths, it can become more convoluted. And this is human nature, right? This is not just an ADHD thing, people. That where people will discuss something and they make an assumption.

I think we’ve talked about this ladder of inference, where we will take a sample of information. This is confirmation bias. We’ll take a sample of information, and we will build off that little sample to reinforce a belief we already have. The really interesting thing here, and I think what the person in the Discord community did, what you did with Alex, was to talk about it after the fact. This really going through and debriefing. And I think that often we will kind of forget about that opportunity or like, well lost chance that happened, and I’m just gonna be annoyed and go forward. To really think about let’s go back and look at that.

And I’m doing a lot of work with my clients around like reimagining – to reimagine something, and how can we have it play out differently? Well, first you’ve gotta go through it again. It can be painful, but I guess the question I have, Ash, is so what was the perspective each of you embraced as you did the debrief, right?

You came back. Looked at it in a different way with curiosity to, we’re gonna learn from this, but what else? Like what did you bring to, again, that debrief where you discussed it? Because in that moment then you started to get clear, right? You started to clear the air of Oh, okay. Right, because that’s a huge one.

When I share my opinion, my partner gets annoyed. Right. That is a belief. Versus again, this sort of what’s important for you is on demand. Like, we need to do this now. Like, don’t surprise me, don’t throw a basketball in my face at 10 o’clock at night. Thank you very much. Do you approach that? What’s the shift in your, again, mindset there as partners?

[00:25:03] Ash: So in this case, and this isn’t always true, we definitely debrief things as an intentional thing. In this case, the entry point was really that noticing on my part. Of Alex’s asking me for something that he clearly thought was going to elicit a negative reaction, or at the very least the response that he did not want to hear, for something that couldn’t be further from that.

That’s what got my attention. I’m realizing just by virtue of you asking this question that we have this phrase that we both use to kind of open up a conversation there, and I’m noticing, I’m noticing something. We won’t even go right into it because we both realize that that type of conversation, there’s a time and place for curiosity. I’m noticing something. Is it okay if I toss that out there? Do you want me to park it for later? And he said, no. Toss it out there. And so I shared that noticing. And I talked about the hammer on one end of that pendulum and the cat shelves on the other. And I said, I think that you are misunderstanding something in here. Clearly you are, because so many times you bring me something in that almost defensive crouch way.

[00:26:20] Cam: Mm-hmm.

[00:26:21] Ash: It’s really not a big deal. So let’s go back. If you’re open to it, let’s go back to the cat shelves and try and figure out what the difference is between these two things.

[00:26:31] Cam: Right.

[00:26:32] Ash: And that’s what prompted our delving into what actually happened, what my responses were about and weren’t about, right. What his responses were about and weren’t about. And his recognition and owning of the running it up the flagpole thing, which is separate from what we’re talking about, but it was part of this situation, and it is his ADHD showing up in a way that doesn’t just frustrate me, often frustrates him.

[00:27:02] Cam: Right. 

[00:27:03] Ash: Hyper focusing on one thing to the detriment of everything else is a cycle that he’s been trying to have, and has been making great strides in having a different relationship with.

[00:27:14] Cam: So the thing that’s getting my attention, there’s a couple things that are getting as we wrap up here. Again, this can be tough with ADHD on board and the big signals in this moment in our brain what’s going on. But to reflect, right. Reflection is something that humans don’t do enough of, and the benefits of reflection are tremendous.

So the two of you are exercising reflection. Reflecting upon an experience, kind of like, again, to share what you saw, right? And then to be open to what the other saw or witnessed or their experience. So in doing so, you are doing that looking back in time, and then you’re also then thinking about going forward with the next time. To anticipate a future event. So this is where we’re exercising time in a positive way.

The other thing that I’m struck with here is as you lead with curiosity in that statement of, you know, I’m noticing, and you have some practice here, the two of you have practices, just like my spouse and I have practices. When we have a misunderstanding, we have the emotional response, and there’s that front response or the front emotion, and there might be the underlying stuff. We eventually come around to having that conversation to get to what is actually going on for both of us. The fascinating thing that always happens is a sense of empathy. Empathy for the other. And empathy doesn’t mean to condone one’s behavior, it is just appreciating, ah, okay, now this makes sense. Now I understand.

So this whole understand, own, translate thing is this understanding of not just ourselves, but again, how we are operating in the world with those who are close to us and appreciating and again, having empathy for. Then we can move forward and be more resourceful. So fascinating.

[00:29:20] Ash: Really, really nicely said, Cam. And truly in the spirit of empathy, I’d like to take us out by sharing how this story concluded.

[00:29:29] Cam: Great. Are the – I just wanna know – are the cats happy with their shelves? I mean, that’s what I wanna know. 

[00:29:34] Ash: We’re getting to is like, the shelves are beautiful, and they look really nice in the room. Okay, so one would hope the happy ending to all of this is not only did we cultivate mutual understanding, the cat shelves are complete.

Yes, it was a messy process to get there, but check, they’re done. I say this with all the empathy in the world for my partner, so I’m not bagging on him because I know when I’ve done the same thing, I get so focused on completion that I miss something. And I have to start over, and that’s where we are because the cat shelves are too narrow. The cats don’t like getting up there because they can’t lay down on them because they’re ever so slightly too narrow.

[00:30:17] Cam: I’m gonna design a portico, a cantilever system. I’m gonna go to work, and I’m gonna gift you some kind of extension to make that ledge a little wider. I am on it. 

[00:30:27] Ash: Please don’t. Oh God, please don’t.

[00:30:30] Cam: There’s engineers out there who are like, kind of click, click thinking about it.

[00:30:34] Ash: I think we’re just gonna replace the shelves with wider boards. Right. Which is a bummer for Alex because of all of this. But we see the humor in it. Right. And one of the beautiful things about being in a relationship with an ADHD partner, when you have ADHD, and when you’re able to do this, is when he had that realization, we were able to laugh about it together.

It wasn’t an I told you so moment on my part – a see what happens when you run it up the flagpole. Like he knows that happened. I don’t need to make him feel worse. If anything, my initial response is, oh babe, oh, I know how that feels and that sucks. But also it’s pretty funny.

[00:31:14] Cam: Oh, this is journey thinking. this is a exercise in journey thinking.

[00:31:18] Ash: Right. the cat shelves are still not done, and may not be for quite some time. However, we got some good nuggets of learning about each other, and it’s a funny story that we will be telling for the rest of time.

[00:31:32] Cam: Yeah, and as we finish up here, it’s that learning aspect. If you focus on the learning and pulling that learning forward, that can go a long way here. Is to keep the focus on how do we pull the learning forward, extract the learning from these past experiences that may not be enjoyable, frustrating, and then how can they inform our next interactions with the people we love.

[00:31:56] Ash: Well said. So let’s wrap on that.

Note, and since we’re talking about the Discord today, 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 cover all of the costs of running the show for Cam and I and ensure that we have the support that we need to keep doing this work. So thank you to anyone who is currently contributing or has contributed in the past. We’re so grateful to you. But in addition, becoming a patron gives you access to the Discord server that we’ve talked about in this episode, where listeners are doing this cool thing of doing their own understand, own and translate work. To sign up, visit the website Click on the Patreon tab, sign up for five bucks a month, and that gives you access to the Discord server.

And until next week, I’m Ash.

[00:32:47] Cam: And I’m Cam. 

[00:32:48] Ash: This was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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