Signs You Are Stuck at the Third Barrier of ADHD – New Learning

Episode 192

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In this episode of Translating ADHD, hosts Ash and Cam revisit the third barrier of ADHD – the barrier to new learning – and explore common scenarios of being stuck at this barrier. They emphasize the importance of understanding and addressing this often-overlooked barrier. Behavior at the base of this barrier includes the ever frustrating ‘strategy fade’ where a system of strategy fades after a couple weeks. The feeling of ‘clean slate’ or always starting over is another indicator.

The hosts share personal experiences and examples, highlighting the significance of learning from struggles and navigating the challenges of ADHD. They discuss the value of experiential learning, experimenting with different approaches, and the power of modeling as coaches share their own journeys of growth. The episode encourages listeners to design experiments, engage with the coaching process, and seek coaches who embrace the ongoing journey of change.

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Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Ash: Hi, I’m Ash.

[00:00:08] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:00:08] Ash: And this is Translating ADHD. This week, we’re looking at, or revisiting, the third barrier to learning. Cam, do you want to say a little bit more about what we’re hoping to get to today? 

[00:00:21] Cam: Sure, Ash. So the last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about signs that indicate you’re stuck at one of these barriers or the ADHD barriers. The first one is awareness. The second one is action. And the third one is learning. So those barriers concerning ADHD mimic the stages in the coaching process. So this is what we’ve been talking about and how coaching and these different stages can be very helpful in navigating these barriers now just so that you know.

So this week we’re looking at, again, this third barrier. I want to start though, Ash, by saying being stuck and being sort of in this place, we can feel like this got to get away from this. I’m not moving, and I need to be away from this feeling, this sense of overwhelm, the frustration of banging my head against some barrier that’s hard to see.

So, Ash, I feel that if you start to understand the barrier more, we can find ways to navigate through that barrier. This third barrier is the one that is often overlooked. It’s often overlooked by listeners, and people with ADHD clients, but it can often be overlooked by coaches, too. Right. And it’s understandable, especially new coaches, when someone’s coming, they have a dilemma. You want to help them with that dilemma. So you generate awareness of what the dilemma is, what their needs are, their values, the context for coaching, what are we trying to do? The focus is on developing an effective action plan and a strategy to engage your day, to create an agency, to have a choice, to get touches on those things that matter.

And so there’s not a lot of energy or attention here. This is sort of on the backside of the task. This is on the backside of the whole process. But it is so essential to creating sustained change. So, Ash, the point I want to make is, you know, you’re here if you feel like whatever you’re trying is not sticking, right?

So this is, I’ve had this experience. I had it last week. It’s just they’re feeling stuck. And what I’m trying, it’s not taking hold. And so this can be super frustrating. And we kind of go back to this reinventing. We go back to, okay, well, I guess that didn’t work. So we went back to the drawing board and we started fresh again.

So I go back to season one and a clean slate. Right. Clean slate thinking is sort of like we throw the – I’m going to mix metaphors here – but we throw the baby out with the bath water, like all the stuff that we’ve tried. It’s like, well, that didn’t work, and we go back, and we’re back to those first two barriers of what’s the dilemma, what am I trying to do? We think the challenge is the action when in fact, it’s all three. That awareness of what am I trying to do? What are the challenges that I’m facing? What’s the action plan that we’re getting into? And then this backside today, listeners, we’re going to talk about why this third barrier and the opportunity for learning and how it contributes to making things stick.

[00:03:43] Ash: I’ve said this so many times on this show, but I’ll say it again. I tell my clients that when it comes to their actions, it’s not a pass-fail. It doesn’t matter whether or not the actions work or don’t work. What does matter is whatever their experience is. Let’s take some time to get the learning from that experience.

And oftentimes I find that when we’re struggling to get somewhere on a dilemma with a client, it’s because we haven’t quite gotten to some piece of causation. So it’s this iterative process of coming back, introducing some new context, coming back, and getting the learning. And that’s where ADHD people, and sometimes coaches, and I was guilty of this as a newer coach, can kind of step over the learning. Right. Okay. I’m going to take your experience at face value. Now, where do you want to go? Clients?

[00:04:45] Cam: That’s a great distinction. I think that listeners or coaches are out there like, well, how is learning different from awareness? It just, isn’t it just more awareness? Is the way I like to look at it it’s the awareness on the backside of someone’s experience, and we can spend so much time there. Everything out there is about where we are before our experience, and our experience around hacks or strategies to take action and about the planning, the preparation, and how to overcome procrastination. It’s all front-end stuff. That’s where the big signal is. This is more nuanced. It’s a much more subtle signal.

And so often it might be listening. You might be listening right now and be like, what are they talking about, in part because it’s such a subtle signal. And it’s the analogy I like to think about is we’re driving in our car and we don’t have a rearview mirror. And often we don’t have a rearview mirror because we’ve thrown it away. When we do look in the rearview mirror, there’s a sense of regret, a sense of how did I screw that up, right?

That it is fodder for the inner critic to like, yeah, look how you messed that one up. Look how it was messed up for you. So that’s the first place to notice, do you have an inner critic that is super critical of what just happened? Because that’s going to blow away any kind of curiosity around the nuggets there.

Ash, I love what you said earlier. It’s that there is always learning to be had, whether you’re successful or not. And it’s again getting to this awareness on the other side of your experience, the activity, the action, that second phase of action and activity.

[00:06:29] Ash: Cam, I would add to your definition of learning and say, it’s also about solidifying new awareness, new perspectives, learning to let go of old stories that creep in because the struggle at the learning barrier isn’t just getting to a solution for a dilemma the first time. Clients backslide all the time, and oftentimes when clients backslide, they revert to a former picture of themselves.

There is this belief, really this fear, that like everything else I’ve tried, all of this was for naught. And I’m back at square one. Do you want to chime in before I go into my client example?

[00:07:14] Cam: Yeah, I’ll chime in. So listeners, listen to what Ash is saying. He is making this subtle distinction between what I was saying earlier in the sense of backsliding or not having things stick. There’s also this perception of thinking it’s where we’ve reverted and all is lost when in fact that’s not necessarily the case.

[00:07:36] Ash: And Cam, I’ve got a great client example for this exact circumstance. I’ve been working with this client now for a pretty long time. We’ve been together for many months, and she’s had a lot of great progress and great practices that have stuck, particularly at work, where despite the other changes in her life, very little has changed in the context and the framework of work.

And that’s where we spent a lot of our time early in our coaching. So we’ve gone back to those practices. We’ve adjusted them, tweeted to them, added to them, and now they’re really solid. But this client is going through a lot of other changes. She just moved. She is a PhD student who is transitioning from coursework to dissertation work. She just had to take comprehensive exams while she was moving, no less. And what’s so interesting is when a client is in a situation like that, where there’s people, where there’s other stuff going on.

And we talked about this a lot. Our last few episodes in Season One were around when life gets in the way. It’s tied to that phenomenon where life gets in the way coupled with a move. So environment is different and home practices were not nearly as solidified as work practices, but my client will come to a session and revert to these old stories.

And for her, they’re these two. Number one, once I walk away from a system or quit using a system, it’s dead to me. I can’t re-engage. Number two, I am bad at using unstructured time. And so just recently that client came to a session with those stories. And here’s where working with a good coach can be a really powerful thing in these moments because a big part of our job is deep knowing of our client.

So here’s what I did in response. First of all, I reminded her of all of the work practices that were going well, and checked in on those, right? Challenge that story of you can’t stick with a system when the going gets tough because here the going is tough, and you have all of these structures and systems that you’re still using and using well. Called out some other places where there has been changing that have stuck and reminded her that there’s the truth somewhere in the middle between I’m bad at the unstructured time, and I’m perfect at using my unstructured time. Reminded her of some previous progress that we’ve made there and of some big successes in terms of having a different experience.

And so my role as a coach in a conversation like that is helping my client reconnect to that learning and that progress. Get out of that binary black-and-white thinking and see the nuance in the middle. Yes, there is still struggle, and there always will be. Cam just shared that he was.

I was struggling just last week to get the learning. I have experiences like that all of the time too. Shit. I forgot where I was going. What did I say? Oh, I know where I’m going, but bringing our clients to that reality, that success and struggle can exist side by side. You can be successful and have different experiences while also still struggling. Two things can be true.

[00:11:04] Cam: Ash, that’s a great example. And I love that just going through that process with your client and the words you use without reconnecting, right? That’s the unique ADHD dilemma is that as we go through our lives, We can’t control or account for everything that’s going to happen. Right.

And so that whole series we did back in the spring around disruption, how life, the life’s disruptions from the smallest to the largest, that there’s always going to be things that are knocking us off our course. And with ADHD, we get knocked off our course like anyone else, but it’s how strong are those tethers? How strong are those tethers back to that knowing of what works for us, our self-care needs? Our best practices, our sense of self that, yeah, I was struggling to kind of get the learning last week, but I was still tethered to the sense of, okay, I’ve been here before and struggle doesn’t mean this is a total and complete failure that those inner critics are not as strong as they used to be. Right. And it’s sort of coming back to tethering and reconnecting and pulling that learning forward.

[00:12:18] Ash: I think another big piece here, Cam, is context. The client I was just describing has had a lot of changing contexts in the past few months. As we talked about in that series in the spring, We can so easily discount or not notice the impact of changing context as people with ADHD. So something’s working and it stops working.

And as you said, we kind of throw the baby out with the bath water, just forget it. Rather than digging in and examining the nuance. The context is a little different now. Maybe that means that the approach also needs to be a little different, 

[00:13:00] Cam: That’s a great point, Ash, about context, because I’m thinking about a few clients here who, at first, when they’re looking at a challenge, right, they’re faced with a challenge and they’re kind of getting knocked off their line, knocked off their course, we get knocked off our course. It’s like that reassembling reconfiguring getting back to what we know.

And at first, it’s sort of like, oh, this internal thing of, I must be doing something wrong. Is it my and that catching oneself? Pause, disrupt, pivot. So we’ve been sharing about like, you know, how do you know you’re stuck at this barrier of learning? You know if you’re moving through that barrier of learning, it’s if you’re able to catch yourself, right? Pause, disrupt, and pivot there to this bigger context. What else is at play? What else is happening here?

And so for my clients, it’s this recognition of some things are going on in these work environments that have nothing to do with them, nothing to do with their ADHD, but just an unworkable work environment. They cannot be successful in that specific situation. Well, that knowledge is huge. And that’s a piece of learning that they can carry with them.

[00:14:18] Ash: Cam, interestingly enough, I’ve spent a lot of time at this barrier recently, both in an unproductive way and more recently in a productive way. My household has gone from a two-adult household back to a one-adult household, and I’m relearning how to navigate running a household by myself before my now former partner moved in.

I was in a pretty good groove with it, and if you listened to the early season one episodes, you heard me talk a lot about something I noticed recently that was a really important point of movement for me at the learning barrier. I reverted to some really old stories. I should do it this way. It should look like this. It should be this way. And what I wasn’t doing was putting myself in that picture of what I’m comfortable with, in terms of the state of my house, how I do best when I approach household chores.

So, you can use the language of collapse distinctions. It was very much a moment like that where it’s like 1000 things have my attention all at once. And the story I’m telling myself is I’m not capable because I’m not attending to all of these things at once. I’m not getting them all done at once. And I’m not keeping up enough on everything.

So, It was a combination of recognizing those old stories, sort of where’s this expectation coming from that this needs to look or be a certain way, and distinguishing our priority. Remember that not everything has to happen today, or this week or this month, so taking this undifferentiated mass of stuff and starting to break it apart a little bit, starting to reengage with the idea of incremental progress.

[00:16:08] Cam: So that’s a great example. And again, like revisiting old stories, but I also imagine that your attempts at action, right? Here you are attempting to do the laundry, right? There you are in your house by yourself and you’re attempting. And so with those attempts, with that struggle, you’re pulling some learning from that, And so can you speak to that a little bit of there’s the reflection, but back to what was the nugget or what was the awareness you’re pulling out of the actual struggle of trying to do that stuff? To reengage with these things you need to do it by yourself.

[00:16:47] Ash: It’s a great question, Cam, and actually, it’s so serendipitous that of all things you chose laundry because that’s one where there’s a lot of rich learning there. And for me, there were a couple of things going on that once I started to realize them made a big difference.

The first was my kid is with me now during the school week and last year was not with me during the school week. My kid changed school districts, and so now I’m the quote-unquote primary parent. It’s a lot more laundry to do.

[00:17:20] Cam: Yeah.

[00:17:21] Ash: But there’s also a lot more storytelling of I’m not keeping up on laundry enough. Oh, my poor kid doesn’t have anything to wear. My kid’s thirteen, Cam. So the learning there was I could just check in with my kid. How are you doing on laundry? How are you doing? Do you need essentials? Do you need this? Do you need that? I can ask them to let me know if there is an essential item that they are running out of – socks, underwear, whatever.

So, I was putting this expectation on myself that I should be perfectly on top of laundry at all times so my kid has what they need, when in reality, my kid has plenty of clothes, like really plenty of clothes, and it’s okay if I’m not keeping up on laundry daily. And if a few loads are waiting to be done, I can check in and ask my kid if they have what they need.

So that was number one. Number two, my basement is still in the process of being finished. It is not completed and because of all of the other changes, it’s not something that I can address right away. See also that distinguishing priority, but the state the laundry room was in was very much a construction zone, with dirt and drywall dust, and all of the things from the last major time that the laundry room had been worked on.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about I had a table that I wanted to set up as kind of a folding station, a place to put things. But if I put the legs on the table, then it was going to be in the way when I finished the drywall, and so I was kind of stuck there. And then it hit me, again, that nuance, right? That place between not completed and perfectly completed. I have sawhorses, Cam! Nice ones that collapsed down. So I threw the two sawhorses up, threw the tabletop. I spent maybe 30 minutes in total doing that, sweeping up the room so there wasn’t so much drywall dust, cleaning off the machines. And now the laundry room environment is much more supportive than it was before.

Because the other thing I did, I bought some more laundry baskets again for people living in this house. The last time I was routinely doing the laundry, there was one person in this house. So just giving myself the ability to sort all of the laundry into the various categories and having enough baskets to do. So makes it much easier for me to walk downstairs and see at a glance what laundry does need to be done. What load should I be doing now?

[00:19:50] Cam: I love that example. And so listeners, as we finish up here today, notice what Ash was doing there in the sense of acknowledging the thinking, the feeling, right? Acknowledging and having that awareness of old stories and like, okay, there it is. And but also having some objective distance there. It’s a story.

Thank you. The other thing is this, and I think we can sort of lead out on or head out on this, Ash. People with ADHD will get into this mode of I’m going to think my way through my problem, and I’m going to plan my way through my problem, and it’s that if I’m going to do something, it’s got to be right.

So all this learning is from the experience you have with experiments. To let you get in there and like, okay, this isn’t working. You got great data from the activity so it’s kind of this balance between this awareness and making a plan. Get into the activity. Try it out and look at what’s working, and what’s not working.

And I love what you said earlier. What’s working for me? What’s not working for me? What is my preference here? What works for me in this situation? What has changed? What are the things that have changed here? But we can get so caught up in, like, having the perfect plan or fear of failure.

So, do you put a container around the practice so it’s like you can get in? And get out. And as you get out, you’re like, okay, I’m going to get out with some learning. What is the learning I can get out of this activity now you’re looking at things from both sides, and you’re getting that pivot part to look ahead, but then pivot to look back. It can be really hard with ADHD to pivot back and look, and then pull that learning forward to pivot to the next intention, action, awareness.

[00:21:52] Ash: Fascinating, Cam. I’ll just add that the other big piece was finding that nuance, and that I can have a supportive environment without reaching this completion. That was a big blocking point for me. This is just the way this room is going to be until I can tackle it all at once.

And we so often do that. And we so often do that to ourselves as ADHD people, particularly when we do know what completion looks like, and we can envision the completion, we can get so focused on that, that we’re not putting ourselves in the picture right now today. And so I will add that, by virtue of just doing that, throwing up some sawhorses, cleaning up the dust, cleaning up the machines, making it a nicer, less chaotic environment for me to work in, it also helped me visualize what the next steps might look like for the bigger project, and how I could tackle those one at a time. How I could make incremental progress toward this bigger goal. It was no longer this thing where it’s either not done or it’s done. And until it’s done, I’m stuck with this the way that it is.

[00:23:05] Cam: That’s great. I love that. I think, you know, as we go forward here, listeners, just thinking about, like, what could be an experiment? What could be an activity? Sort of, again, you might be that feeling like you’re stuck at all barriers, right? We talked about this is that you can feel stuck at all three barriers at once, but to start to design a little activity, a little experimentation where you’re out there and you’re collecting data outside of your head, right. Outside of your stories, outside of what you know, or what is real right now, to put it out into the world and engage with it.

This is why we feel that, you know, coaching is this experiential learning model where we are developing and designing experiments that are experiential with our clients. They’re out there trying things, grappling with things. As you said, I love what you said earlier about success and struggle, they can go hand in hand. And it’s about that, then taking the learning from that experience. And here we are engaging with this coaching process of awareness, action, learning, and repetition.

[00:24:21] Ash: Well said, Cam. And the last thing I’ll chime in since this season is really about giving you some insight into coaching itself, is that listeners, if you are looking for a coach, look for someone who’s doing their work. If you listen back to our back catalog of episodes, you will find many examples of both Cam and I talking about doing our work, and not just far in the past, recent work because it never stops. It never stops.

And while neither one of us is actively working with a coach right now, there are times when I will ask him, hey, can I get a little coaching around something? I’m stuck, and I’m not getting there on my own. And I have many clients that will come back to coaching for the same reason. They have tools that they didn’t have before, but they’re just not, they’re not getting there on their own. And so they want to coach around a specific dilemma. And that’s something I’m always willing to do.

So a great way to vet a coach is to ask them about their work, both in the past and currently, and what that looks like. I would personally be very wary of anyone who claims to have their stuff quote-unquote fixed. It’s a journey. There is no fixed. That’s fixed is a destination that doesn’t exist.

[00:25:42] Cam: So, Ash, I’ve been grappling with a talk, you know, where I’ve got to decide what am I going to share in 43 minutes, right? So this is a big brain Cam, right, with the high associative, and that’s been the struggle is like picking and choosing and deciding what I’m going to share.

One of the big things I’m sharing is the power of modeling, right? So this is to coaches. And how the signal of the messaging we share with our clients when we are attending our growing edge just speaks volumes. I am a partner with you on this journey of change. And I love what you said there, is and that’s something when you are talking to a new coach, or you’re thinking of hiring a coach, ask them so what’s your take on this? What? How do you embrace this whole change model? Right? And see what they say. A good coach is going to share part of their journey. Where their successes and their challenges might be again as modeling, as an example, so a great place to finish up

[00:26:49] Ash: I agree. So, listeners, until next week, I’m Ash.

[00:26:52] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:26:53] Ash: And this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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