Today on Translating ADHD, Ash and Cam dive into the importance of context for individuals with ADHD. They explore how ADHD brains are wired for context and how storytelling can influence our perception of reality. Cam shares his experience teaching a class on improving relationships for individuals with ADHD and how discussing context sparked curiosity and expectation among the students.

The hosts discuss the role of context in making progress with ADHD and reflect on how it shapes the ADHD experience as a whole. Cam shares three ways context can show up, one helpful and the other two not so much. The hosts discuss the draining experience of context switching and using context to delay action. They also share how to turn context into a real strength. Tune in for an insightful discussion on the power of context for those with ADHD.

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Episode Transcript:

[00:00:07] Ash: Hi, I’m Ash.

[00:00:08] Cam: And I’m Cam

[00:00:09] Ash: And this is Translating ADHD. Cam, I’m stoked about today’s topic. We talk about context a lot on this show and about how ADHD brains are wired for context. We also talk a lot about storytelling. And ways in which we can bring forward context from the past or twist context in a way to catastrophize or minimize or have a perspective that isn’t tied to reality.

But today I love the way that you’ve thought about this and broken it down because I think this is a new way to talk about that phenomenon directly related to context, and how our brains really do want to know the context. So say a little more about what we’re doing with context today. 

[00:00:56] Cam: Sure, Ash. One of the reasons I teach is because it challenges me to think about these concepts. And it just, I’m teaching a class right now to people who want to improve their relationships and they’re struggling with ADHD.

And I just mentioned we’re going to deal context next week and somebody just said, oh, wow, that’s interesting, I’m looking forward to that. And that was enough. I was like, okay, there’s expectation there. And there’s sort of some curiosity. And I’ve got the, I’ve been talking about context, we’ve been talking about context for years. But it just had me thinking about context and how it might be able to, how I might be able to bring it in a different way.

At the same time, I just finished a newsletter on moving past the now, not now experience of time. So my newsletter, my focus is on making progress. How do you know you’re making progress with ADHD? That’s a heavy lift for me too, right? Any kind of writing like that is just a labor of love, and it is a long process.

But as I was thinking about it, I was just thinking how context is so important to us, as you said. And if people talk about ADHD being a superpower, and we’ve talked about that, and we’ve shared how we feel about that, I feel that context can be a real superpower. Or it can be a super barrier. And as you said, it’s the, we are wired for context, we are wired for story.

And so that story can be something that informs and helps us navigate, right? Purpose and our why and who we are, our sense of self, as we’ve been talking about in the last couple of weeks. We can also create a story that then stops us dead in our tracks. And so today I wanted to talk about three ways that we engage with context. And that I think, again, a way to see where you are and how you might be able to make progress with your ADHD. If you start to think about context in a different way. 

[00:03:16] Ash: I love that this many years and this many episodes later, we’re still translating ADHD. These are concepts that we’ve discussed before, but the more that you and I do our work with our clients, get some new context, think about things differently, talking about them together.

One goal that you mentioned for doing this episode today before we recorded is to help yourself solidify this idea and wrap your brain around it. And there’s something about our time together that often does that with our concepts. And so, I just think it’s cool that we’re still doing it. And that’s what makes this show evergreen.

There’s always another way to articulate this. There’s always different, I don’t necessarily want to say better, but there’s always different language or another way that we can keep looking at these phenomenons. And you and I have this big fat advantage that we listen to people articulate their ADHD all day, every day. And that’s never not making new connections for us.

So I love that that’s where this one started for you. Let’s dive in. 

[00:04:33] Cam: Yeah. This is journey thinking, right. That, that there’s, we don’t get to this place of understanding of context or ADHD. It’s evergreen. And it’s always a place to, as you say, pull on a thread, and look at something differently.

And so the other thing I just, as a quick aside, the frustration I have is that people out in the ADHD world, practitioners, researchers will notice something, make an observation, and then it’s a declarative statement of this is your ADHD experience. Again, there are things that resonate like now, not now experience of time. It resonates with people.

They, it, people, they, they identify with it at a visceral level – Oh, my God, someone gets me – in this experience of I am in this moment and every other moment I am not there. That is uniquely ADHD, but that is just one way to experience time. It’s very binomial, right? It’s either, or. It’s I’m here and I’m not here. It’s now. And not now.

And so in coaching, we look at looking at cognitive flexibility to start to look at time in a different way. To look at our thinking in a different way. It’s more of a continuum mindset versus binomial. So the same thing here is that just to keep looking at stuff, we bring that keen observer, that curiosity.

And so I want to just lay out the three ways first and foremost. So again, three categories. There could be more, but it’s the three that got my attention. The first is a reactive approach to context. This is for folks who have way too much on their plate. They wake up, they’re camping out the ARC, Adrenaline Response Cycle. It’s where they are living. It is everything is fast and furious. It is reacting to everything as it’s coming over, as I like to say, coming over the transom.

And so you’re just sort of dealing with stuff as it comes, regardless of context. A phone call, someone stops by, and your spouse asks for a request. You’re just sort of, it’s like you’re service, serving up. It’s like hitting balls back on a tennis court.

[00:07:02] Ash: And not just reacting to external context, but there’s all the internal stuff, too. Ooh, what about this project? Ooh, I need to do this task. Ooh, I need to make this appointment. This is the stuff of undifferentiated mass.

And, Cam, I’m going to tattle on myself a little bit here and say that this is where I’ve been stuck for a little while. Had a bit of a breakthrough over the weekend with this and had a good laugh at myself. Because one of the ways I support my clients showing up in this space when we’ve laid a good foundation, when we’re in that place where we’re getting back to more so than starting fresh, is let’s differentiate the undifferentiated mass a little bit.

And it’s a really funny phenomenon that when we’re in this reactive place, we feel like we have no time, and we’re so overwhelmed that taking the time to plan feels like something we can’t do. I have no time, I have to clear the decks a little bit more before I can take the time to plan, to prioritize, to differentiate out this mass of stuff.

And so I just had to have a bit of a chuckle at myself as I was sitting down over the weekend doing the exact thing that I would be doing with a long-term client in this place. And I share that not to bag on myself, but to say the work never stops. And these are places you will be again and again. The difference is, how long are you stuck there and what does it look like?

Yeah, I’ve been stuck here for a while, but I wasn’t on the couch. My life hasn’t fallen apart. The absolute bare minimum basics are taken care of. There’s food in the fridge, and the bills are paid, and there’s enough clean laundry to clothe my family, and there are enough clean dishes to eat off of and cook with.

So that is a very different experience than when you and I first started coaching and this type of place was a total shutdown. 

[00:09:20] Cam: The context is switching on us or we are deliberately switching because we will do this as a form of stimulation. And it would just sort of jump from one thing to another. It’s stimulating, but it can also be exhausting. And it’s either undifferentiated mass, or we have way too much on our plate. And we just get into this defensive, reactive position. There is no forethought. And this is now, not now, right? When we are fully in now, not now, we cannot really conceive of anything that is outside of the realm of now, the immediate.

And so it’s just coming at us, and we’re just trying to kind of hit those balls back as they come over the net, and it doesn’t matter, again, it could be a tennis ball, a pickleball. All these different contexts and that switching, noticing that switching of context is exhausting for us. So that’s number one, Ash, is context switching, and it’s a reactive stance.

The second one is more of a defensive, avoidant stance. And this is what I see in, uh, some of my relationships, my clients working on relationships is that. They’ll use context as a foil, as a way to challenge and rationalize a delay of decision.

Now here’s the ADHD thing. The ADHD thing is making a decision is hard. It’s really difficult to take all the information and line it up and make a decision because you’re taking that undifferentiated mass. You’re differentiating, you’re sorting, you’re sifting, you’re prioritizing, you’re determining, you’re pruning, you’re getting the choices down to a few and making that decision. That’s executive function rich.

Now, if you’ve got a contentious relationship, you’re in a relationship that is contentious right now, and it’s often because we know that ADHD is going on, but there’s very little understanding of the actual ADHD. The ADHD partner will use context as a method to, well, I thought you said you wanted this, but I’m, and now I’m hearing this over here. And it’s often for us, again, because we are wired for context, that’s how we use it. We’re looking at a certain context. Again, it’s like, what are our aspirations? What are we trying to do?

And that’s the whole thing about, I want to have a conversation with this group tomorrow night about expectations and discussing expectations. What is reliable enough? What are we trying to do together? And if you’re in this defensive context behavior, always kind of foiling with, well, what about this? And how about that? And sort of shopping around is really hard to have a productive conversation about expectations. 

[00:12:24] Ash: Cam, this is Defensive Crouch, which we did some episodes on in season one. And a big thing that we talked about when we’re in that defensive place is blame smudging. Just assuming a coworker, a boss, a partner, or a friend is upset or irritated. It must be us. And we take what is what we’re being told at face value, or even if we’re not being told that it’s directly our fault, we twist it into being our fault.

And on top of that, we are nowhere in that picture. So how can you possibly have a conversation about expectations, and partnering in a household if you’re not anywhere in that picture? It’s almost another form of reacting. You’re reacting to your assumption of what is upsetting the other person. And you’re trying to avoid that negative consequence of upsetting, right? You’re trying to dodge that next argument, that next fight, that next conversation with your boss, that next missed deadline.

And not just that, you’re also probably doing some amount of trying to make up for – I can’t ask for help. I can’t get resources. I can’t articulate that this is difficult for me. I just have to get it done and get it done perfectly to make up for the last time.

[00:13:52] Cam: That’s a great example. And I think also there is the blame sponge. There’s that one down. And that defensive crouch. There’s also just the stalling for time. It’s an interesting thing that I see you, the sort of, to the cerebral approach. There’s sort of hyper-rational to, so tell me exactly what you’re wanting? What is it that you’re looking for here? And it’s like, I don’t know if that is going to work.

And again, this is not necessarily, it can be manipulative, but again, from the person who has ADHD, the struggle there is the ability to go from conceptual to action, to decision. And so it’s like, we’ll just sort of use context in this way to delay, consider and, Oh, let’s just bring in a big idea generator.

I think that’s how I used to have it, is like my big idea generator would come in and just sort of, well, have we, what about this? And Oh, what about this over here? And thinking it was exciting for my partner. And can we please make a decision here?

[00:15:04] Ash: Cam, it’s interesting that you bring in the idea generator, because part of my realization over the weekend and coming out of delay, because I certainly was doing that too, right? Recognizing undifferentiated mass, but delaying. And delaying because I’ve been itching for a new creative project. And I’m really close, I think, to committing to something and getting started.

And my desire was to put that first. My realization was, I can’t because I genuinely don’t have the time right now between my client work, the fact that I want to spend some 15 hours a week or so doing kickboxing training and some other community stuff I’m involved in now. The amount of executive function and time that the basics are taking me right now because there is no structure, there is no routine, it is very reactive, means that, even if I carve out a chunk of a day, I can’t be present in that creative space the way that I want to be. I just can’t.

The weight of all of the other stuff – and this isn’t, by the way, the magical thinking of the land of caught up, but it is something that you and I worked on in coaching way back when, sort of distinguishing out what’s magical thinking. But what is the stuff that It is beneficial to touch daily or touch weekly, or to know that it’s in a good enough state that I don’t have to worry about it. And to know that there will be some prompt or cue that will come back around the next time I do need to attend to it. 

[00:17:00] Cam: Right, and this is where the context is coming into play for the third piece here in the sense of needs. You talk about kick boxing, you talk about developing community. Those are needs that you’ve identified. And so putting those as a priority. And so that’s using context in a way of, again, who am I, who do I want to be in my community, and to have that support and that positive feedback that you get.

And here’s the thing, is we can, again, jump to something new. Not remember the value of the thing we were doing that was serving us so well, right? There was that whole idea of your definition of self-care of nourishing. What are those nourishing things? So that’s a really good segue to the third iteration is the one we want to start to articulate and talk about.

[00:18:01] Ash: And one more thing I’ll say before I do that because you’re spot on Cam, is that, yeah, the way I was looking at it before is what do I have to give up? Do I have to cut my training time? Do I have to cut this activity? Where do I have to make cuts to make this work? When in reality, I don’t have to make cuts. I just need to do some attending and get back to letting the daily stuff of life be easy, which at this moment in time is going to require some intentional effort.

So now not only am I aware of what the work is at this moment, it’s not yet using that time I’ve now carved out in my schedule to sit down and be creative. It’s knowing what the work is to get that far, and using that time to do that work, to lay that foundation. 

[00:19:01] Cam: Nice. The, as you were talking, I was just thinking about my weekend and, uh, in particular yesterday. So I was out there, and I was sort of thinking what a great little video would be for working on different things, all in, in states of incompletion.

So there are three things I was working on in this sort of the context of homeowner, but where I was firmly in homeowner. Because in the past, if I just sort of woke up and started kind of, one of my clients called it walk by organizing. It was just like walking around and like, Oh, I’ll do this. Oh, I’ll do that. Again, it’s this context-switching, and just whatever kind of piques our attention.

So I was doing, I was pulling some shelves out of our laundry room, and I threw ’em out the window. So there’s a big pile of shelves sitting in our yard on the side. No one can see it. Shelves are sitting, and some leaves have been pulled out because we’re getting mulch. And so leaves out of the, the bushes and all the gardens, were sort of pulling that out. So there are piles of leaves in the yard. And now there’s a third one, and I’m trying to remember what it was, and I have no idea and it doesn’t matter. Because yesterday there were three, and I was working on those, and my mom’s coming over for dinner, right?

So that’s another context in the sense of son, family, and wanting to kind of clean up these things to a point where I could kind of tuck them away and be done. And close out that chapter for the day in that context. So this is an illustration of this sort of third way of interacting with context.

And that is to kind of think about your day and how you might be able to batch the different things that you do in specific contexts. My daughter is working on chemistry and it’s, I used to be a chemistry teacher long ago and she’s Dad, I’m doing stoichiometry and stoichiometry just makes my blood run cold, but… 

[00:21:09] Ash: I have no idea what that even is. It makes my blood run cold as a kid who was terrible at science. 

[00:21:16] Cam: But again, just that sort of back to, to help her, right? With her studies. And I’m the chemistry, history, and math guy. My wife is the, uh, psychology, language, arts, uh, Latin person, right. We’re a tag team on that support. But just to kind of look at my day in the sense of not to be running around all these different activities, but to batch them by context.

Think about like going for a bike ride, right? So that exercise. That’s the thing to start to look at, is what are the consistent roles, identities, practices, needs. And what are the sort of common themes or context that they can be housed in? And start to look at it that way, moving forward. And so that you’re not doing this context-switching all through the day.

[00:22:19] Ash: Cam, it’s so interesting that you brought up this topic independently, and it’s so in line with where I’m at right now, too. Because what I did over the weekend is I went back to a tool that worked well when I was going through the divorce. And there was, once again, just a number of tasks. Just so many tasks, more than I could keep track of. Am I too far away? Am I?

[00:22:46] Cam: It’s behind you. You need to bring it in front of you.

[00:22:49] Ash: There we go. Is that better? Okay. I don’t know where I was. I’ll just start over. Cam, I love it when we’re pulling on independent threads that are the same thread. Because what you just described is what I spent my weekend doing.

I went back to a tool that I had used when I was going through my divorce, and when I was struggling to orient to what day is it? What needs to happen today? What discrete tasks need to happen? Things like mortgage stuff and new house stuff. And there was just so much.

And being self-employed, my day’s not the same every day. And not just that, my schedule looks quite a bit different now than it did when I did this years ago. So when I’m asking myself, why can’t I remember if it’s trash day? Well, trash day is a different day than it used to be, number one. Number two, my schedule is very different than it used to be. And number three, I’m not anchoring to what day it is and what things that aren’t appointments, client sessions, group coaching, meetings with colleagues, what things that don’t live on my calendar belong in this day.

And so in short, what I did was I broke down a weekly schedule. I broke down a weekly schedule. On top of that, I broke down a daily list of tasks, not a big one, a little one, and a weekly list of tasks. And let me tell you, I woke up this morning, and I’ve been wondering for a while, like, where’s that, where’s that, like the sun’s out in the morning again now. My house gets a lot of lovely sunshine, really loved waking up in the mornings and kind of looking forward to my day. I intentionally don’t book anything early on Monday morning so I have that time.

Why am I waking up without enthusiasm? Well, because I have no idea what the day looks like. Today I woke up, I knew exactly what the day looked like. I know what’s for dinner tonight. I know that my kid and I are going to run errands either before or after dinner. And I’ve already messaged them to give them the option.

Because I now have a template to look at that says, okay, it’s Monday. Here are the things you should be thinking about on a Monday. It sounds so silly, but, and a lot of my clients experience this, and I’m not saying that my way is the right way, but, and it’s not necessarily the right way. I have another client who has to do very visual calendars to visualize time.

But it’s the difference between now, not now, meaning right now, this moment I could do one of a hundred different things. That I should do that one thing that’s been niggling at me, but I just can’t make myself do it. To, okay, here are the commitments today. This is what today looks like. This is the shape of today.

And funnily enough, today is not a project day, but I had some extra time. A client needed to move her appointment. And because I knew that I didn’t have to slot anything else in, that I’ve already attended to what needs to happen today or will be attending to it, I tackled some project-oriented stuff too, and moved that ball of getting my creative time to be creative time forward.

Because I can envision not just today, but tomorrow and the next day. It’s not a surprise that on Wednesday, I’m taking my kid to a concert. I’m aware of it. I’m aware of it in a concrete way. And we can lose sight of that when we’re rapid switching or when we’re avoiding.

[00:26:37] Cam: Yeah. And I would say you’re overcoming time blindness there, right? You’re overcoming this now, not now experience of time. It takes us a little bit more time, it takes us a little bit more effort to anticipate, to build out our schedule.

And so this is the thing that, listeners, we want to leave you with is context is one way to hear over your time horizon. It’s what I use to get a sense of, cause I can’t do it with time. So I do it with context instead. To really think about how I want to show up, who am I and what am I focusing on?

And that’s something that coaches can do with their clients, too. Again, back to helping them develop that why and who circuit.

[00:27:35] Ash: I love that, Cam. And without going into a bunch of detail about my particular system, that’s the second part of what I did this weekend. In addition to sort of a weekly, this is what it looks like on a basic level, I also captured all of the other things in a way that gives them context that makes sense to me.

And so now it’s not a list of fifty or a hundred things. It’s this area of life and that area of life, and this thing that has my attention, and this thread that I want to pull on. And it is such a massive difference-maker.

I think that’s probably a good place for us to wrap today. What do you think?

[00:28:20] Cam: I got one more thing to say. 

[00:28:20] Ash: Alright, I’ll allow it.

[00:28:23] Cam: Kids with ADHD are inquisitive, and they can also ask this question that can drive a parent and a teacher crazy, frustrating, get frustrated, and that is the why question. Why do I need to do that? And yeah, a kid might be using that as that sort of defensive and kind of as a foil as a way to delay doing what you want them to do. It could be that.

But it’s also that context matters to them. They ask why because they want to see how the thing relates to them. How do they relate to the thing? And it can often look at, it can also look like self-absorption. It is not. It is this, we’re trying to place ourself in the context of what the question is, what the ask is, and there’s some process of discovery there.

Instead of supporting people to do that, your kids, your partner, and for yourself, as you’re going through your week to consider how are you engaging with context. Are you in that context-switching, jumping from one to another? Are you using it as some kind of foil? And if so, starting to look at it in this proactive stance of how can context be a tool, as Asher was just sharing with us. I’m starting from this weekend and being able to peer into his week. 

[00:29:54] Ash: Well said, Cam. And now I think that’s a great place for us to wrap up. So until next week, listeners, I’m Ash.

[00:29:50] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:29:54] Ash: And this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

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