ADHD and Practical Applications of Context

Episode 205

Play episode

In Season 2 Episode 23 of the Translating ADHD podcast, hosts Ash and Cam continue to delve into the topic of context and its impact on ADHD. They recount the three ways of experiencing context: context switching, using context defensively, and using context proactively. Cam shares insights from a class he’s teaching focused on improving relationships for those with ADHD. He emphasizes the importance of being a keen observer to identify dynamics that aren’t working and taking proactive steps to address them.

Cam then recounts a success story from his class, where a participant used context to tackle the recurring stress of meal planning with their partner. They reached an agreement, allowing the ADHD partner to take ownership of meal planning which significantly reduced tension and improved communication. Ash and Cam stress the importance of understanding context and finding creative solutions to challenges.

Episode links + resources:

For more of the Translating ADHD podcast:

Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Ash: Hi, I’m Ash.

[00:00:02] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:00:04] Ash: And this is Translating ADHD podcast. Cam, do you want to tell our listeners what it is we’re going to be talking about today? 

[00:00:14] Cam: Sure, Ash. Last week we were talking about context as a superpower. We talked about the three different ways that we can experience it. One was that context switching when things are coming at us fast. We’re in a reactive state, and it can be exciting, but it can also be exhausting. So context switching.

Then there’s the using context as a defensive mechanism to delay. We’re not necessarily doing this knowingly, we are preserving our executive functioning. And so we can use the context of if you ever hear someone say it depends, that is a contextual response. It’s depending on the context. So how is this related to me? How are these things related to each other? And we are wired for context. And so those are natural ways that we can engage with context that is not necessarily productive or useful.

So we started to talk about the third way. And the third way is more of this proactive approach. And you gave a great example of this last week of kind of really thinking about your dilemma and coming to terms with what would solve that dilemma and considering different areas of interest and needs that you wanted to address through the week. And you were using context to peek over from Monday into Tuesday and Tuesday into Wednesday, kind of thinking about and sort of a thematic approach to your week.

[00:01:42] Cam: So context is in that sense turning it or pivoted into a useful strategy or tool, and we thought that today what we do is we keep pushing in that direction. I’ve got a great example of someone, I’m going to be using context positively to get some good results. There is more than just context going on here, and so I think I’ll sort of back up a little bit and back out to talk about the premise of this class I’m teaching, or rather the context of it, right?

[00:02:18] Cam: So, someone was asking me in the class what I needed to know so I understand a little bit more about what context is. And I think that for us, context is like fish and water stuff. It’s like the water. And so it can be hard to understand it when we were just wired for it. But context, again, is this sort of frame of reference.

[00:02:36] Cam: And so in this case, this class is about people who are coming to this class to improve their relationships, and they have taken Melissa Orloff’s couple seminar. They’ve moved on from that, and now they are taking a class from me to put into practice those things they learned in Melissa’s class. And so there’s a couple of things that I want to sort of, again, that I’ve already given the people in the class as a setup here for where this person was successful with context.

And that’s number one, is to start to talk about the dynamics that are not working in particular. What are those dynamics that are not working? And then what I do is help them see how their ADHD might be coming into play to exacerbate that dynamic that’s not working. And we talk about the keen observer here. I talk about there of developing a keen observer is that to have change and create any kind of change, one has to start with that pause to notice what’s going on and not react. The keen observer is a beautiful way to not just react to a situation.

And everyone – we’ve all been in these situations where we get into an argument with a friend with a partner with somebody, and it just gets explosive. It gets off track fast. Emotions get elevated, and everyone’s not happy. First of all, just to identify what are those dynamics that are not working for you, developing this Keen Observer is the first step to change. You have to develop this, and you don’t have to.

[00:04:13] Cam: But, again, we’ve talked about it enough. Listeners, you know what we’re talking about when we talk about the Keen Observer. The other thing in this class that I focus on is again two areas where you can make progress in a relationship, and start to dismantle this parent-child dynamic.

[00:04:34] Cam: So it’s a, it’s a very common expression that we see in describing relationships that are not necessarily working where someone has their executive functioning and someone who has ADHD, and what happens is they will assume a lesser role. They’ll kind of fall into and just take the lead from the individual that has the executive functioning. And sort of again, it becomes this one down, but it can develop what is often considered a parent-child dynamic.

[00:05:05] Cam: I don’t particularly like that term because it’s not parent-child. There isn’t a child there. But again, that’s what has become popular. Like we talked about last week with time blindness and now, not now – an expression of time. 

[00:05:18] Ash: Again, I just want to chime in on the parent-child dynamic, because I think the reason that tends to be the language is because it can feel that way in both directions. One partner can feel responsible for making up for executive function deficits. The other can feel infantilized. 

[00:05:38] Cam: Yeah, great point, Ash. Yeah, it’s what you identify with, and it resonates with this expression. Parent-child resonates a lot with couples who are struggling to understand how ADHD is coming into play. Given that they’re here to figure out how their ADHD is coming into play in their relationship, this is just for the partner with ADHD. And so it’s specific around what they can do, right, along the lines of what we talk about. What’s mine, what’s yours, what’s ours? And that undifferentiated mass, it’s all jumbled.

[00:06:13] Cam: So it’s what can I do? That’s hard when you’re focused on the other person and how they’re not playing fair. Now, again, the two other things, again, that I focus on are, where can you make some progress. And where you can make progress is number one, the struggle or the complaint from the other side is I want your attention, right? It makes sense. It’s you have attention deficit disorder and that the person who is the neurotypical in the relationship is often the complaint. I would just like to have if they would pay attention to me.

So listening, the second one, is something that I’ve noticed in teaching these classes and working with my clients, is that the partner is wanting the ADHD partner to take the initiative somewhere.

[00:07:01] Cam: So that’s what I focus on. Okay, listen, keen observer, and where can you take the initiative? And that’s the setup for this, again, this individual participant in this class, who really leaned in and utilized context to take the initiative somewhere. So that’s the setup, folks. I know it was a long setup.

[00:07:20] Cam: So we have a discussion in the class, and they were like, yeah, I got a win. All right, so we share wins. And the win was this, is that, again, he identified with his partner a dynamic that was not working. And developing that keen observer to kind of step back from this contentious argument of what are we arguing about, and it came to us. This sort of the argument was around this: What are we doing for dinner tonight? And that every night they’ve got two young kids, and they would come to this question. What are we doing for dinner tonight?

And it would just set up that explosive dynamic of yelling, arguing and everyone playing their roles and nothing gets resolved. Everyone’s frustrated. Everyone’s hurt. And that’s where they are. And so in that, we get into the finger pointing, we get into the you over there, it’s your problem. But the person in the class was sort of considering through class, okay, where’s an area we can try to have a different experience to engage differently and come to an agreement of okay?

[00:08:28] Cam: So they agreed. They agreed, can we look at this, and can we look at a way to resolve this proactively together? When I was in exercise together to sort of look at this, what happened is it’s this sort of stepping back to look at the larger context. So this is where context comes in.

[00:08:47] Cam: First is the context of dilemma that’s not working and an easy lift, a relatively easy lift. Other things are going on. They’re having other contentious stuff, but they’re like, they both agreed this is a place where we can engage together and get some reps in.

So you’ve been telling me about going to the gym and feeling sore about going to the gym. This is about going to the gym, okay, so this is the thing that we always have. It’s a daily stressor, and if we can do something proactive together, where we can exercise our communication skills and listen. And the person in my class is, oh, here’s a place where I can challenge that parent-child thing and not show up as the child. That I’m going to take ownership of.

[00:09:35] Cam: All right, this is what I know about people in the parent role that can be hard sometimes, right? The individual in the parent role who’s got that feeling all that responsibility can feel a little like I’m not sure if I want to give this up. And so it was an exercise in both areas. But it’s relatively safe, so he took ownership of this.

The person in my class, the person with ADHD owns an initiative. But there’s an agreement of, okay, if I take ownership of this, you’ve got to let me run with it. Trust and allow for my creative interpretation here. So we got that agreement of okay, for the next two weeks, we’ll have this agreement. You’ve got it. I’m letting go of this, letting go of this. And so he’s got it, and he’s running with it. 

[00:10:21] Ash: Cam, that explicit agreement between your client and his spouse has my attention in particular. Number one, just the power of explicit agreement, sitting down, and having these dialogues so that everyone is on the same page.

[00:10:35] Ash: But number two, as ADHD people, we can often run into kind of compounding challenges because we have our executive function challenges. We have our challenges with engaging and completing, and oftentimes the solutions for those challenges are not traditional methods. And that can be uncomfortable for someone who leans more neurotypical, particularly if on top of that, on top of unique methodology, there is some shaky trust in terms of ability to follow through or complete.

[00:11:18] Cam: That’s a great point, Ash. And I think that relationships are in this tough spot, especially when resentment and contempt start to take hold. And there’s very little trust when someone who’s a neurodivergent, right, they’re doing something different. Different is often a threat, and you often get a threat response, right?

[00:11:42] Cam: This difference doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel safe. It doesn’t feel secure. Back to the stuff we’ve talked about with needs and that need for safety and security. So it is, it’s this looking for, and this is what I appreciate about what the person in the class did was to really kind of contain it too.

[00:12:03] Cam: Okay, here’s an area where we both are fed up. We both agree that we’d love to have less of this or how it’s showing up now. And so it’s kind of a safe lift, right? It was a safe area to play with. So that was the thing, and so he got creative with it and just very quickly came up and found a solution. And the solution was one of these programs or a website where you purchase basically three weeks of recipes.

[00:12:37] Cam: And we don’t plug stuff here. Again, it’s out there. The name of it is not that important. What’s important is this sort of permission to have a creative solution to take his time and think about, okay, what is the actual dilemma? What’s going to help us kind of solve this specific dilemma of what are we eating tonight? And not have that sort of, again, explosive response every time. 

[00:13:01] Ash: I just want to chime into your point that the actual solution is not the point here and never is. By speaking a little bit about my adjustments to my dinner routine recently, I’m still adjusting to my kid living here full-time during the week.

[00:13:19] Ash: Before that, it had been a long time since I needed to keep my kid fed seven days in a row. Very long time, because when my co-parent and I were married, that was primarily his job. I don’t like doing it, and I’m not good at it. But I’m the only adult in the house. What works so well for your client would be horrible for me when you told me about it before we started recording.

[00:13:44] Ash: I went, oh, I’m glad he likes it. But that would not work for me and my situation for several reasons. But like your client, my kid’s 13. My kid can have a conversation about these things. We sat down, we had a check-in, and we discussed some things, including some options for nights when I just don’t want to cook.

[00:14:06] Ash: So there’s some built-in downtime for me, some things that my kid is capable of making for themselves one or two nights a week, which helps with my schedule when I’ve got stuff in the evening. It helps when on days like today, I’m feeling a little sick.

And so my solve is almost the opposite of your client’s and it’s flexible by design. We have this slate of options that we routinely keep the things in stock for. I plan for the things that need a little planning ahead, like taking fish or chicken out of the freezer. That’s the whole thinking ahead. It’s Monday, what does Tuesday and Wednesday look like? What are we eating that day?

[00:14:48] Ash: But there’s also room to say, nope, I want to change the plan tonight and make it easy. 

[00:14:53] Cam: There’s context coming into play for you in the sense of what the theme is let it be easy.

[00:15:01] Ash: It’s kind of the theme that my life runs on, Cam. I tell people that I put a lot of work into being as lazy as I possibly can be. And I kind of do that’s what works for me. You’re right. Let it be easy.

[00:15:14] Cam: So let it be easy. And so for this couple and their two young kids, right, they don’t have a 13-year-old who has input, but two small children. They saw that the dilemma was around grocery shopping, impulse buying and weekly meal planning, right?

[00:15:32] Cam: So it was planning the meals and that again, having this question of what are we eating tonight? Not sure, and then all night kind of in this reactive mode of impulse buying, multiple trips to the grocery store and not having a proactive plan.

[00:15:52] Cam: So they saw that having a plan and having that decision made so they didn’t have to make that decision every day, right? That they could. So his pick was to find something where, again, it’s a program that gives you 12 weeks of recipes to pick from. And you can pick the choices for the week, and then it assembles. You pick the meals, and it will then assemble the grocery list, right, with what might be in the pantry, and then the buys that you need. And there’s some fee for it, but my student was like, oh, my God. That is, it’s brilliant because we’ve just basically removed this dynamic or this sort of this lightning rod that we’re just each dreading every day of oh, my God, are they thinking about it?

[00:16:40] Cam: Because I’m not thinking about it. I don’t want to think about it. And it’s sort of like this pushing it down, kicking that can down the road to you got to have and provide a meal for your 2-year-old and your 4-year-old. And that kind of pivot on this into a proactive stance and the context here is just I’ll say around, again, this need you’ve got to eat. Right? So the context is meal prep planning and execution. That’s it. Sort of right there. And like, how do we make it work for us? 

[00:17:14] Ash: Listeners, I want you to notice as Cam talks about the conversation that unfolded between his client and that client’s spouse, there’s not a whole lot of here’s what you’re not doing. This is your fault. What two people are getting, I tell my clients all the time when we’re talking about difficult conversations like these, let’s see if we can get you both on the same side, looking at this dilemma together. And that’s what your client and his spouse did is they looked at the impact, they looked at the stress, they came to some agreements.

[00:17:47] Ash: And then your client looked for a solution that worked well with his own ADHD challenges and that works well with the dynamics of his household. I, another reason I could never do that is I have a picky eater and that’s okay. That’s the dynamics of my household. That’s some context I have that maybe he doesn’t have.

[00:18:06] Ash: But the bigger point is this is about getting up above it. Who cares whose fault it is? How can we come together to have a better experience because this is impacting both of us negatively. 

[00:18:20] Cam: Every day, right? So getting above it, and sort of taking the big picture, but maintaining the context here on the dilemma and the solution, right? So that sort of considering. And this is the part that I think that we don’t, we can utilize context here for the person with ADHD and the individual who is wanting to support someone with ADHD, is to think about can we talk about the context and kind of agree or determine what are we trying to work on?

[00:18:55] Cam: Because what often happens is we’ll sort of see a dilemma one place, and then we will jump, right? Not finish here, not engage here, or engage to a place, and then we’ll, oh this is a great fix. I can take this over here to something completely unrelated. And so we jumped to somewhere else, not completing, not taking this to a completion point.

[00:19:21] Cam: And that’s what’s confusing to the non-ADHD individuals. They sort of see this, it’s like this, they just flip the channel. So all of a sudden, it’s like we’re on a different what I thought we were talking about food prep, and now you’re over here around organizing the basement. How is that related? And it is, but again, sort of, as you think about this is sort of like, how can we frame this or keep this or contain this in some way. What’s the container here? And what is that context? 

[00:19:50] Ash: Yeah, I love the idea of a container. I think it can make it a lot easier. To slice off a piece of something that otherwise feels too big. Dinner is already a relatively contained thing, but I could see where a client might snowball that into an evening routine or other challenges in family dynamics.

[00:20:14] Ash: But earlier today, I was talking to a client about exercise, and exercise to physically feel better. This client has had some challenging physical setbacks in the last few years and is now physically healthy enough again to resume exercise. But she was very much feeling like it’s too far gone and it’s too big of a thing. It’s, there’s too far to go. There’s too much to do.

And so similar to what you did with your client, how can we put a smaller container around this? She was already signed up for a once-a-week class that starts this week. So we talked about whether could that be enough. And what’s a measure of success that’s somewhere between here and those bigger goals that you have down the road?

[00:21:05] Cam: I did something, I remember – I think we’ve talked about it on this podcast – of wanting to get in shape, wanting to exercise. And the idea there was the reason the why, the context is quote-unquote air quotes get in shape. That’s a big container. And getting in shape is sort of like this. Do you know what that means?

[00:21:29] Cam: It can mean a lot of different things. So we’re kind of rotating through our ideas of what it is to get in shape. When I thought about what is a container that’s more accessible. Something I can lift, do something, right, in the time constraints that I have in my day, and shift to this idea that I’m going to exercise to boost my bandwidth, boost my brain cognition for the next hour.

[00:21:59] Cam: And so there now it’s about 20 minutes. I can go, I’ve got a bunch of woods here that I can walk down, get lost in the woods, and then come up a steep hill. Get my heart rate up, and in 20 minutes I’ve reset how I was feeling. Brain fog, lethargic inertia, it’s gone. It’s lifted. And I’m using activity to focus on my ability to, again, protect my bandwidth and my executive functioning, or just to be effective in my office or effective in the day. 

[00:22:35] Ash: When I first took up kickboxing, I knew I had bigger goals. And some of those are transition-related by the way. Top surgery results are generally better if you’re at a more healthy weight, if you have some muscle built.

[00:22:50] Ash: But the goal I initially connected to – and I kind of forgot about this actually until recently – was those early days on testosterone, you’re so hungry, you’re so hungry all the time. And so my initial goal was just don’t gain any weight. Add some physical activity. Don’t gain any weight.

[00:23:16] Ash: And, Cam, for the first seven or eight months that I was doing kickboxing, I really didn’t lose anyway. But then my context shifted, and my bandwidth freed up a little bit more, and then I was ready to start taking that next step to start attending to nutrition and diet. I wanted to, and I had the bandwidth to do it. It wasn’t a should. It wasn’t an I have to get here, I’m wasting my time doing all of this and eating like crap.

[00:23:39] Ash: It was waiting for the time and space to take the next step after already having this pretty solid practice of getting regular exercise. And by the way, I’m down 45 pounds.  

[00:23:52] Cam: Wow, that’s awesome. I love what we’re doing here is sort of giving different examples of how context comes into play. And it’s a real opportunity for us to consider context.

[00:24:01] Ash: And to put some boundaries around context, to think about a bigger thing and slice it into smaller and smaller pieces. That same client, the last time we talked about exercise, she initially said, Oh, I could go for a walk. And she sounded so unenthused to like, and that’s what I said. That doesn’t sound very enthusiastic. It was storytelling. Since I’m so out of shape, I should start with a walk. That’s what I should do. When we started talking about weightlifting, something she enjoys and could connect back to that feeling of enjoying it, and when the last time she was really into it, that was a difference maker.

[00:24:42] Cam: That’s a great story to end on, I think, Ash. So listeners, again we talked about context last week and sort of noticing it and continue down this path of, is there a place where you can put a container around something, right? To make it more accessible, definable, distinguishable.

[00:25:06] Cam: We talk about, making distinctions as a skill. This is sort of distinguishing and sort of something that you can grab onto and work with. And again, bring creativity to this. So when we bring creativity, that’s another super strength of ours.

[00:25:27] Cam: One program note I was listening to, Ash, and I could just say a correction. I know that people do corrections, and I want to do a quick correction here. I was listening to last week’s episode, and I was throwing around the term around black and white thinking and all or nothing. I kept saying binomial. When I meant to say binary. Binary thinking. All right, binary in the sense of ones and zeros are all or nothing, black and white binary.

[00:25:45] Cam: I’ve been doing a lot of math with my daughter, and so I think that’s why binomial slipped in here and slipped into my newsletter. So I just noticed that. If you noticed it, thank you. And I noticed it, too. So binary thinking is not binomial. I didn’t even notice you said what does binomial even mean, Cam?

[00:26:06] Cam: Binomials are like two terms and it’s like in math or it’s like a polynomial, binomial. 

[00:26:12] Ash: Oh, this is why I don’t know it. I was trinomial. I was the kid who took as little math as I was allowed to get away with to graduate. 

[00:26:21] Cam: It was not my strong suit. You just, you gotta come back. I was just kind of walking on my walk listening, and I was like, and I’m so earnest about using the term binomial. I’m like that’s not quite right. How’s that right? Oh yes, of course ’cause it’s a mathematical term, So anyway, I know there are a couple of math geeks out there.

[00:26:41] Ash: All right. So until next week, I’m Ash.

[00:26:43] Cam: And I’m Cam.

[00:26:44] Ash: And this was the Translating ADHD podcast. Thanks for listening.

More from this show


Episode 205