How to make sense of confusing ADHD behavior - with its strengths and struggles
Updated: Jun 4, 2022
As people with ADHD, we often seem confusing, even paradoxical in our behavior. What we manage to do may appear to make no sense, as may what we don't manage. One day, everything seems to flow effortlessly, the next day, we appear to be getting nothing done. Zilch. Nada.
It may look like we're simply not trying or even deliberately forgetting to do important things. All this may be highly confusing for those around us. How much effort we actually put in often stays hidden.
Whether our ADHD behavior is a strength or a challenge, weakness, limitation, or even disability often depends on the situation or environment.
This post will show you how to understand seemingly paradoxical or illogical ADHD behavior and make sense of the associated strengths and struggles.
A lot of things will suddenly add up and become clear, whether you're the one affected or someone close to you is. This knowledge can help make your relationships so much easier, lighter, and calmer.
And of course, not every issue is relevant for every person. I really don't want to promote stereotypes and stigmas here, but rather to facilitate a better understanding of the wonderful complexity of people with ADHD.
The paradoxical behavior in ADHD is confusing - for ourselves and those around us
Understanding the ADHD paradox is tremendously helpful. For those of us with ADHD and our loved ones, employers, colleagues, and even the (medical) professionals we deal with.
In this post, I want to explain what's behind our seemingly illogical behavior. I hope it helps create more understanding. If you have ADHD, you may even want to share it with the people who want to understand you better.
We can't force anyone to make the effort to understand our ADHD brains. But for anyone willing to look through the ADHD lens, it's a win all around, because better understanding usually improves relationships dramatically.
People with ADHD are trying really hard, even if you can't see it - please assume positive intent
How much effort we're putting in and how incredibly strenuous many things are for us often remains invisible. It's also painful that we are often very well aware that we can be really exhausting or annoying for others.
We're often our harshest critics and, as a result, hypersensitive to perceived criticism from others, especially our loved ones. It's an incredible gift when someone just assumes that we mean well. It's such a relief. Please always assume positive intent.
Of course, there are exceptions where we have blind spots. These can be addressed well in coaching, for example - that works much better than when "criticism" comes from loved ones.
What generally holds true: less pressure, less stress, less criticism leads to more life energy and motivation to face our challenges.
Consistency just isn't feasible, because people with ADHD are consistently inconsistent
What runs like clockwork one day, is left undone the next. Even if we've established a routine that suits us. Even if we really really really want to get the thing done.
What occasionally trips us up and causes us to be inconsistent:
our often lousy working memory
our obsessive concentration on something that has just completely sucked us in (also called positive hyperfocus)
our unreliable sense of time
our propensity to get bored easily
our inner restlessness, which makes us jump from one thing to the next like a crazy Energizer bunny.
So, every now and then we get knocked off balance. We never know when this will happen. And that bugs us at least as much as it bothers those around us. It always catches us off guard, when we were convinced that this habit, finally, will really work consistently. Well, nope.
Too distracted to fill out a form correctly...
Supposedly simple tasks seem insurmountable to us, while we can find creative solutions to the most complex problems.
Having to fill out a form can send us into a complete panic. I can't count the number of times I couldn't recall my zip code. Or suddenly remembered a former address but not my current one. How instead of the number of my bank account, I entered my matriculation number from my studies years ago. Which I could not have consciously retrieved. How I haven't claimed back expenses from employers and volunteering so often that the sum must be sizeable by now simply because I got stuck somewhere in the process.
I could fill pages with more of my own examples and those of clients, which I won't do. Because it's really embarrassing (to me and to us). So much for "you're so intelligent, how can you be so stupid".
big-picture, prescient, and innovative thinking beyond the reach of many
People with ADHD are often more creative than the average person (there's science to prove it). We often use divergent thinking and see solutions and connections others don't recognize.
I also have countless examples from clients who are so forward-thinking that they keep anticipating and removing future obstacles so they never appear. If those employees don't advertise their contributions, their efforts often go unnoticed and remain underappreciated.
It's worst for employees who clearly see connections and future problems or solutions, but don't have the influence to have them addressed or even just to have their voice heard. It's incredibly frustrating to anticipate how something will play out unfavorably without being able to positively influence the outcome.
I used to only half-jokingly refer to myself as a "compulsive meddler". Since we ADHDers are often not the most diplomatic people (more on that below), we may not be able to communicate the issues we see to the powers that be in a sufficiently palatable way. Or we manage to be heard but receive no credit for our insight or solution despite its high strategic value.
So prescience often comes with disadvantages. If bosses lack those skills themselves and aren't all that - let's say - grounded, they often feel threatened or overwhelmed by ADHD employees, which can lead to ugly consequences.
Many people with ADHD have an above-average number of job changes on their resumes. And as the saying goes, you don't leave your job, you leave your boss. I don't have any sound statistics, but from my experience as a coach, I feel confident to say: the importance of fit between people with ADHD and their supervisor cannot be overstated.
Undiplomatic, high integrity, strong sense of justice
Sometimes it would really be better if we had a filter. One between our thoughts and what we blurt out.
Many of us lack a sense of diplomacy and political savvy. Especially when we feel that injustice is being committed - especially against someone else.
People with ADHD, even young kids, often advocate for the disadvantaged, the unfairly treated, no matter the cost. This has its advantages and disadvantages and has already cost some of us dearly. On the other hand, many of us can face ourselves in the mirror, knowing that we didn't stand by without speaking up (or even gave our tacit approval). However, the awareness of the magnitude and multitude of injustices may also become overwhelming, leading to a sense of helplessness and never being able to do enough.
Highly sensitive, hypersensitive, or empathy superheroes
Some of us are highly sensitive - in a variety of ways (I'll go into more detail in another post).
And if we're honest, we also know that we're often hypersensitive, especially to perceived criticism or rejection. If we have a lot of shame, we can be almost incapable of taking in criticism.
On the other hand, many of us are empathy superheroes, have a special connection to animals, notice immediately when the mood is "off" in a group or there's "something going on" with a person, and can be incredibly perceptive and therefore support others just the way they need it.
There are also quite emotionally cold or emotionally blind people with ADHD
Studies show that the proportion of people with ADHD who can barely or inadequately recognize, name, and express feelings is significantly higher than in the general population. This leads to far-reaching problems for the person affected as well as the people close to them. I will also discuss this in a separate post.
We make a mountain out of a molehill but are stellar crisis managers
Whether we perceive our feelings very strongly or just barely, one thing seems to remain the same: we ADHDers often make a mountain out of a molehill. Impulsivity and emotional dysregulation are probably the causes. A tiny detail can turn into a huge drama and make us act like two-year-olds.
But when the sh** really hits the fan, many of us are effective crisis managers. Yes, even those of us who can lose our cool for no reason. Presumably, an acute crisis is so stimulating for our brains that we're suddenly able to concentrate and put all our creative power and supercharged thinking to good use.
I don't have solid, only empirical, data, but the proportion of people with ADHD seems to be particularly high among first responders and the fast-paced, high-pressure areas of emergency medicine and intensive care, as well as among the self-employed and company founders.
Sometimes we're completely inflexible, othertimes commitment-phobic, or we're super (possibly way too?) accommodating
The issue of flexibility in ADHD is so complex that, despite all my experience, I still find it difficult to describe.
Many people with ADHD - from children to adults - exhibit inflexible or rigid behavior, as is often attributed to people on the autism spectrum. The slightest externally caused or "imposed" change of plans can turn into a drama. In adults, not just kids. With children, the situation can often be defused with proper preparation, etc., but adults often lack self-awareness of their own inflexibility.
The same person who freaks out because of a perceived "forced" change of plans can at the same time demand full flexibility from their environment by not committing to anything in order to keep all their options open and even feel fully entitled to change plans at the very last moment. This often happens without any awareness that these two opposing standards make no sense to the other person.
On the other hand, there are people with ADHD whose "not fitting in" was so strongly sanctioned as children or adolescents (sometimes with the best intentions of their environment) that they learned to adapt to every situation like a chameleon. This can have certain advantages, but can also jeopardize our health if we lose touch with what we need and want. Here, depending on the extent of the conditioning from childhood or youth, ADHD coaching can help, or the support of a therapeutic professional specialized in ADHD is needed.
Diverse strengths, diverse struggles
Did you recognize yourself or your loved ones in some of the descriptions above? Or did you find my portrayals annoying or unfair? Do you feel understood or misunderstood?
I am very aware that ADHD has many faces and that each individual is unique, with or without ADHD. I also don't want to pigeonhole anyone - that happens too often and causes harm.
But I hope that this list of common ADHD behavior patterns helps better understand people with ADHD, making relationships easier. That we recognize our strengths and find a good way to deal with our challenges, impairments, or weaknesses.
Self-acceptance is important, as is empathy for others (with or without ADHD).
When ADHDers run on Linux, so to speak, and neurotypicals run on Windows or macOS, there are always interface problems. The better we recognize and actively address them, the smoother the interaction will run.
What peculiarities have you recognized - in yourself or in the people with ADHD in your life and how do you want to deal with them in the future? What are you taking away from this post?
Ready for more info?
Take a look at this post with tips for emotional regulation and handling complex feelings when you have ADHD. This post can help you better deal with the inner critic and our shame in ADHD, here there's more about self-acceptance and here you'll learn how to stop your toxic self-talk and deal with yourself more lovingly. Shame often keeps you from getting the support you need, and your ADHD meltdowns may strain your relationships - check out the post for practical tips.
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