Our feelings can be big, scary monsters. We often feel things very intensely, and our ability to inhibit ourselves is erratic. In his book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman coined the phrase “amygdala hijacking,” referring to the ability of primitive parts of the brain to preempt the cortex, or thinking brain. When powerful emotions take over, there is no thinking going on. Trying to hold it all in or stuffing the feelings back down does not work.
Letting It Out in Real Time
We learned a powerful life lesson from an ADHDer named Ursula, who was off the charts when it came to disinhibition. When Ursula’s self-esteem is low, which happens often because she is so sensitive, she blasts her feelings out in a temper tantrum. However, she has the capacity to observe herself in the moment. In the middle of cussing up a blue streak, Ursula will make a side comment, like, “This isn’t personal — it has nothing to do with you. It’s just my lower selves speaking. I can’t work up to my higher selves unless I deal with the lower ones.”
Most adults with ADHD have difficulty expressing their emotions. Some of us have learned to sublimate our feelings, because we think we are unacceptable, but unexpressed emotion finds a way to let us know it is there. Sometimes it presents as physical symptoms, like a headache or an upset stomach. In other cases, it manifests as a mental health problem, such as depression.
Some people with ADHD, like Ursula, don’t have a problem with emotional expression. They can’t inhibit themselves, so their anger blasts out or they are reduced to tears without regard for the situation. They can’t manage their feelings in a way that doesn’t create more problems than it solves. It is not a good idea, for example, to routinely blast your boss.
Emotional Release: Step by Step
The remedy for stuffers and blasters is to set aside time to express emotions regularly. We do not recommend a do-it-yourself approach to managing powerful feelings. Find a therapist or counselor to help you. Your therapist, however, will not be with you all the time, coaching you through the life situations you will inevitably encounter. Here are some practical solutions to help you deal with troublesome thoughts and feelings in everyday life.
> FIND A WAY TO BE ALONE. If you are at work, take a break and sit in your car. If that is not possible, find a private place nearby — even a broom closet.
> ALLOW YOURSELF to cry, rant, rave, or curse people out.
> DO NOT MAKE YOURSELF THE TARGET OF YOUR RANT — find someone else to blame, whether or not this other person is really the villain. The purpose here is to vent your emotions.
> GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO EXPRESS YOUR FEELINGS. Remind yourself that it’s OK to be angry, it’s OK to be afraid.
> DO NOT CENSOR YOURSELF. We all have an inner judge who delights in criticizing. Talk back to the judge, or make it a target of your rant.
> YOU MAY SUDDENLY REALIZE THAT WHAT YOU ARE FEELING OR RANTING ABOUT IS RIDICULOUS, but your job right now is not to be mature. It is to allow the unhealed part of yourself to have its say.
> BE AS MEAN, NASTY, OR UNFAIR AS YOU WANT. Nobody is listening except the judge, the part of you that is self-critical.
> IF YOU HAVE A TANTRUM, you will wind down soon. If you are afraid that it will go on and on, set a timer.
> AFTERWARD, MEDITATE briefly before you return to your job or to your family.
> TRY THIS AT HOME FIRST. You will feel more secure after you have gone through this process several times, and have found that it works.
From You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?!, by KATE KELLY and PEGGY RAMUNDO. Copyright 1993, 2006. Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.