5 Perfectly Awful Ways to Motivate an ADHD Brain
Many adults with ADHD have to hijack the emotional part of the brain to get started, especially on a task they find tedious, uninteresting, or routine.
Many of us with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) have less reliable access to our prefrontal cortex (PFC) than do neurotypical people. Life’s details are managed in the PFC. It is a calm, rational butler, directing behavior in a Siri-toned voice: “Sir, your keys are on the table.” Or, “Madam, you must leave now if you want to arrive on time.”
Those of us with ADHD can’t rely on our PFC butler for planning, short-term memory, working memory, decision-making, and impulse management. So we go to our emotional centers, in the limbic system, to remember things, make decisions, and to motivate ourselves. We use our emotions to help us to think, remember, plan, and act.
Anxiety: “I Need to Stay on High Alert”
We use anxiety to increase performance. It produces the impetus to make us move, to take action. When we forget things that aren’t in our focus, anxious thoughts hold them in our memory. The anxiety-alerting system works something like this: Someone gets out of her car and says to herself, “I need to remember to lock my car.” Her thoughts race on: “I need to listen for the beep. What if I double-clicked my key fob, and it actually unlocked the car? Someone could steal my stuff. What is in my car? Oh, my son’s iPad. I don’t want that stolen. He would be furious — and I can’t buy a new one right now. Lock car.” Anxiety makes her lock her car.
Individuals with ADHD compensate for lack of focus with racing thoughts, nervousness, and worry. This is especially true for those with undiagnosed/untreated ADHD. If our logical motivation is a faint flame reminding us that we “should” get to a task, we pour gasoline — anxiety — on that flame and we are motivated. The drawback, as it is with each of our emotional tricks, is that motivating ourselves with anxiety is exhausting.
Avoidance: “I’ll Do a Different Task, Not the One I Should Be Doing”
When our anxiety gets too high, a circuit breaker trips because too much power is being drawn from the emotional part of the brain. Then we turn to another tool, avoidance. Avoidance directs us to do a different task, usually one that is less important. This misdirection soothes our twitchy limbic system, calming our anxiety. We don’t want to think about the task that is making us anxious, so we temporarily forget what we don’t want to do.
“I used avoidance like it’s my job this week,” a client told me. Although she had work projects that were due, she decided to repaint her bathroom instead, and also dived into redecorating websites at her office. Avoidance lets us feel productive by accomplishing a different task. “At least my bathroom will look nice. I have been wanting to do that for a while.”
Procrastination: “It’s Like I’m Dodging a Bullet. It’s a High”
Procrastination is a similar way of diverting interest, with anxiety added, to initiate a task. Here is how it works: I need to do a particular task, but there is no reason to it immediately, so I wait. And wait. And wait — until it becomes impossible to accomplish on time. And then, like a superhero, KaPOW!, anxiety rushes in and the task finally gets done.
Procrastination as a motivator doesn’t produce our best work. But it does increase the pressure to do something. My college-aged clients often brag, “This 25-page paper was assigned at the beginning of the semester. I did it in 10 hours! I barely ate or used the bathroom, and I pulled an all-nighter!” Some celebrate their heroic feat, others feel ashamed, but they all had motivated themselves by procrastination. The feeling is like dodging a bullet—and it is a high.
Anger: “When I Get Mad, I Am Moved to Act”
Anger can help us do that stupid little task that has been haunting us for days or months. The flare of anger makes us feel strong, and pushes us to do what we want to get done.
“Stupid winter, stupid weather, stupid Michigan,” a client muttered as he prepared his garage for the winter. The weather had already turned cold, and snow was on its way. He needed an hour to put away warm-weather things, like garden hoses and deck furniture, and prepare his snowblower. “I didn’t consider my flare-up of anger as trying to motivate myself,” he said later, “but I had to get mad to clean the garage.”
Shame and Self-Loathing: “I Focus on My Flaws to Keep the Momentum”
We turn to shame and self-loathing to motivate ourselves when all else fails. These aren’t quick fixes, like anxiety, avoidance, procrastination, and anger. Instead, these dirty tricks are a slow-burning irritant to our emotional well-being.
People use shame to motivate themselves to accomplish their daily tasks. One client of mine talks about using shame to get things done at work and at home. She says, “To finally start a project I’ve been putting off, I imagine how disappointed my supervisor will be if I don’t finish it in time. And at home, I remember that I only have one chance to give my kids a good childhood. I have to get it right, or I’ll screw them up.”
Shame can lead to self-loathing, a strong dislike of yourself, your actions, or your ADHD. Self-loathing creates false beliefs about ourselves. Disguised as discipline, self-loathing makes us miserable to motivate ourselves. A middle-aged male client explained how he used self-loathing to improve his financial situation: “I hated the fact that I didn’t have more money. I hated feeling like a loser. It drove me each day.”
I often see self-loathing in my practice. With coaching, clients learn to see it in themselves. A mother of two children with ADHD noticed her children’s use of self-loathing. One day she heard her youngest express disgust with himself after failing to complete a task. She knelt and looked at him, saying, “We don’t do that in this house.” Her son replied, “OK, then, I’ll go outside.” His response shows that motivating ourselves with self-loathing can become a habit.
Develop zero-tolerance for shame and self-loathing because these dirty tricks will only harm you. Listen for those deeply negative thoughts. When you pay attention to the worst voices in your head, you’ll be fascinated—and disheartened—by what you hear. Acknowledge them, and then be kind to yourself. When one of my clients hears them, she says, “Oh, it’s you again. Why are you here?” Everyone has doubts and ugly thoughts—it’s how you handle them that matters.
Catch Yourself Using Dirty Emotional Tricks
Doing daily tasks, time management, and looking like a grown-up is hard for people with ADHD. A lawyer client of mine explained, “I love the complicated parts of my job, and I do them well. The partners at the firm love me for that. It’s the little, boring things that exhaust me.” She uses emotional tricks to help her do those tasks.
As you wake up, imagine that your battery is fully charged. As the day goes by, your charge will slowly decline, opening the door to using emotional tricks. They drain your battery rapidly, and leave you feeling physically and emotionally exhausted.
Retrain your thinking to become aware of these tricks. Try these techniques:
- Set an alarm each hour. When the alarm goes off, write down an emotional trick you have used, or were tempted to use, at work or at home. Look for patterns.
- Reframe and challenge your negative thoughts. An ADHD coach can help you.
- Ask your spouse, significant other, or close friend to tell you when he or she sees you using these tricks.
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