Stop Beating Yourself Up Already
“Incompetent.” “Stupid.” “A loser.” You wouldn’t tolerate these insults from a friend or loved one, so stop saying them to yourself. Learn how to reverse the negative thinking that leaves you feeling depleted and defeated with this approach from Dr. Ned Hallowell.
If you have ADHD, you can chart a fabulous course and have the ability to reach your goal, but still trip over one obstacle after another as you try to get there. Life with ADHD is arduous, even with the best treatment and under ideal conditions.
For the first six months or year of treatment, you will see the most dramatic improvements in symptoms, especially if medication works. But, as the months go on, most people encounter periods of difficulty. They don’t make as much progress as they did in the beginning. That’s when you are subject to “the slide.”
Let’s say something bad happens. A proposal you make gets turned down, or someone you hoped to hear from doesn’t call. What happens may be trivial, like your hair not falling into place when you brush it. But you feel disappointed and frustrated.
Instead of taking the event in stride, you go nuts. You attack yourself and call yourself bad names, like “incompetent,” “stupid,” “ugly,” or even “a loser.” This is self attack, and it makes a hissing sound in your soul.
This is the first step in a process I call SLIDE-ing. It stands for Self attack, Life attack, Imagining the worst, Dread, and Escape. People with ADHD “slide” a lot.
As you attack yourself, you seek relief by turning your rage outward to life. This is life attack. You take refuge in a gloomy place, where you condemn life as rotten.
Collecting evidence to condemn life, you think about everything bad that has happened to you. You imagine the worst.
This leads to dread. You feel depleted, dejected, and defeated. Your usual spunky self has met its anti-self and dissolved.
Now you yearn to escape. Your search for escape leads to bad decisions. You get drunk, you take drugs, you go to bed with someone you shouldn’t, you make foolish business decisions, you say things you regret. All you want to do is escape, but all you achieve is further SLIDE-ing.
Stop the Slide
The trick to stopping the SLIDE is to intercept it at step 1 or step 2. You should try to stop the process before you hit step 3, imagining the worst, because people with ADHD have powerful imaginations. This is one of our assets, except when we turn our imaginations against ourselves.
Train yourself to recognize the trigger points in steps 1 and 2, the point when some negative stimulus leads you to react by attacking yourself or attacking life. It usually happens in a blur. To slow it down, you have to practice in advance. You have to identify your triggers — standing on the scale, reading the newspaper, having a conversation with a certain pessimistic person — and rehearse how you will counteract them.
Let me take you through a possible scenario to show you how you might do it. Let’s say a trigger is stepping on your bathroom scale. One day you get on the scale and the number you see glaring up at you is higher than ever. You have about five seconds to take action before you hit step 3 and start to imagine the worst.
Your mind recoils, you look down at your naked body and fixate on an area you consider fat. You hate that — your thighs? your stomach? — and you hate yourself for allowing it to have grown. Have a phrase, an image, or an action on ready alert to deal with this crisis.
Standing on the scale is, in fact, one of my triggers. I resort to a physical activity if I see a number I don’t like. I furiously brush my teeth right away. Sounds ineffective and innocuous, I know, but this buys me a few seconds, as it focuses my mind, at least for an instant, on the toothbrush and the feeling of the vibrating bristles on my teeth and gums. Then I deliberately put the image of my kids into my mind, or some activity I am looking forward to, or something I have done well at lately. These images are like a superpower, repelling my imagination from the bad place.
I’ll have some more painful pangs, and I’ll resolve to eat less that day, and I will entertain some lingering negative thoughts about my body, but the crisis of SLIDE will have been averted.
Find Your Superpower
Create your own superpower — try this, try that. From my experience, it is best to be active, not passive, in these precarious moments. Sometimes the SLIDE lasts for days, even weeks or months. If this happens, consult a specialist. Don’t wait until you lose your job, your marriage, or a friend. Don’t fall into one of the greatest traps by saying, “Well, I’m right. Life is awful.”
Keep your superpower handy. Maybe it is a religious belief. Maybe it is the image of someone you love or someone who loves you. Maybe it is the memory of the day your team won the championship, or maybe it is the hole-in-one you shot. Maybe it is a piece of music you can turn on, even in your mind. Maybe it is a piece of literature, part of a poem you can recite to yourself. Maybe it is a favorite friend you can call up.
Create your superpower in advance. Do it when you are feeling good. Then keep it available in your mind, so when you do start to SLIDE, you can stop.
If you SLIDE back, don’t despair. It does not mean that you’re one of the unlucky ones or that there is no hope. All it means is that you are going through a normal and predictable period of difficulty.
Excerpted from Delivered from Distraction, by EDWARD M. HALLOWELL, M.D., and JOHN J. RATEY, M.D. Copyright 2005 by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., and John J. Ratey, M.D. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House. All rights reserved.