It’s OK to Cry — and Other Lessons from a Sensitive Mom with ADHD
The diagnostic criteria for ADHD includes nothing whatsoever about the crushing rejection we feel from a single comment or missed invitation, the overwhelming emotions that send our hearts racing and then sinking, or the shame all of this causes. Here is how I experience these little-known ADHD symptoms, and how I manage it all.
I'm a mom. I have ADHD. And I’ve got the two symptoms everyone’s just starting to talk about and understand: emotional hyperarousal and rejection sensitivity. While it’s great for us to know why we feel the way we do, it doesn’t help us to, well, stop feeling it.
I can be a tornado of emotions, and I often feel rejected at the slightest word or hint of criticism. This is hard for me, hard for my spouse, hard for my kids, hard for my friends, hard on the Target cashier when I’m weeping in self-checkout. But it’s okay to feel the way we do. What’s not okay: suppressing our emotions and trying to soldier through life with a brave smile. Sometimes, you just have to cry.
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One: Spousal Rejection
Living with us can be difficult. Being married to us can be even harder. Being married takes hard work, and that hard work includes accepting criticism — and requests — with an open mind once in a while. Like, “I need you to listen more,” or “Please take the garbage out tomorrow.”
These seemingly innocuous statements can send us into spirals of rejection sensitivity. We feel not that we need to listen more, but that our spouse is saying we’re terrible for not listening enough. The garbage? An accusation of not taking it out last week, or shirking our responsibilities in general. We feel rejected and horrible. Our spouses feel baffled.
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Two: Emotional Hyperarousal — When You’re Married
Feelings of real or imagined rejection bring out sometimes paralyzing emotional hyperarousal. We’re dumb, we’re stupid, we’re lazy, we should fall off a cliff and — you get the idea.
We want to curl up in a ball and cry because someone asked us to take out the trash. Or we get really, really, really excited about something that might happen, when we probably ought to be a little more cautious. Our spouses get understandably annoyed as the cycle repeats. The anticipated thing doesn’t happen. We look and feel stupid. We hide from the world... until the next big, shiny promise. No wonder we get misdiagnosed so often.
Kids say whatever the heck pops in their heads. That might mean your four year old gazes up at you and says, “Mama, I wish you were Daddy.” Or your kids ask too many times when Daddy is coming home (Not that you counted. Okay, you did). Or they want your spouse to put them to bed instead of you, or they just sit next to your spouse instead of you. All of these small transgressions can make you feel massively rejected. Which makes you feel not only like your kids don’t love you, but that you must also be a terrible parent. It’s a lose-lose.
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Four: You Can’t Pretend Everything Is Fine When It’s Not
And clearly you are a terrible parent, because you’re not supposed to show excessive emotion in front of your kids, right? But you cry running errands when you realize you messed up the application to your kid’s summer camp and now he can’t go. You yell cuss words at the driver who nearly sideswiped you — on the side with the car seat. You seethe loudly at your mother-in-law. You burst into tears at the sight of a destroyed playroom, or scream when you see a spider. Emotional hyperarousal can make it hard to be the stereotypical “good” parent. But remember: it’s healthy for kids to see you deal with your emotions. The trick is learning to do so in a healthy way.
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Step One: Recognize Your Emotions
First, acknowledge that you’re going over the top. That doesn’t mean you have to stop — you can’t make yourself miraculously turn off your feelings — but rather verbalize it. Say out loud, “I feel upset because that driver almost sideswiped us. I feel scared and afraid and that makes me angry, and so does the idea that someone would drive that way.” Or you could try, “I am crying because this playroom is so messy and I feel despair that it will never get cleaned unless I do it, and I do not want to do that.”
At least then your kids will know what’s going on, and won’t be scared or confused by your emotions.
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Step Two: Talk About Your Feelings
Dealing with rejection can be harder, because it always involves two people: the person feeling rejected and the person supposedly doing the rejecting (often, unintentionally). The first step, again, is to recognize that feeling of rejection. Sit with it a second. Then try something like, “Mama is so silly! When you did/said that (sat with Daddy, asked for Daddy, etc.), it made me feel so sad. It would help me a lot if you said you love me!” (with the last part delivered in a giggly voice or a monster voice). That way, you get the assurances you need but without being a scary, manipulative meanie.
Use the same tactics on your spouse — but be a lot more frank and honest. First, you need to make sure they understand about emotional hyperarousal and rejection sensitivity. It can be a lot to take in, so give them some good articles to read, and make sure you arm yourself with specific examples from your life. “Remember the time I...” is a good way to start a conversation. That way they can see real-life instances wherein your ADHD has caused you to do, say, think, and act certain ways.
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Step Four: Consider Therapy
To move forward, you have to learn to see when you’re in the midst of rejection sensitivity. And that can be really, really, really hard. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help a lot. So can other types of therapy, including the dialectical behavioral type. Basically, any time you feel that someone has criticized or rejected you, you need to learn to stop. Feel your emotion. Then think, “If I said that to someone, would I mean for them to feel what I’m feeling?” The answer is almost always no, because you’re basically good — and you have to assume that of others. Then, the hardest part: learn some effective ways to let go of that feeling.
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Step Five: Expose Your Feelings to the Light of Day
In the beginning, especially with your spouse, but even with other adults in your life, it helps to say something like, “My ADHD gives me rejection sensitivity. Right now, what you said (repeat it) is making me feel (vocalize the feeling). I don’t think you mean for me to feel that way, and it would help if you reassured me.”
Yes, you might feel like you’re talking out of a self-help book. But when another person verbally assures you that they didn’t mean to make you feel like a horrible person, you’ll feel a lot better. Much better than if you miserably clam up (my defense) or lash out.
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Step Six: Stop Shaming Yourself!
Emotional hyperarousal? That’s a roller coaster we can’t get off. Psychologically and neurologically, we are just not fully in charge. But we can learn to recognize when our emotions are running haywire (“Do other people react this way?”).
You can learn to accept that your emotions are running wild, that the running wild is valid and okay and acceptable — not somehow wrong or bad. And that you are not wrong or bad for feeling them. Only then can you try to control how you react to those emotions. You might not be able to stop crying in the Target checkout line. But you might be able to see more clearly that the problem is temporary, and assure your kids that everything will be okay.
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Step Seven: Forgive. And Move On.
Emotional hyperarousal and rejection sensitivity are two of the trickiest ADHD symptoms for many of us. We can manage the spaciness and lateness and messiness and executive functioning issues, but when it comes to the emotional side — well, most people just don’t know about or understand it. Your psychiatrist might not even understand the link between ADHD and emotions, which makes this side of our brain difference even more difficult to manage. Many of us are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders when we’re really suffering with our ADHD. It can be hard. But knowing that others struggle too can be liberating. And so can having some tools in your toolbox for when those heady emotions strike.