Therapies

Live Your Best ADHD Life

Ready to transform your life as an adult with ADHD? Here’s everything to know about hiring and working with a coach.

Complete Guide to ADHD Coaching
Complete Guide to ADHD Coaching

When I was 13, I lived in Uganda, East Africa, where most of the learning in the school I attended was hands-on. When our class hiked up Mount Elgon on a field trip, each student was assigned a guide.

The guides didn’t say much, but they helped us carry our packs if we needed assistance, or provided direction and protection by pointing out slippery spots, narrow ledges, or weak places in the bridges we had to cross.

Our guides never carried us on their backs or hiked for us, but they stayed close by. As we learned more about what to watch out for, they would fall a bit behind, letting us revel in our newfound confidence and explore the paths by ourselves.

Essentially, the guides did what an ADHD coach does: help you recognize and maneuver around obstacles in your way, while you develop your own skills and strategies to reach your goals. A coach will stay with you, but a coach will not walk for you.

What I’ve learned as a coach is that most people never thought about the kind of life they want to live before they got caught up in living it. Somehow, they say, they landed in a career or a relationship or a situation without understanding how they got there. “I feel lost,” they tell me. “I don’t know what I’m doing. How could this have happened?”

I provide a supportive place from which my clients can examine their lives as I ask them to consider — perhaps for the first time — that intriguing question that can stun them into silence: Who are they? And I permit them to consider the possibilities inherent in the answer.

As someone with ADHD, you probably know the etiquette of putting yourself last, of feeling guilty about considering your own needs. An ADHD coach will ask you to look inward, not to foster selfish behavior, but to help you manage a life that too often feels out of control. Here are the principles of successful coaching.

1. Find Out What Works

An ADHD coach tries to create a climate of support and encouragement, so that you can discover for yourself how to replace negative, defeating behaviors with positive patterns of success.

My client, David, for example, had trouble paying bills on time — not because he didn’t have adequate funds in his checking account, but because he thought he could write the checks one Saturday a month rather than once a week. The problem was that he’d find himself facing an insurmountable pile of checks to write, so he’d go biking or take photographs, or do anything more pleasurable than paying bills. Not surprisingly, his bills incurred late charges.

My job was not to agree with David’s judgment that he was being irresponsible and throwing money away. It was to listen to what he thought was wrong, and remind him of the consequences of late bill payments. Through our work together, he laid out a plan to address his bills weekly, and let me know that he wanted me to hold him accountable.

When I talked with David about how I should respond when I saw that he wasn’t following through, he realized that what he had initially decided — that I should excuse him and ask him to try again next week — wasn’t working. After discussing various approaches, we settled on a different strategy. He paid his bills on time and, as a bonus, spent the money he saved on late charges however he wanted.

This is the power of ADHD coaching. First, it encourages you to assess your most pressing needs. Then, it requires you to develop strategies to address them, fine-tuning the game plan with the coach until you get results. When working with a coach, the plan often works because you came up with it.

2. Make Your Brain Work for You

Just as in any coaching partnership, you have to be willing and able to meet the challenges of creating a better life for yourself. ADHD coaching focuses on the unique biological differences in the ADHD brain that have caused you to lose control over your life.

An ADHD coach understands the neurobiological symptoms at the root of your negative behavior patterns, and, through this recognition, helps you learn to navigate the daily challenges caused by your symptoms.

The coaching experience is a journey of self-discovery in which you learn about your ADHD brain and become more effective at home, at work, and at play. You’ve probably struggled to develop new habits, and have given up after several failed attempts. My clients tell me how guilty and ashamed they feel, how incompetent and helpless they believe they are. “I’m sick and tired of always turning over a new leaf,” cried Sarah, a speech pathologist. “It’s like I’m stuck in the spin cycle and can’t get out. I feel stupid.”

Sarah’s feelings of inadequacy were understandable, but ADHD is not a character flaw. It is a neurobiological disorder. Ridding herself of those negative feelings was certainly possible, I assured her, but it was up to her to learn as much as she could about ADHD and take the responsibility to adjust her life accordingly.

Sarah learned, for example, that her ADHD brain sidetracked her. In time, she also learned that she didn’t deliberately forget the consequences of prior actions that caused her pain. The differences in her brain caused her to forget.

The same is true for you. ADHD won’t go away, so you must understand it and deal with the ways it affects you. Coaching helps bridge the gap between your desire to initiate an action and your actually performing it.

There’s no reason to let new commitments or challenges slip away with your resolve. You have to create new strategies to cope with the things that have overwhelmed you. You need new habits that use the strengths of your ADHD brain to succeed.

Fortunately, neuroscientists have found that the brain is flexible, that we can learn continually. Rehearsing actions forges new neural pathways in the brain, to develop competencies in areas that have been deficient. This flexibility of the brain, its ability to adapt, lets us learn new habits.

Understanding the adaptability of the brain can help you make positive, lasting changes, turning an “I can’t” into an “I can!” attitude. A coach serves as a cheerleader, helping you maintain hope as you do the difficult work of making changes in your life.

3. Become Responsible Without Guilt

A few years ago, my client, Connie, told me that our coaching relationship reminded her of what she’d been striving to create for her children. Whenever she thought about her childhood, she remembered her parents’ disappointment when she didn’t follow through on her tasks. She could still hear the sting of disapproval when they asked, “What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you finish your homework? How could you have lost your assignment pad?”

With her own children, Connie wanted to create an environment in which they wouldn’t feel judged or threatened, the way she had felt growing up. She wanted to address what they did wrong without judging them as people.

I try to create such an environment with my clients, and I offer nonjudgmental space for them to reflect on their behavior. Prodding gently, yet persistently, I help them discover strategies for coping with the demands of their lives. My urging has earned me a comparison to “Mother Teresa in army boots,” but it’s also led to successes that have changed my clients’ lives.

To succeed, you have to believe that you can succeed. Many people with ADHD have been labeled “stupid.” Refusing to accept this label can make all the difference in your life. By rejecting the negative scripts that hold you back, you can begin to see yourself more realistically.

4. Be Ready to Change

The question often arises about whether coaching can benefit anyone who is coping with ADHD. Experience has taught me that the answer lies in a client’s readiness to commit time and spirit to the endeavor.

“How will I know I’m ready?” you might ask. When you can admit that you have a problem, when you want to change, and when you agree to work hard at whatever is necessary. It’s also a leap of faith. You have to believe in the possibility of change and make a commitment to seeing it through.

I’ve worked with clients who seemed to have it all together at work, but fell apart doing ordinary tasks at home. I know a career woman who accomplishes great things at the office but can’t face the mountain of laundry at home. Coaching can provide a different way. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth the work. I know that my clients agree.

“Coaching offers something new to me, something I cannot describe,” one woman wrote about her experience. “I had no idea how painful the process was going to be, or how rewarding. One of the first things I discovered, that’s common among women with ADHD, is that I always had too much on my agenda for any given time period. I had no clue as to how to prioritize. Whatever was most pressing at the moment, or most interesting, might be next on my agenda. I spent a lot of time giving in to the overwhelmed feeling this method of getting through the day gave me.

“The coach’s questions are designed to get me moving. They’re not threatening, but they never feel like rewards. When she asks, ‘How are you going to get that done?’ or, ‘When are you going to have that completed?’ the pain gets worse. I sometimes ask myself, ‘Who would pay for this torture?’ My very next thought, though, is that I am grateful to have found someone to get me from point A to point B, without judgment and with much patience.”

That’s how ADHD coaching goes, really. It’s pain and it’s progress. It’s forward, it’s back, then forward again. It’s challenge and reward, at once.

You may be living in turmoil, but you don’t have to. By using strategies that you create, and learning to organize, plan, and prioritize, you’ll clear all the hurdles of daily living. My clients have done it. Now it’s your turn to say, “I can!”

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