ADHD. The first time a diagnostician utters those words, it can elicit a range of emotions, but one of the more common ones I hear is relief. Relief that it’s just not me; there is a name for why my kid struggles to brush their teeth, and every morning, we live on the edge of disaster. That label of ADHD can frequently be a tremendous help to us. Unfortunately, many of the tags we use after diagnosis are counterproductive.
I’m a perfectionist. As a coach, this is one I encounter almost daily. The paper is late because the client is a perfectionist. When I point out that the document being late inherently means it is imperfect, a quizzical look begins to spread across their face. You can almost see the gears churning, their brain trying to wrestle with these two competing bits of information. In my years of coaching, I have never met an ADHD client who was a perfectionist. They’d labeled themselves that and then stopped considering what it meant to be perfect. What is the value of perfection? Is it perfection they are chasing, or is it perhaps something else? Something more deeply rooted in their personality. Oftentimes this something else is simply approval.
I once had a college student who told me he was sleeping “better” but waking up exhausted every morning no matter how many hours he slept. As a coach, this begged the question, what does it mean to sleep “better.” This student, who we will call Peter, suggested that he was falling asleep faster and therefore sleeping more hours. His definition of better, though, did not include improved sleep quality. After some discussion, we came to find out that he was not sleeping better. He was sleeping worse, sharing his twin-size bed with his partner. He had conflated falling asleep easier with getting better sleep. However, because he had labeled his sleep as ‘better,’ he was not curious about why he was so tired in the morning. It couldn’t be his sleep quality; he was sleeping “better.”
I had another college student, who we will call Oscar, who insisted he was “lazy.” He had math homework, which was due imminently, and he was not doing it because he was “lazy.” Again, like Peter before him, this label begs the question of what it means for Oscar to be “lazy.” At this point, he informed me he was playing video games and hanging out with friends rather than doing the math homework. As a coach, I know a handful of things. I know this student strives for academic success, so getting his math homework done is crucial. I also know he is avoiding homework, and this avoidance is the accurate label. Now I’m curious, what’s so hard about the math homework? Oscar immediately and without hesitation informed me that he did not know how to do it. That doesn’t sound like a case of laziness; it sounds like he is struggling to ask for help (asking for help is a multi-step process with numerous fail points for ADHD brains). Oscar agreed help was needed and identified a classmate he could ask. About 2 hours later I received a text. Oscar had done the math homework, and it wasn’t even that hard with the proper support.
With ADHD, we often label ourselves and the world around us to create the clarity we are desperately seeking. Clarity comforts our brains, giving us a sense of direction and certainty that we crave. Perhaps most importantly, it allows us to escape the task of thinking. It allows us to escape holding the mirror up to ourselves and being curious. Am I a perfectionist or just seeking certainty that this assignment is quality? Am I lazy, or do I simply need clarity on completing this task? What does it mean to sleep “better” or to study “harder”? The more a person with ADHD or the parent of an ADHD child can get curious about the labels we casually prescribe to ourselves, our process, or our experience, the more likely you are to find the root cause of the problem rather than a symptom of the underlying condition.
Andrea Yellinek, ACC, CACP
ADHD & Executive Functions Coach