By Leslie Rouder, LCSW,CHt
It has long been known that circus elephants have historically been trained to stay tethered to a post by attaching heavy chains to their legs when they are very young so that when they yank or pull at these chains, they are unable to break free. Within a short amount of time, they give up trying, having learned that it is useless. From that moment on, they no longer need a heavy chain to hold them because anytime they feel any resistance, no matter how heavy or light the chain, they give up trying, having incorporated the belief that they cannot succeed in breaking free. This is regardless of the fact that, as they grow into adulthood, they have more than enough strength to pull out any restraint, break any chain and tear up the entire circus tent. Elephants are pretty smart animals, but learned helplessness and a self limiting belief system creates the exact outcome the trainers want. The elephants give up trying. Although individuals with ADHD are not elephants, we can easily draw the comparison and easily understand that the biggest obstacle to achieving success is our own self limiting beliefs. For anyone, especially those with ADHD, whose early life experiences were most likely fraught with frustration, disappointment, and perhaps failure, one can see how easy it would be to create multitudes of distortions around what is true and possible, while creating many self limiting beliefs. Therefore, breaking free from these negative beliefs, is probably the single most important step in reaching one's goals and achieving success in life. This article explores these self defeating thought patterns and provides insight into ways to change them.
The four most common self defeating thoughts that I notice when working with clients are;
Overgeneralizing and exaggerating. One of the ways that people with ADHD will distort reality is by over exaggerating, and then making sweeping statements which lead to negative conclusions. For example, someone makes a silly mistake while taking an exam, which causes them to either fail or do poorly enough not to proceed forward in their education or certification. Instead of the individual feeling disappointed and recognizing that they needed to slow down, take time to proofread their test questions more thoroughly before answering, and perhaps even study a bit harder or differently next time, they might make an internal decision that they are "stupid" and that they just can't handle taking tests. In addition, they may become so filled with frustration at "having messed up again", that they just give up altogether, never completing their education or certification. The tendency to over exaggerate the significance of any simple mistake and blow it way out of proportion becomes a negative self fulfilling prophecy. "I never get anything right, so why even try".
Magnifying and Horriblizing. This distortion is typical when someone with ADHD has a project or task that is looming over them. The most common thoughts that come up around these circumstances is that the task will be boring, tedious, and/or difficult. It will go on and on and will never end. So in looking at those thought patterns, one would immediately sense that they are creating a negative state of mind that is in direct opposition to where they ultimately would want to be.
Minimizing and mood domination. The other part of this negative mind set is that it creates a pattern of waiting till the last minute to do the task, thereby rationalizing and avoiding doing what ultimately must be done. The response associated with this kind of distorted thinking is that " there is plenty of time to do it later", or that "I can only work on it when I am in the right mood, so I will do it later, when the right mood hits." Both of those thoughts lead to working on tasks the last minute, while under pressure and/ or putting it off for so long, that it never gets done. Furthermore, mood domination is a disastrous way to operate, especially since we create most of our mood states through our thought process.
Comparing oneself to others. Individuals with ADHD often need to develop coping skills to compensate for their lack of executive functioning. Therefore, they may need to use planners or set alarms to remind them to stay on task or keep them informed of where they need to be at any given moment. I will often hear a client say that their peers at school or work don't need these extra tools to function, so why should they? Or they refuse to ask for academic accommodations while at school because they do not want to appear flawed or less efficient than others. My guess is that if we really looked at very successful students and co-workers, we would find that they often have systems set up to help them stay organized and on task. At any rate, if using certain tools or accommodations helps to level the playing field, it would seem foolish not to use them.
So having identified the four most common negative thought patterns that create obstacles to achieving our goals, how do we go about changing them?
Negative thoughts are the most common and influential barrier for individuals with ADHD in achieving their goals mostly because these thought patterns create a feeling state that was probably set up many years ago as young children and are seated in the unconscious mind, controlling the individuals actions (or lack of them). Bringing these thought patterns into consciousness is vital to being able to recognize and challenge their validity, while making decisions regarding alternative self talk that will ultimately serve in bringing about a sense of competence and control over ones life.
Since so much of they way we cope is not made conscious to us, asking the right questions can lead to insight that can help in making positive changes. This is the basis for most Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Notice what thoughts come up for you when you have a task or project that you feel like putting off? What are the associations that you make in your mind? What's the self talk sound like? Do you tell yourself that you aren't any good at something? Do you make sweeping generalization that may not apply? Do you predict that it will be boring and difficult? Do you really know for sure that any of your negative thoughts about the work are actually true? Do you do what you like, rather than what you should because its just more fun and it feels difficult to delay gratification?
If you ask yourself these kinds of questions, you may begin to recognize those negative thought patterns that interfere with one's ability to initiate and follow through on what needs to be accomplished. But that's only half of it. Notice the feeling state that you create for yourself when you begin taking on these negative thoughts. Do you notice a lack of energy? Is there any anxiety, depression, frustration, sadness? Now remember a moment in time when you were successful and handled something just the way you would have wanted to. What was the feeling state that was created around that? Were you energized? Did you feel motivated, happy, peaceful, competent and in control? Can you see where I am going with this? Thoughts are energy. They can actually change our physical state. So, how we feel, is directly associated with our thoughts. (and vice versa)
Creating objective balanced thinking not only helps one develop consistency in being productive, but creates resourceful mood states that support one's ability to be successful. Making behavioral changes and being successful at them consistently may ultimately provide us with the ability to experience those feelings associated with high achievement and its those feeling states that also sustain us in making permanent changes. So success, leads to more success. If you are feeling stuck, reflect back to a moment in time when you were very successful, remember the feeling state associated with that achievement and model that exact physiology. Model excellence enough times and watch what happens to your feeling state. In conclusion, if we really want to break free of our self imposed chains, we must become aware of those negative thought patterns and beliefs that are holding us back, and what's even more important, ACT. After all, we must remember that the elephant has the strength all along to break free and, if not for giving up, there would be no holding him back.
You can find out what I learned about procrastination by viewing my article called What I Learned About Procrastination. I hope it’s helpful to you!
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