ADHD makes 2020’s holiday expectations and boundaries even harder

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Selfish.

ADHDers get called selfish a lot. It often starts in childhood, with our parents, and goes on from there.

I’m interrupting my post schedule to talk about this because Christmas is in a few days and friends, many of us have had a rough go.

Nearly every adult I’ve spoken to lately has told me a story about discussing holiday plans and expectations with their parents. These stories aren’t good.

Family makes an easy target for our feelings about the pandemic and its attendant loneliness, confusion, and disappointment. Not coming to Christmas this year? You’re being selfish. Insisting on traveling despite the pandemic? That’s selfish too.

This is especially hard for neurodivergent folks because we’re more vulnerable to guilt trips, manipulation, and family conflict.

If you got sucked into something you regretted this month, or if you feel like the newly-appointed black sheep of the family for staying home this Christmas, take it easy on yourself. Turn off your phone, curl up on the couch, and do what you need to do to recharge your energy.

Yes, ADHDers are more vulnerable to these crappy holiday conversations

Difficult conversations in general are more challenging for ADHDers. Our weak working memory, time blindness, and emotional hyperfocus make it easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Plus, the stronger our feelings get, the less access we have to the rational parts of our brains. You can rehearse a difficult conversation all you want, but if you get too far into fight-or-flight mode, all bets are off.

Our neurochemistry predisposes us to live in the moment. I always say this is a double-edged sword. We can seem charming and carefree living in a good moment. A bad one, not so much.

Holidays are tricky — this year is trickier

For many families, the winter holidays bring up ingrained behavior patterns, old wounds, and conflicting expectations. Everyone comes together — or expects folks to come together — and they bring a lot of baggage.

2020 added a new layer. Extended families span the whole spectrum of ideas about mask-wearing, in-person gatherings, and what the words “quarantine” and “pod” actually mean. Many of us will miss going “home” to our parents for the first time this year. Some of our parents understand and even expect this. Others do not.

And that’s really tricky, especially when blame and labels start flying.

I talked to one person lately who got called selfish for not hosting in-person Thanksgiving, and another for not joining a Zoom call during Thanksgiving dinner. Others didn’t hear the word “selfish” explicitly, but it still rang clear in the subtext. Traditional holiday hosts “didn’t want to feed” relatives this year. Travelers “disappointed” parents with plans to stay put for Christmas.

An objective third party might say these are not selfish acts. Following public health guidelines during a pandemic is not selfish. If you are able to have in-person Thanksgiving dinner, being fully present rather than skipping out to sit on yet another Zoom call is not selfish.

And yet, we ADHDers have spent our lives being called selfish whether we feel that way or not.

A lifetime of others’ labels can hide our true selves

As a kid with undiagnosed ADHD, I messed up a lot. As an adult with ADHD, I still mess up and commit my share of selfish acts. That doesn’t mean I’m selfish. It means I occasionally do something hurtful and inconsiderate and can’t explain what was even going through my head at the time.

I don’t blame my parents for occasionally calling me selfish. As an adult with a child of my own, I can imagine how they felt when I lost track of time and came home after curfew, or when I disappeared for almost 24 hours to clear my head but didn’t give them any way to know I was safe. They worried about me, both in the moment and long-term. They wanted to teach me to be a considerate person.

On a recent episode of the Well Well Well podcast, Brooke White talked about the selfish label in adulthood. She used the example of attending a friend’s birthday party: the day of the party, she’d realize she forgot to get a gift (because ADHD). No problem though, she’d pick one up on the way to the party. Except leaving early to stop for a gift turns into leaving barely-on-time (thanks time blindness). Still, she wants to get the perfect gift — especially since she’s already late to the party! Eventually she has to give up or she’ll miss the party completely.

But now she’s arriving late to her friend’s party, without a gift.

Seems pretty self-absorbed, right? Like we don’t care.

Intentions and actions have misaligned before…

The disconnect between actions and intentions for neurodivergent folks can be enormous. No matter how much we care, our outward presentation might tell you the opposite.

Because we often can’t explain our behavior adequately, many ADHDers turn to people-pleasing. We do whatever we need to do for others to accept us.

As Sandra Coral of The ADHD Good Life writes so articulately, many of us learn we not only can’t trust ourselves, but we can’t trust others. We feel unsafe expressing our feelings and needs, let alone enforcing boundaries, lest they trigger more rejection.

Plus, who are we to ask anything of others? We’ve caused so much chaos and harm. 

…but are they now?

The problem is, sometimes we really do need to enforce a healthy boundary. The best interests of our mental health, our physical health, and our family depend on it.

For someone who’s used to hearing how selfish and inconsiderate we are, it can be tough to trust our instincts. If we or others still hold onto guilt from past mistakes, if we don’t feel like we deserve to ask for anything, if we fear standing up for ourselves will lead to rejection, boundaries can be tough to hold. 

We’re all going to disappoint someone this year.

If this sounds like you right now, you’re not alone. If you see your neurotypical friends nodding and saying, me too, but you don’t think they truly understand, you’re probably right.

Many of us experience emotions more deeply to begin with. We also have a long history of disappointing the people closest to us. We’ve struggled to explain behavior that runs counter to who we are and what we feel before.

Now we have to do it again. We have to justify choices that don’t feel warm and fuzzy and aren’t necessarily what we want. People will be disappointed, and some might try to convince us we’re wrong. And selfish.

But taking care of ourselves and each other is the least selfish thing we can do this year. No matter what anyone says. Even if we’ve messed up before, even if from the outside this looks like yet another disappointment, we have to trust our own wisdom.

Holding boundaries and navigating emotionally charged conversations can be really tough — even more so for us ADHD kin-keepers. This sounds like bad news, but like so many aspects of life with ADHD, it can be such a comfort to learn yes, this is a thing, and here’s why. Knowing we’re more vulnerable and our hearts perhaps a little more raw, we can also take steps to protect our boundaries extra carefully.

We owe it to ourselves and to the people we love — whether they agree with us or not.

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