Self-awareness and ADHD
Why does my mirror lie to me?
It showed me someone I thought I knew
And now I learn that none of it’s true
I’ve spent a lifetime navel-gazing. As an adoptee, I had more reasons than most to ask the age-old question, Who Am I? If I’d been more introspective as a child, I would have self-analyzed myself out of existence.
Turns out I should have spent all those hours on something more fruitful like, say, teaching my spider plant how to sing opera.
Here I was, thinking really deep thoughts – (heck, I have a degree in really deep thoughts, a B.A. in Philosophy, for Pete’s sake!) – all for naught. I believed I was one of the most self-aware people I knew. Turns out I was delusional, not deep.
I should have had an inkling about my absent ability to self-observe from the number of times I was told as a child, “I wish you could hear yourself!”
Me too. Maybe if I could have heard, I could have changed. What we didn’t know was that there was a reason I couldn’t hear myself (or see myself, for that matter): my faulty executive functioning. Executive functioning, very simply put, is that part of the brain that coordinates and organizes information. It’s often likened to the CEO in the boardroom.
One of the components of executive function is non-verbal working memory. That’s where we remember stuff through our senses, especially through vision and hearing. For an ADHDer, visual memory is like looking in a foggy mirror. Mine is perma-fogged (is that because I’m so full of hot air while I’m gazing at myself?)
Anyway, whenever I’d get into conflict (which was often), try as I might, I couldn’t see my part in it; I couldn’t see what others saw. See…saw… It WAS a see-saw: we never saw eye-to-eye.
In his book, Taking Charge of Adult ADHD, Dr. Russell Barkley says that without a good non-verbal working memory, we won’t be able to learn from our past mistakes. If we can’t visualize previous dorky behaviors (sounds masochistic to me, replaying my most embarrassing/dufus moments), we’re doomed to repeat them.
So if I can’t hear or see myself, it’s because self-awareness is one of the executives who didn’t quite make it to the boardroom of my executive functioning. Self-awareness didn’t even get the memo. Self-awareness was out fishing when my ADHD brain was created.
Learning that ADHDers are crummy at self-awareness was like being born with cataracts and suddenly having them surgically removed. I’d only ever seen the world through fogged-up lenses. Problem is, knowing you’re bad at self-awareness doesn’t give you self-awareness, if you catch my drift.
But I have to try. Blithely skipping through life with undeveloped self-awareness has led me to smash into trees. It hurts. It stops me (and many relationships) cold. If I can’t see where I’m going, or where I’m going wrong, I can’t possibly change it.
So how do I develop self-awareness if I can’t see myself? Aaaaarrrrghhh!!!!
I can find someone who sees me, and who can reflect back what they see. An accurate mirror. That’s how I feel about Barkley’s book: he’s in my head, describing exactly what I’m feeling and why I’m acting the way I am. And there’s no blame, there’s explanation and research.
Barkley doesn’t offer many concrete solutions, but he does help us to see how our faulty non-verbal memories are preventing us from developing our self-awareness. He also gives anecdotes from other ADHDers’ lives to show us examples of when we go astray. In that sense, he’s a brilliant, shining mirror.
I’ve written previously about how my Buddhist practice has minimized some of my worst ADHD symptoms; perhaps it’s no coincidence that the act of daily prayers is referred to as, “polishing our mirror.”
Woh! This just in:
“Successful people are successful because they make mistakes and have faced failure. It is their ability to rebound with a valuable lesson from errors of judgment that ultimately brings them success.”
He continues to say that, thanks to my “accumulated wisdom,” I can turn around a “failed situation.” Looks like the ADHD treatment is working. Yay! Man, I love synchronicity…
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Last reviewed: 23 Aug 2011