“Check your work,” my teachers would tell me when I was growing up.

I made so many of what I then called “stupid” mistakes on my homework, and what I now know could more accurately be called “inattentive” mistakes. Writing down the wrong number or the wrong word, skipping a step in a math problem without noticing.

ThoughtsThe idea was that if I would just “check my work,” mentally review what I’d done, this would solve the problem. So that’s what I did. As I went through the steps of a math problem, I would repeat each step in my head to make sure I wasn’t making any “stupid” mistakes.

But I still made these mistakes. I was going through the motions of repeatedly “checking my work” without being able to fix the underlying inattention, like when you reread a sentence over and over without the meaning sinking in.

This pointless exercise of reiterating the mental steps I was going through in my schoolwork in an attempt to correct my inattention is one of the first examples I remember of a more general habit I fell into: thinking that if I could just control my thoughts a little better, carefully repeat the mental steps I was taking or force all my concentration onto whatever task I was trying to do, I could overcome the inattentive lapses, disorganization and chaos that resulted from my ADHD symptoms. I developed a kind of useless perfectionism.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with ADHD, and I started to understand that trying through sheer force of will to make my thoughts my perfect, more attentive, was not a productive way of coping with ADHD and was just making me pointlessly anxious. Still, the mental habit of trying to control my thoughts proved hard to unwind.

It’s interesting to observe the difference in what trying to direct my brain is like on and off medication. On meds, the process of controlling my thoughts is more automatic. I tell my brain to pay attention to something, and my brain generally listens.

Off meds, trying to control my thoughts is a vicious cycle of wasted energy. I try harder, and my brain still doesn’t do what I want, which leads my to try even harder. I’ve had to learn to let go: if my brain is going to do what it wants, it’s going to do what it wants. The solution is to find environments that naturally coax my brain into an attentive state rather than escalating my attempts to try to strongarm my brain into being attentive.

These attempts to compensate by mentally repeating steps in tasks I’m doing and by trying to brute-force my brain into focusing aren’t ADHD symptoms per se, but they are one of the ways I reacted to having untreated ADHD. They’re an example of how trying to cope with ADHD symptoms can lead to anxiety and other counterproductive mental patterns. I wonder if anyone else has had a similar experience – if so, please leave a comment below!

Image: Flickr/Gabriel S. Delgado C.