You’ve read all the books on ADHD and loaded up your toolbox with the latest and greatest tips, tricks, and strategies. Yet despite your best efforts, you find yourself missing the mark somehow and repeating the same behaviors over and over again. Why? Like so many individuals with ADHD, you probably need to strengthen your self-regulation skills. It’s not just about having the tools, but knowing when to use them.
What is self-regulation and why is it so important?
Simply put, self-regulation refers to the ability to effectively monitor and manage your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in ways that elicit positive results and are in keeping with your goals and values. It’s what (hopefully!) keeps you from driving past your office on the way to work and going to the beach instead because you decide it’s a beautiful day out and a day at the beach sounds much more fun.
Because so many ADHDers tend to live in the “here and now”, are prone to impulsiveness, may not recall past negative consequences, and often have difficulty picking up on social cues, self-regulation can be challenging.
It can be helpful to think of self-regulation in terms of the way a thermostat works. When a thermostat is set at a specific temperature, it continually monitors the temperature in the room and makes adjustments (either warmer or colder) to maintain the desired temperature.
Self-regulation skills allow you to observe, monitor, and adjust your own behavior so that you are consistently moving toward what you want and not what you don’t.
Many of my clients tell me that they know what they need to do but, for one reason or another, they just don’t do it. This is where the importance of self-regulation comes into play. Having an arsenal of tips and tricks does you no good if you don’t recognize when, where, and why you should use them.
Strengthening your self-regulation skills
Here are some ways to help strengthen your self-regulation muscles…
Practice the pause
Learning how to pause is, I believe, the cornerstone of self-regulation. When you pause you are giving yourself the opportunity to reflect on your emotional state, your thoughts, and the potential consequences of your actions.
The ability to pause is a skill that must be developed and it’s best to practice when you’re calm and in a non-pressured situation. You might choose to check in with yourself while you’re brushing your teeth or in your car at a red light. Start by taking some deep belly breaths and noticing what you’re felling, what you’re thinking, how your body feels.
During times of stress or high emotion, begin again by taking deep breaths. Deep breathing is actually a crucial aspect of self-regulation in that it helps you utilize the prefrontal cortex, or problem-solving centers, of your brain that go “offline” when we are in an emotionally charged state. Identify what emotion you are feeling (angry, frustrated, sad, etc.). Once you’ve done that, ask yourself what it is that you’re trying to accomplish and identify something you can do (or not do) that will bring you closer to that outcome.
Take note of triggers, cues, and potential pitfalls
Your environment, including your own body, gives you cues which, when identified, can help inform your choices.
For example, if your stomach is growling, it’s probably a cue that you’re hungry so you decide to make yourself a sandwich. Your body will also give you cues related to your emotional state. Perhaps when you’re just starting to get frustrated or angry, your ears may feel hot, your muscles may tense, maybe you clench your fists. It’s important to identify these cues so they can act as an early warning system to help you avoid a meltdown. If you feel the muscles in your neck tense up during a heated conversation with your spouse, it’s likely a sign that you need to take a deep breath and collect yourself before you say or do something you’ll regret later.
Additionally, you’ll want to identify potential pitfalls in your environment as well. Are there particular activities, situations, or people that trigger you? It isn’t about placing blame or being overly self-critical but rather identifying those things that trip you up so that you can be proactive in dealing with them.
Set goals for yourself (big and small)
Goal setting is a great way to strengthen self-regulation skills because it gives you something to set your eyes on and work toward. Goals can be big or small, it doesn’t really matter; what matters is the process. Start with the end in mind and work backwards- What is your desired end result and what do you need to get there? Break down the steps and give yourself “checkpoints” to review your progress and course-correct if you need to. Ask yourself, “Am I where I want/need to be in terms of my progress? If not, what do I need to do to get back on track?”
Review, revise, repeat
The next time you make a choice you wish you hadn’t or fall short of meeting a goal, ask yourself why. Again, this isn’t about being negative and overly self-critical; it’s about identifying what’s getting in the way of your success. I often tell my clients that there is no failure, only results. And if you want different results, you’ll need to do things differently next time. However, it’s also important to look critically at your successes too and ask yourself what it was specifically that helped you along the way. Making a habit of reviewing your results, whether positive or negative, and making adjustments along the way when needed fosters adaptability, which is critical to self-regulation.
Self-regulation is the ability to be self-aware and the understanding that you are in control of your choices. Taking the time to evaluate what’s working for you, what’s not, and what you need to do differently, puts you in the driver’s seat of your own life and on the road to success.