Beth Main is an ADHD coach, therapist, and the founder of ADHD Solutions. She specializes in helping people with Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder overcome their challenges and achieve success. Find posts and updates on ADHD.
The following is a reprint of an article I wrote for ADDitude Magazine. It was published in the Summer 2018 issue.
An ADDitude reader recently wrote: “I am a mother and wife diagnosed with ADHD at 35. I have been struggling with organization challenges since I was a teen, and I see myself — thanks to my parents’ and friends’ constant reminders — as a messy person. On top of that, I have no idea how to neaten up our home! My challenge is equal parts shame and ignorance about how to begin my organizational journey. Can you help?”
Shame can keep you stuck. It’s hard to move forward on anything when you’re feeling bad about yourself. But this is not something you chose, nor is it a character defect. ADHD is neurobiological, which means it’s a brain chemistry issue. So let’s start by removing the judgment. Here are six strategies for feeling less ashamed about your mess:
Put things into perspective. You had undiagnosed ADHD for 35 years. Your brain is wired for chaos, not organization. Blaming yourself for your executive functioning challenges is like blaming a dog for chasing a cat. It’s how you are programmed.
Stop perpetuating the shame. Challenge it in yourself and others. Are you shaming yourself by continuing to replay those tapes from your childhood? Be kind with your self-talk. When others try to shame you, set them straight.
Don’t attach deeper meaning to your messiness. When we’re criticized about something for years, we believe that there’s something wrong with us — that we’re undesirable, unlovable, unwanted. Challenge these thoughts. What good things have people said to you? What do you know to be good about yourself? Dig deep to get in touch with your highest and best self. Counseling might be needed, particularly if the negative beliefs are firmly entrenched.
Tap on it. Emotional Freedom Techniques, also known as tapping, use the body’s energy system to release powerful negative emotions, such as shame. You tap on 12 of the body’s meridian points while focusing on the feeling you’d like to neutralize. Read about tapping online.
Think about your talents. Not everyone has talent in math or languages, or being neat. But everyone has talent in something. What’s yours? Think about this instead of your weaknesses when you start feeling down on yourself. Think about what you do well now, and what you did well as a child that perhaps wasn’t noticed.
Recognize that organization can be a talent, a skill, or both. Some people are naturally organized. For others, it is a learned skill. People with ADHD do not have a lot of talent in the organization department. You don’t either, but you can certainly develop those skills.
Your natural tendency is to focus on things other than neatness. But I hear you, that’s not how you want things to be. The good news is that you now have a diagnosis. You know what’s going on, so you can begin to change things.
How Can I Change My Messy Habits?
Change begins with awareness. You’re already aware that you’re not as organized as you would like. But do you know the causes of it? Are you moving too fast to stop and put things away? Do you get distracted before getting to the cleanup phase of a project? Do you not notice the clutter? How you approach de-cluttering depends on where you are now.
Lighten your load. Many times we’re in a hurry to get to the next thing, and we leave a trail of destruction behind. Sometimes, there is not enough time to put bags or clothing away because we’re running late. Try to add more time between events, or wrap up what you’re doing 10 minutes before you have to go somewhere. Then you will have enough time to put things away.
Slow down. Most of us with ADHD live at warp speed, at least in our mind. Our perception is that there’s no time to put things away, but it probably won’t take as long as you think it will. Do you truly not have 30 seconds to put your coat away? Or does it just feel that way? Practice slowing down.
Watch out for rabbit holes. Our attention takes us in many directions, usually before we finish the task we’re working on. If you say, “Let me just…,” it’s a sign that you’re about to go down a rabbit hole. Be aware of when ADHD is redirecting you away from a task.
How Can I Neaten Up My House NOW?
These strategies will help you keep things neater as you move forward. But how do you tackle the mess that’s already there?
Break it up. Trying to organize your house all at once is a lost cause. Better to do a little bit at a time. Decide how long you will spend, when you will do it, and which part of the house you plan to work on. Clearing one end table is better than avoiding the entire project because it’s too overwhelming.
Don’t go to OHIO. Some organization and time management experts advise us to Only Handle It Once (OHIO). That’s great if you don’t have ADHD. But our brain wiring does much better with yes/no type decisions. Is it trash — yes or no? Can I sell it on eBay — yes or no? Whittle down your piles in multiple passes and you’ll be done sooner than you think.
Get the right stuff. The easier it is to put things away, the more likely it is that you’ll do it. Antique furniture is nice, but if the drawers don’t open smoothly, you’ll be reluctant to open them. Even better than smooth-opening drawers are open shelves. Three-ring binders? Avoid them — too many steps. When it’s time to store all that stuff, get clear plastic bins that you can see inside of.
You will get your home straightened up, and you will love its neatness. But the trick is maintaining it. Keep practicing your strategies. Things will get better over time. Who knows? Maybe your friends will start calling you a neat freak!
When you have ADHD, all kinds of things keep you from getting the important stuff done: Procrastination, distractions, going down a rabbit hole. Sometimes we get sidelined by negative emotions. Feelings of shame, sadness, frustration, or anger make it impossible to focus on the right thing.
Emotional Freedom Techniques, also known as EFT or Tapping, is a self-help technique that can neutralize negative emotions and free you to move ahead with your life. What you do is identify the negative emotion you’re feeling and a specific event that brings up that emotion. For example, maybe you feel angry when you think of the nasty comment your partner hurled at you this morning that you’ve been replaying over and over in your head. Then you tap on a series of acupressure points with your fingertips while focusing on that event. EFT is based on the premise that negative emotion is caused by a blockage in the body's energy system. Tapping on the meridian endpoints clears the blockage and restores balance so you can focus.
You can do EFT with a practitioner or on your own. Starting out with a practitioner is a good idea because although it’s simple, it can be hard to zero in on precisely the right thing at first. I’ve been seeing great results with the clients I’ve been doing it with.
I used to think my professional interests - adult ADHD and complex trauma - were an odd combination. Would I have to give up my work with ADHD adults in order to pursue my new(er) passion? Do these two issues have enough commonality to make sense for me to specialize in both? Would people get it?
Over time I've noticed that many of my ADHD clients are also struggling to heal from neglect or abuse sustained during childhood. This is actually a big part of the reason I decided in 2013 to get my master's in counseling - so I could help them with both. Conversely, one of my internship supervisors shared her belief that all clients with trauma histories will also have ADHD symptoms. This has been echoed by multiple professionals in the Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) field during my various trainings.
Why is this?
ADHD is characterized by inattention and / or impulsivity and hyperactivity. It is diagnosed via a symptom checklist rather than blood work or scans. Medical professionals often don't ask about trauma histories when responding to a request to identify "why is my kid so out of control" or "why isn't he doing better in school". If ADHD is suspected, the checklists are administered and the diagnosis is made. If trauma is asked about, it isn't always disclosed, or is considered secondary.
Hypervigilance (constantly scanning for threats) and dissociation (checking out) can look a lot like inattention.
Impulsivity can be a response to unmanageable stress.
It's hard to sit still when you don't feel safe.
Neural pathways are created in the brain that entrench these behaviors over time until they become the norm. The trauma is pushed to the back of the mind and not talked about. After enough time passes, the two feel more and more separate. But they aren't.
I've concluded that my specialization doesn't have to be - indeed it can't be - one or the other. If you're looking at ADHD, you could also be looking at trauma and vice versa. It can be extremely helpful to work with a professional who deeply understands both.
To be clear, I'm not saying that ADHD is always caused by trauma. The current working theory is that it's a genetic condition. Scientists generally agree that there could also be other causes, and trauma could be one of them. I'm just saying we need to correctly identify the underlying cause, so we can treat it appropriately and effectively.
ADHD is neurobiological. So it makes sense that we need to feed our brains. That means clean, healthy eating.
At home, I eat local pasture-raised meats from animals that are humanely raised. I eat lots of organic fruits and vegetables. No refined simple carbs. It's been challenging but I have finally acquired sources and recipes for everything I want and need.
Eating out is another story. I bring my lunch to work most days, but I end up eating out about once a week (nobody's perfect). I try to make good choices but really, there's not much around here that I can get to and back in the short amount of time I have for lunch.
Enter Little Bird.
I just had the best lunch ever, at a little place called Little Bird. It's just a window inside the Ever Grain Brewing Company, at 4444 Carlisle Pike, Mechanicsburg. The phrase "best kept secret" is a cliche, but in this case, it's utterly true. There isn't even a sign on the road for it. You almost have to know about it to find it. From their website:
Our food is crafted with real ingredients, sourced locally whenever possible, and never overly processed. We use whole grains, real butter, real olive oil, and make our own stocks and sauces. We bake our breads, ferment our kimchi, and cure our bacon for three weeks before it goes in the smoker. When our farmers plan for the season, they call our Chef to find out what they should grow. When our foragers (sometimes our Chef) find a honey hole of chanterelle mushrooms, they call us first. Spent grain in our recipers comes straight from our Lauter Tun. Our micro greens, leafy greens, and edible flowers come from an aquaponics system in New Cumberland, PA. We support youth programs like L.E.A.F. Project and Jumpstreet. We promote sustainable, biodiverse agriculture in all forms.
All this in a craft brewery? Yes. This is no ABC.
I had the Best Damn Chicken Sandwich ever. That's the name of it. And it really was the best damn chicken sandwich ever. It looked and tasted like something that my husband or I would make at home. Probably because it is - the chicken came from Foxwood Run Farm in York County, which is coincidentally (or not) where we get our chicken when we run out of what we've raised ourselves on our farmette. The birds are sustainably and humanely raised on fresh pasture and sunlight, which is in keeping with my personal values. Anyway, back to the sandwich. It looked healthy and tasted amazing. It was served with hopped remoulade, wallaby cheese, and yucca fries, which are a delicious and nutritious alternative to potatoes (which are no good for you so don't eat them).
If you're a foodie, this is your place.
If you have ADHD and are trying to figure out how to eat more nutritiously when you go out, this is your place.
If you just want real food that tastes amazing, this is your place.
Here's the address again: Ever Grain Brewing Co., 4444 Carlisle Pike, Camp Hill PA. Call 717.525.9772 for takeout.