Is this something you resonate with? Having an overwhelming emotional response when given negative feedback, and reacting with defensiveness, lashing out, or being visibly distraught? If you do, you’re not alone.
Now Presenting, ADHD, and Emotional Reactivity
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Hi. This is Now Presenting ADHD, where we look at common ways Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder can present in individuals, explain what the root causes can be, and connect the experience to real humans. I’m your host, Jaye Lin. I’m an ADHD coach, instructor, and generally nice person.
When I was diagnosed with ADHD a little over three years ago, I was a very different person. I was difficult to be in a relationship with, and had many serious relationships that were huge flames that blew up over time. I had very tense relationships with my sister and parents, and couldn’t seem to keep friends for longer than a few years, sometimes even months. I also jumped from career to career, and job to job, burning out and reinventing myself every year or so.
Needless to say, I was highly insecure about myself and my relationships with others. I would go hard at every job right out of the gate, reveling in the praise and recognition I would get from my efforts, then react badly, quit, or resent the job once something started to go wrong, which it always did, because while my initial pace was filled with enthusiasm and dopamine, it was not sustainable in the long run.
It wasn’t just my work-life that was affected when things started to go awry. My personal relationships were also affected. I would always love bomb and overshare up front, creating instant best friends and instant love connections, but then find a way to sabotage relationships before others could hurt me. Or find a way to make them regret making me feel shitty, by badmouthing them to others, or by having a big emotional reaction that made them regret their words when they eventually aired their grievances. I seemed incredibly arrogant, and would eagerly put down others to make me feel better about myself. I was a self-described manic pixie nightmare girl, appealing to everyone as the perfect person at the start, before turning into someone people didn’t think was worth keeping around.
Yet I didn’t want to be this toxic, mean, awful person around others. I really wanted to be a good friend, sister, daughter, and partner. After every confrontation and subsequent fallout, I felt awful about myself, a self-loathing that created very scary, fragile circumstances for everyone around me. More than a few people described being around me as “walking on eggshells”, because they never knew when something seemingly innocuous that they would say would set off a reaction from me, which ranged from devastating rage to self loathing and tears.
This was no way to live. Despite always seeming to find friends and roles to fit into, I felt misunderstood, unloveable, and isolated from everyone around me.
Is this something you resonate with? If so, you’re not alone.
Now Presenting, ADHD, and emotional reactivity.
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The emotional dysregulation that comes with ADHD is, in my opinion, the most destructive force in our ability to live our lives. It creates negative associations to the tasks we do, making it harder to do them at the start of every instance, affecting our ability to complete tasks. In the context of our interpersonal relationships, if left unchecked, emotional dyregulation can be the doozy of all doozies.
It can make us react negatively to feedback, interpret a sideways glance or bored look from someone as something much more telling, and cause us to create self identities based on interactions we have with others. It can lead to us feeling a disproportionately high sense of love and connection to another person early on, then feel disproportionately destroyed when things start to feel less perfect. It can make us react to our boss telling us they’re disappointed in the results of our project by looking for another role, or getting angry about the lack of recognition from our efforts. It can lead to conflict with our loved ones, when we get feedback that can’t go anywhere, because our emotions are in charge. And most destructively, it can give us the feeling or reputation of being “too much”, and can create a sense of distrust within ourselves. It can feel like we are not in control, and that our actions are dictated by our impulses, not our deliberate choices.
But what exactly is emotional dysregulation in ADHD individuals? What happens to us when we encounter emotions?
Well, our brains are less equipped than neurotypicals to gauge and process emotional stimuli. So when we encounter emotions bubbling up within us, it can feel much bigger to us than it would to a neurotypical person, and it’s harder for us to interpret what the emotions are telling us. So the flood of emotions that hits us is stronger, and harder to decipher than for neurotypicals.
From there, if we’re not careful, things can take very destructive turns, and cause us to react in ways to mitigate the flood of emotions, which can cause damage to our relationships.
So what happens when we allow ourselves to have knee-jerk reactions to the emotions we get when someone airs their grievances with us?
It’s very common for us to react in a few very different ways, because they have the same overall effect of alleviating our emotional distress.
The first is when we get defensive. Let’s say my friend tells me that a joke I made about her social awkwardness made her feel bad. And let’s say it wasn’t intentional for the joke to be offensive. I would get an emotional response to her feedback. This feels very bad, so I might tell her that she needs to lighten up, because what I said wasn’t a big deal. This would make me feel slightly better, because I’m not the bad guy, she’s just overly sensitive.
Or I might lash out by telling her she said a really mean joke to me last week. She’s no angel either. This would make me feel slightly better, because I’m not the only bad guy, she’s a bad guy, too.
Both of these help with the overwhelming negative feelings we encounter, because we’re assuring ourselves that we are not the villain. But there’s another destructive way to react that goes in the opposite direction.
We can have a visible emotional response of crying, self-loathing, or trauma dumping, which would be disclosing that we are this way because of something terrible that happened to us in the past. So in this context, I would cry and tell her that I’m a terrible person, and I don’t deserve to be her friend.
The reasons why the first two responses of getting defensive or lashing out are destructive are more obvious. If I get defensive and invalidate my friend’s experience, it can create damage to our relationship. She doesn’t feel heard, and she notes that I won’t acknowledge her experience. If I counter her negative feedback with accusations that she has done worse things to me, it starts a war that can get blown up far past what she initially said. Anyone who has been in a huge fight knows how destructive and terrible those feel.
But the last one, where we sink deep into a visibly distraught state, also has negative repercussions. From an emotionally strategic standpoint, it does its job. There aren’t a lot of people who could continue airing their grievances after the other person drops their trauma or starts crying. We get a reprieve from what we view as a personal attack. The tone typically shifts to them comforting us, which feels good. They might even say a bunch of really nice things to us after this happens, like I’m a really good friend, and it wasn’t that big of a deal.
But while that feels a whole lot better in the short term, this scenario is incredibly damaging to relationships in the long run. It destroys psychological safety, and causes isolation. They learn that it’s not safe for them to bring up negative feedback, and start to keep it to themselves. But just because we’re not hearing things about ourselves that are emotionally triggering for us doesn’t mean those grievances aren’t things they feel. Instead of bringing it up, bottling up their grievances leads to resentment.
Resentment inevitably leads to the slow, painful death of relationships. Resentment never goes away on its own. We don’t just get over our resentment over time without intervention, the resentment just continues to grow.
But how could we have interventions to halt the progress of resentment when they can never give us feedback about how we are handling their needs?
Over time, the relationship gets lopsided, and the resentment grows. They can’t establish boundaries or bring up ways they are feeling mistreated, because our emotional wellbeing seems to be more important than theirs. Eventually, they realize there’s no hope, and either slowly drift away or definitively end your interactions. The connection continues to be weakened until there’s not enough left to hold it together.
This also happens with getting defensive or lashing out, by the way. If it’s an awful experience for them to try to get their needs met, this can also lead them to have lower psychological safety and stop bringing it up, allowing us to drift into lost cause territory, until the relationship has ended.
I know, this is really fucking bleak. But it doesn’t need to be. There are ways we can change course in the destructive emotional dysregulation process.
The first parts of emotional dysregulation are things we can’t change about ADHD. We will always have a greater response to emotional stimuli, and we will always have a harder time processing what the emotions mean. But you know what? We are capable of doing hard things.
I always recommend taking a pause when those big feelings come up. Let’s say when I started having these big feelings when my friend told me I hurt her feelings with the joke I made, I noticed those emotions bubbling up. I wasn’t able to figure out what those emotions meant yet, but being in that conversation might make the emotions more amplified. I could tell her “Thank you for telling me. You’re one of the most important people in my life, and I want to make sure I say what I actually mean, so I need some time to process what’s going on in my head”. To be honest, the first few times I successfully did this, it was a pre-determined script that I practiced many times before actually needing to deliver it, because in the moment, my mind was never able to get the words right.
And yeah, I thank them for telling me, which sounds wild, right? But it’s not. One thing that I realized about getting negative feedback is that while I always saw getting negative feedback as something that said something negative about me as a person, it actually says a lot of good things about me. Negative feedback isn’t typically given to people who are considered a lost cause, as we covered earlier. If someone is giving me negative feedback, it means they think I’m capable of making the changes needed to improve.
Also, delivering negative feedback is hugely uncomfortable for most people. If they are willing to put themselves through that discomfort to help me grow, that’s a gift they’re giving me. So, I thank them for bringing it up, so I can be a better friend, family member, colleague, partner.
During the pause, which I always recommend doing alone and somewhere we consider to be a safe place, we can think about what they wanted to get from giving us this negative feedback. It’s easy to think that someone is accusing us of something because they want us to feel bad, but that’s not always the case. Yes, there are some people who will try to make us feel shitty for a myriad of reasons, but for most, that’s not the reason they brought those hard things up. In the scenario of a friend telling me about how my joke hurt their feelings, they wanted to communicate that they’re sensitive about being socially awkward, and they don’t want me to make those kinds of jokes about them anymore. And I can try to do that.
And then I can give an apology, validating her feelings, and being accountable for how my words made her feel. I can say, “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings with my joke. It wasn’t my intention to make you feel bad, but I know that it still did. You are so important to me, and I never want to say anything that would make you feel insecure. Thank you for letting me know how you felt. I’ll try not to make any jokes at your expense in the future”. In no way does this apology say things about me being a shit person, or how bad I felt about how I made her feel bad. It’s validating her experience, and identifying clear actions to do better in the future.
When we give ourselves the space to navigate our emotions, and are deliberate about our responses to emotions, the results tend to be the opposite of the emotionally reactive actions I mentioned earlier. Rather than destroying a relationship’s psychological safety and increasing isolation, we can create more connection, more psychological safety. Instead of us vs them, we become one big us. The relationship has the potential to be even stronger than if there was no conflict, no emotional response, and no feedback.
It will be hard to do at first. After a lifetime of living with emotional dysregulation and the coping methods of emotional reactivity, it will take significant effort to make these changes. But the more we do it, and the more we see the positive results from being able to process our emotions and be deliberate, the easier it gets, and the more it becomes our default mode. And isn’t that nice? To know that we can handle how we react to our emotions, and to know that our relationships are safe and strong. I definitely think so.
You’ve made it to the end of the episode on emotional reactivity. To recap, emotional dysregulation can lead us to be emotionally reactive in situations where we are getting negative feedback. Common ways for us to do this is to get defensive, lash out, or respond with visibly distraught emotions, like crying, or trauma dumping. Despite all of these tactics making us feel a twinge better in the moment, they are really destructive toward our relationships with others, and become breeding grounds for resentment, and an emotionally lopsided relationship. This tends to lead to either misery or the relationship ending. Instead of reacting emotionally, we can pause and take time to parse our emotions out on our own, focusing on what the person wanted to get from giving us that feedback. Then we can go back and discuss things with then with a clear head, and give an apology that validates their feelings and makes clear what actions we will do in the future from the feedback we were given. And being able to respond deliberately after getting an emotional response can create more connection, psychological safety, and make a stronger team. It’ll be hard to do at first, but over time, it’ll get easier and easier, allowing us to lead more secure and satisfying lives with the people we care about.
If you found this episode enjoyable or informative, please tell your friends and family members with ADHD, and/or give us a review wherever you get your podcasts. If you want to read transcripts or show notes, find out more about me, Jaye Lin, or give suggestions on future episodes, please go to our website, npadhd.com. That’s the acronym for Now Presenting: ADHD, npadhd.com. Or you can follow us on Instagram, at NPADHD. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you again soon!