Now Presenting: ADHD

When anticipation feels better than the real thing

August 30, 2023 Jaye Lin Season 1 Episode 15
Now Presenting: ADHD
When anticipation feels better than the real thing
Show Notes Transcript

Is this something you resonate with? Getting a huge rush of excitement in the lead up to something you’re anticipating, only to find yourself at a lower excitement level when you’re actually experiencing it? If you do resonate with this, you’re not alone.

Now Presenting, ADHD, and when anticipation feels better than the real thing.

If you have questions or would like to give suggestions for future episodes, send us an email at To listen to all episodes, view show notes and transcripts, or learn more about host Jaye Lin, visit our website at Follow us on Instagram @npadhdpodcast and @adhdjaye.

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.

Just a heads up that this will be the last episode of the first season of Now Presenting: ADHD. I’ll be taking the next few months off, and expect to post new episodes of season two in December. And here is why.

I’ve decided to move back to the bay area when the lease for my apartment is up in November. Three years ago, at the end of 2020, I decided to move to the Pacific Northwest, after spending almost my entire life in the bay area. I was so excited about the move, and all of the new things it could bring. I could afford to live alone, I could get a dog in an area that was incredibly dog-friendly, I could see vibrant green everywhere, and spend many days in the rain, which I’ve always loved. All of these things were so different from what I knew of my life in the bay area, which isn’t that dog friendly, and doesn’t see a lot of rain on a regular basis.

My anticipation for the move to a new area was greater than the headaches they would bring, and this happened twice, before my move to Portland, Oregon, and before my move to the Seattle area. Even though I knew I would have to go through a bunch of administrative churn, like getting a new drivers license and car registration, new doctors, new therapists, new doggy daycare, new friends, and new arrangements with my apartment, I didn’t care, because I was so excited.

And this excitement was not limited to moves. I notice myself having a higher level of enjoyment anticipating events, trips, and life changes than I have when I’m actually doing the thing. So I get greater enjoyment anticipating a drastic haircut than I do after I get the haircut. I can’t wait to go to a social event, but find myself wanting to leave after the first hour. I’m dying to try a new recipe, and then don’t feel like eating it after I’m finished.

Is this something you resonate with? Getting a huge rush of excitement in the lead up to something you’re anticipating, only to find yourself at a lower excitement level when you’re actually experiencing it? If you do resonate with this, you’re not alone.

Now Presenting, ADHD, and when anticipation feels better than the real thing.

<brief theme music>

We ADHD folk have a reputation of making impulsive life decisions repeatedly. We are known for jumping around in our careers, having shorter romantic relationships, starting a million hobbies and mastering very few of them. The list goes on and on.

Many of us attribute that to the impulsivity of ADHD, but where does that come from?

Well, ADHD individuals have lower baseline levels of dopamine, so when we get a boost of dopamine, it is more enjoyable to us than it is for neurotypicals. That’s why it’s often hard for us to tear ourselves away from activities that are high dopamine-getters, like video games, social interaction, and other adrenaline rushes. We are finally getting dopamine, and our brains want more of it.

But while dopamine is often considered the neurotransmitter of reward, a more accurate definition is that it’s the neurotransmitter of anticipation. We get the highest boosts when we ask the question “will it or won’t it”, or “will we or won’t we?”. Video games give us a dopamine boost because we don’t know if we will beat the level. When we are in social situations, we don’t know if we will get accepted or rejected. When we go skydiving, we don’t know for sure that we won’t die. That’s why if a game is too easy and we know that we will beat every level, we don’t feel engaged. Impressing someone who is agreeable and nice all the time doesn’t give us the same dopamine boost as impressing someone who is a harsh critic.

What this means, though, is that it’s common for ADHD folk to get higher dopamine boosts when anticipating something than we do when we’re actually doing the thing. This is due to a few factors.

First, dopamine feels really good to us, because of our lower baseline of it. If someone starves themselves for many days, that meal they finally eat will taste much better than someone who regularly eats throughout each day. And it’s likely that the person who has just starved themselves will want to eat more in that instance than the person who regularly experiences fullness and satiety. That’s essentially us, starving for dopamine, and experiencing greater pleasure once we get it. This means that when we anticipate something we think will be great, we keep going down the rabbit hole, in an attempt to keep that feeling going.

But that dopamine tends to drop off when the anticipation is over. Have you ever been so excited to start a new hobby, because all of these factors about it would make your life so much better? Or start a new relationship because this person is wonderful in all of these ways, and being in a relationship with them would change your life? Or start a new job, because it sounds amazing in all of these ways, and you would finally be happy working? Only to get into that new hobby, relationship, and job, and find yourself in a state of dissatisfaction, even though all of those things about them are still true? Like this partner is who I thought they would be, good looking, respectful, kind, funny, interesting, and supportive, but I thought I would feel different with them, and I feel the same?

This may be due to what we felt during the anticipatory stage, and that huge dopamine bump. It can bring on intense feelings of joy and euphoria that can’t possibly continue for months or years without serious intention. Once it’s confirmed that, yes, this person is wonderful, dopamine will still drop.

But what if they aren’t wonderful? Has that happened to you? Where you’ve been anticipating all these wonderful things, and then found out that you’d have to work at this for years in order for you to be good at this hobby. Or this person actually has a bunch of qualities that you don’t like. Or this job might be good in all these ways you thought, but is also really crappy in all these ways you didn’t think of, or you didn’t think you would care about, but it turns out that you do.

The dopamine of anticipation for us also prevents us from looking at something with a full scope. Because when we are in that dopamine high, full of anticipation, it doesn’t feel good to think about the terrible qualities, so we can tend to focus on the things that will continue to the dopamine high.

And sometimes, we can tend to shift our focus after the dopamine drops. We no longer have the feels, but this person is exactly who we thought they would be. So while in the anticipatory phase, we gravitate toward seeing all the good things, once dopamine drops, we can tend to seek out more bad things, because it would give us the permission to stop doing the hobby, break up with this person, or quit our job. After all, we can’t break up with a good person just because we thought we would feel that anticipatory high when we were with them, too, right? We have to do it because there’s something wrong with them.

This can become a destructive cycle if we aren’t careful, and it can lead to hurting others, and hurting ourselves. It can lead to us never making progress in our careers or in relationships because we are always looking for where to jump to next. It can also bring shame upon us when we do this enough times. It can feel like we are flighty, self sabotaging, never satisfied, and all that other negative self talk. And when we feel shame, it’s common for us to overcorrect.

Examples of overcorrection during this process is to never allow ourselves to think good thoughts during the anticipatory phase, and telling ourselves it won’t be that great when we feel like it will be. Hedging our expectations, as you will. Overcorrection can also mean that we tell ourselves that we are self sabotaging when we find ourselves in situations where it actually isn’t ideal for us to stay in it. Maybe the person really isn’t that great, and hurts us. Maybe that job is actually quite toxic. But we can feel like we can’t trust those negative feelings if this is a pattern that we have had our whole lives, which can lead us to stay in situations where maybe we shouldn’t. 

That sounds like a recipe for life dissatisfaction, doesn’t it?

So what can we do to prevent a destructive cycle, without overcorrecting into a disappointing life?

Well, knowing about how our brains experience these events is important. Knowing that we experience higher dopamine boosts in the anticipatory phase that can’t carry on into the experience phase without intention can mean more intention. And what do I mean by intention?

Well, how often do we allow ourselves to mindfully experience the thing we are experiencing, and acknowledge them? That, while not quite reaching the euphoric levels of anticipatory dopamine, allows us to appreciate, and enjoy the things we have been anticipating, instead of just assuming we will love it just as much once we get there. When in the moment, stop and notice the things we’ve been anticipating. Acknowledge how wonderful it is, and appreciate it. Talk about it in the moment the way you talked about it when you were in the anticipatory phase. 

Because the anticipatory high isn’t bad as long as it doesn’t cloud our actual experience. If we can separate the anticipation and experience as two separate things for us to enjoy, the pressure for experience to “live up” to the anticipation isn’t as strong.

And when we are in that anticipatory phase, throw in a few things that aren’t that great, and see if that destroys the anticipation. If it does, then that might be an indication that it won’t work out in the long run. As long as the anticipation is separated from the experience, you can still dream out that good feeling without committing to the experience. You can still get the feel-goods without being stuck with the outcome. I can still have a crush on an old friend even though I know we aren’t a great fit as a couple. I can still dream about living in a tiny house or houseboat even though I know it’s not practical for my lifestyle.

That’s what I’ve been doing with living here in Washington. I’ve separated what I anticipated this to be from what I am experiencing. I do still love living here, and there are so many things I appreciate about this area, and the people here. It may not be as intense as how I felt about it before I moved, and that’s ok. But I can look at the choice to move from a logical perspective, instead of seeking all these terrible parts of living here, which I found myself doing. I want to be closer to my family and close friends, and I like the comfort and safety of being around the restaurants, neighborhood fixtures, and structure I’ve grown up with. I don’t need to down-talk Washington to acknowledge that the bay area is a better fit for my lifestyle. I don’t regret moving up here, and also, I’m ready to move back to the place I’ll always consider home.

So for the next few months, this podcast will be taking a break while I pack up and move, at the same time as all these other exciting projects I’m working on are nearing completion. This is not the end of the podcast, it’s just the end of the first season. Thank you for listening to my first, experimental season. I can’t wait to get started on the next round of it!

You’ve made it to the end of the episode on when anticipation feels better than the real thing. To recap, ADHD folk have a reputation of making impulsive life decisions, and jumping from career to career, and relationship to relationship. This may be because our lower levels of dopamine make the anticipatory phase so enjoyable that it’s not possible for the experience to live up to it, which creates dissatisfaction, and the urge to keep moving. This can lead to overcorrections, like not allowing ourselves to enjoy anticipation, or making ourselves stay in situations that don’t serve us. But we can separate the anticipation from the expectations for the experience, and be mindful when we do experience it, which allows us to enjoy the anticipation without affecting our actual experience. And we can allow ourselves to dream without taking action if it isn’t practical for us to make that jump.

Also, this will be the last episode of the first season of Now Presenting: ADHD, which will return for season two in a few months.

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, That’s the acronym for Now Presenting: ADHD, Or you can follow us on Instagram, at @NPADHDpodcast. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you again in December!