Now Presenting: ADHD

Broken Feedback Loops

February 21, 2024 Jaye Lin Season 2 Episode 2
Now Presenting: ADHD
Broken Feedback Loops
Show Notes Transcript

Is this something you resonate with? Questioning your self concept, achievements, and victories because of the negative feedback you’ve received in your life? If you do resonate with this, you’re not alone.

Now Presenting, ADHD, and Broken Feedback Loops

If you have questions or would like to give suggestions for future episodes, send us an email at info@npadhd.com. To listen to all episodes, view show notes and transcripts, or learn more about host Jaye Lin, visit our website at www.npadhd.com. 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 share some new perspectives on managing all of it with our ADHD. I’m your host, Jaye Lin. I’m an ADHD coach, speaker, instructor, and generally nice person.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been consulting with other ADHD coaches on writing and delivering powerful talks. For this, I get into a recorded meeting with them, ask them a bunch of questions for about an hour, and then magically, at the end of it, there is a draft talk for them to revise.

One of the questions that always trips people up is “what makes you an authority on this topic?”. Nearly everyone has an insecure response to this question. Very commonly, they freeze, then say something along the lines of “I don’t know. I guess I’m not”.

Now, this initially surprised me, because the people I was asking this question to were clear authorities on the topic, with the experience, credentials, and reputation to back that up. Yet when I asked them that question, their first instinct was to invalidate their worthiness. Why was that?

Well, when you look at the demographics of these coaches I’m working with, it starts to make sense. They are primarily women, and many are women of color. Just as significantly, every single one of them has ADHD, and most were diagnosed later in life.

For many of us ADHD folk, women, and people of color, the feedback loop we’ve encountered our entire lives has been broken. We have been told we are scattered, lazy, a big dreamer with the inability to follow through. We’ve been told we’re not qualified, we need to stay in our lane, and our ideas aren’t good. We’ve been told a disproportionate amount of negative statements when compared to neurotypical, male, and/or dominant culture individuals, which skews our self concept and self esteem. Not only that, but with emotional dysregulation, the effects of that negative feedback is exponentially more devastating. So with ADHD, a broken feedback loop gets us to doubt ourselves around every corner, even if the evidence says we are qualified.

Is this something you resonate with? Questioning your self concept, achievements, and victories because of the negative feedback you’ve received in your life? If you do resonate with this, you’re not alone.

Now Presenting, ADHD, and Broken Feedback Loops

<brief theme music>

What is the role of a feedback loop?

Well, as humans grow up and while they navigate their lives, they have thoughts, ideas, and ways they present themselves. The feedback each person gets from others gives clues about whether those thoughts, ideas, and presentations are things to keep or things to lose. When forward action or revisions are made using that feedback, outcomes are observed, and are used to influence how feedback is taken in the future.

So a healthy feedback loop would look like a person getting feedback that they are a good artist, and then applying to art school and being accepted, which gets them to trust the person giving the feedback. Or someone being told the way they talk to their friends makes others feel bad about themselves, so they make a point to be more kind in their word choices, and they notice that they’re able to keep more friends, which makes them trust the person who brought up that feedback.

Healthy feedback loops are great, because we can’t always initially have great ideas or be perfect exactly as we are. Being able to trust the feedback we are given allows us to evolve in productive ways.

But these days, it’s really common for feedback loops to be broken, especially in neurodivergent populations, and in minority groups. This can happen in two ways. First, let’s talk about how detrimental it can be to have an undeserved high trust in the negative feedback we’re given.

There are numerous studies that show that ADHD individuals, especially those who are undiagnosed, get a disproportionately higher amount of negative feedback. For those who are women, nonbinary, or in minority cultures, that number is compounded with the already disproportionately higher amount of negative feedback each of those minority groups receive. So we are getting more negative feedback than neurotypicals or those in majority groups would be getting, and in ways that may not even be accurate.

Are we lazy, or is it because of neurological differences? Are we unable to follow through, or is it because of ADHD factors? Are we rude or selfish for interrupting others, or is it because of lower executive function and impulse control?

What happens when we get more negative feedback statements than we deserve? Well, commonly, the result is that we feel like shit. And we feel like we ARE shit.

And when the self-fulfilling prophecy happens of, for example, not being able to complete a project due to shame from the history of not being able to complete a project, the negative feedback loop is complete, because we trust that negative feedback, since the results seem to confirm that it’s legitimate.

This also has an effect on how we view the positive feedback that seems to contradict that negative feedback we’ve received. Many of us trust negative feedback more than positive feedback we receive, because the feedback loop and self fulfilling prophecy shows that negative feedback is trustworthy.

In the ADHD industry, I see the effects of this. A lot of emerging thought leaders in the field, especially those who are people of color, can become discouraged and disappear into the ether. That’s a shame, because their ideas are really good, but even when I tell them that, they don’t believe me, because their negative feedback loops are stronger than whatever I could tell them.

With the scenario I just described, asking ADHD coaches writing talks why they’re an authority on the subject, you might be asking yourself why I, someone who considers herself a compassionate and supportive ADHD coach, would even ask such a mean, abrasive question.

Well, I ask this question up front precisely because I am a compassionate and supportive ADHD coach. Let me explain this a bit.

The purpose of that question is for them to be able to articulate why they are presenting on this topic, and there is always an answer to that question. The purpose of me asking this is not to challenge whether they are good enough to speak on this, yet that is always how it’s taken, at least initially.

I had a similar response a few years ago when I was working for Google as an Administrative Business Partner. I filled out a promo packet, and a friend pre-reviewing my packet would make a comment on every achievement I listed with the question “why is this impactful?”. I froze, and then kinda felt like shit for the whole experience. The way I took it was that the work I did was not impactful if they were asking this. I felt so crappy after this experience that even when I got the promotion, I found myself in a low grade depression for months afterward.

But were those pre-reviewers signaling that I was not actually doing impactful work? No. Quite the opposite, really. They were trying to ensure that the people who saw my packet would know what the impact was for what I was doing. They didn’t want the work I was doing to be glossed over and deemed trivial, when the effects of the work I was doing were significant. 

So when it came my turn to be a pre-reviewer, and I asked that question, I made sure to follow up with more guidance. When my colleagues would freeze up and say “I don’t know, I guess it’s not impactful”, I would ask them a follow-up question. “Why did you choose to work on this project, out of everything else that you could have done with your time?”. This highlighted their purpose for that achievement. For example, someone wrote that they scheduled a chair stretching and mindfulness session, and when asked what the impact was, they sheepishly admitted that it wasn’t that big of a deal. But when I asked why they chose to spend their time planning that stretching and mindfulness session, they very passionately said that hosting an interactive self-care team event during the pandemic allowed those working from home to continue to have the support of their team members and maintain their mental health during an isolating and emotionally devastating time. Well, would you look at that. Right there was the impact of their actions, which would not necessarily be clear from them only stating that they planned a 1 hour virtual stretching event.

So, going back to these coaches and the question of why they are an authority, the initial response is that maybe they’re not the right people to deliver on this talk. The follow up questions usually vary depending on the subject and who they are, but here’s a common thread of questions. “Why do you want to talk about this subject?”, “What insights do you have about this subject?” and “What gives you that insight?”. Again, once we take out the question of whether or not they are good enough, the answers flow freely and passionately.

Back to why I ask such an abrasive question up front. This is why I do it. Because after I ask the follow up questions and they give their answers, I let them know that, boom, that’s what makes them an authority on this topic. Without fail, everyone beams at that realization. I’ll admit that it’s a little manipulative, but in a way I don’t feel guilty about. I’m manipulating them into believing in themselves. They feel confident in a way they never have, even after everyone assures them they are capable. They are able to say for themselves why they are worthy of giving that talk.

More importantly, we are proving their negative feedback loop wrong. Not only are we overriding that negative feedback loop with a positive one, but the positive feedback loop becomes more credible. Sometimes, that takes identifying that their negative feedback loop exists, and that it is ultimately not accurate.

Here is how we reverse the damage from the kind of unhealthy feedback loop that overemphasizes negative feedback. We allow exploration to assess what is actually going on. Instead of falling into the trap of validating the negative feedback loop, we allow actions to go forward without the negative feedback bias, and see what the actual outcome is. In this case, without the bias of the negative feedback loop clouding what they say and do, they can not only deliver on what they seek to, but see how powerful they truly can be. Honestly, this is the basis for coaching, so if you’re having a hard time questioning those negative feedback loops, I highly suggest seeking an ADHD coach, even if it’s not me.

You’re probably wondering about that second way unhealthy feedback loops affect individuals.

For this, I’ll start with an anecdote from one of my past companies in tech. A former administrative colleague once told me that she doesn’t like working with the women senior managers on her team, because they tend to push back really hard on her when she says she doesn’t have the bandwidth to work on an idea they have, or that what they’re suggesting goes against company policy. She admitted this to me with huge guilt, because at her core, she wants to support successful women at the company. When I asked her why it bothers her so much that she is getting push back, she replied that the senior managers on her team who are men don’t push back on her the same way. They respect the answer that is given and move on. Ultimately, she felt that someone pushing back on her showed a lack of respect.

I listened to her very conflicted rant, and then asked if she knew that women get shot down for their ideas more disproportionately than men do. She said she did know, but she didn’t think that applied to what we were talking about.

But it does apply. You see, when women get disproportionately high negative feedback to their ideas, two things can happen. The first is similar to what I talked about earlier. They can believe the negative feedback, become frustrated, and then wash out of the industry. Many will stay in lower level positions, learn to not bring up their ideas, or change industries. Considering many of these senior managers started in the 90s and early 2000s, I would say most of the women at that time went this route of washing out, although I have to note that this is still common in current day, amongst women and people of color in tech.

The women who did get through were the ones who pushed back. When they were told it wasn’t possible, or their ideas weren’t good ones, they kept trying anyway. Eventually, an idea they believed in turned out to be a good one despite the negative feedback against them, and they were able to rise in the ranks.

But that’s where the opposite type of an unhealthy feedback loop happens. Instead of having their feedback loop inform them on how to proceed, they have to have an extraordinary level of confidence in their ideas, even in the face of opposition. 

I call the extreme version of this phenomena going “Full Kanye”, which is a term I came up with 10 years ago and have continued using. This basically means that a person has bought into their own genius so much that they think everything they say and do is brilliant, even their terrible, problematic ideas. The term now carries even more weight, because in the last 10 years, Kanye has gone even fuller Kanye.

Going “Full Kanye” is another way the feedback loop is broken. Instead of filtering out untrustworthy feedback and letting through trustworthy feedback, all negative feedback is seen as untrustworthy, while all positive feedback is seen as trustworthy. This can lead to narcissistic tendencies toward others, an overinflated sense of self, and sometimes a decline in success. While Kanye is still pretty successful, a lot of fallen titans of industry have met their end due to going Full Kanye, including Elizabeth Holmes, that WeWork guy, and those Fyre Festival dudes.

The women senior managers my colleague took issue with aren’t the villains. Women have just been given a shit deal. Those senior manager men that wouldn’t push back when they heard a no? They likely had a healthy feedback loop. They were told no when their ideas weren’t feasible, and were given a go-ahead when their ideas were good. They knew when to push back and when they shouldn’t, because of that healthy feedback loop. Since women mostly hear no, we aren’t always given the privilege of being able to know when the negative feedback is trustworthy or untrustworthy.

The same thing applies to ADHD. Just as often as I see emerging voices get met with undeserved opposition, grow disillusioned and frustrated, and wither away, I see a lot of overconfident individuals at the top, going “Full Kanye”. I see them mistreat other people, including myself. I see them double down on their ideas, even when problematic, because they refuse to acknowledge that any view they have is problematic. Just like the women senior managers at my old company, I know why this happens, and similarly, I commend them on their tough journey in carving out a space for themselves. Likely, the ADHD industry is only thriving because some of them fought back so hard, and without them pushing back for decades while hearing that they were lazy and ADHD isn’t real, this ADHD advocacy space likely wouldn’t exist. I can acknowledge this while also knowing that it’s problematic for them to continue acting this way.

So what can we do to help those who have gone Full Kanye return to a healthier feedback loop?

The answer might surprise you. The same approach as the other way the feedback loop is broken. We ask them the same questions as we ask those who only believe the negative feedback loop. We remove worth and ego from the equation, and go based on the answers that are given. We can make sure they’re surrounded by a safe environment where negative feedback can be delivered in a way that isn’t a personal attack, so they can learn that negative feedback is just a data point, and not a judgment on who they are. We can ask a varied set of questions, like “Which idea from others would you pick if you didn’t want to choose your own idea?”. If they are willing to approach more healthy feedback loops and heal their pain from getting that disproportionate amount of negative feedback, which I’ll admit that a lot of people are not open to, then their stances tend not to be so combative. They can start seeing everything for what it is, and build healthier feedback loops, which benefits both the person, and the overall community.

When we make the environment inviting for those in danger of washing out to continue on, and we help heal the pain of those who have had to resort to an overconfident stance, everyone benefits, and everyone can grow.

You’ve made it to the end of the episode on Broken Feedback Loops. To recap, individuals with ADHD, women, people of color, and those in other minority groups can sometimes have a disproportionately high amount of negative feedback, which can cause their feedback loop to become broken. A healthy feedback loop allows us to question problematic parts of ourselves and test the validity of our ideas, but when our feedback skews more negatively, two things can happen that break our feedback loop. If we trust all of the negative feedback, we can lack confidence and wash out, which also reinforces our trust in the negative feedback loop. If we distrust all of our negative feedback, we can go “Full Kanye”, and become overconfident in even bad, problematic ideas, which can lead us to mistreat others. We can work toward healthier feedback loops by using more objective questions to evaluate the validity of the feedback we’re receiving, and take the worthiness and personal judgements out of the equation, so we and the ADHD community can begin to heal.

If you found this episode to be enjoyable or informative, please tell your friends and family members with ADHD, and/or give us a review wherever you get your podcasts. Seriously, those reviews are so important, and allow others to find us. 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 NPADHDpodcast, or my instagram, at adhdjaye. That’s A-D-H-D-J-A-Y-E. Thanks for listening, and we hope to see you again soon!