Updated: May 2, 2022
First, a story. Recently I was on a Zoom call with some ADHD friends watching a presentation. I've seen many with ADHD on Zoom calls keep busy to help with fidgeting and getting restless. I've seen people do dishes, clean their room, fold laundry, etc. I've been trying to build this in myself as I think pairing a fairly stimulating activity (a long video or podcast) with a boring one (chores) can add up to a content mind. So I took my laptop into the kitchen to throw something together for dinner. I felt pretty good that I was doing a chore while listening to something useful when I got a low battery alert on my laptop. My decision to cook during the video was not planned, so I never brought the charger. Since I was hosting the video on zoom, I had a little panic, because I did not want to disrupt the call for my friends and did not want to burn frozen food in the oven. "You can't mess up something this easy!" The self-critic said. So I grabbed my laptop to plug it in quickly and then rushed back to the oven. In my haste, the webcam cord got stuck, and so when I got a couple of steps the laptop was stuck and flew out of my hands slamming down on the hardwood floor. I noticed damage on the screen right away and my first instinctive thought was, SEE! This is why you don't do things like this. Luckily before I started a shame spiral for how careless I was, I remembered how I was telling my group about how important it is to accept failures as a part of the growing process. Shaming yourself only builds anxiety to the point where trying things with the possibility of failure becomes terrifying. Begrudgingly I thought, "OK fine. Let's put it into action. Accept the accident and don't let it hurt your good intention of trying new strategies." Luckily my laptop turned on and I was able to continue the Zoom call, and the food didn't burn. Unluckily there was a rattling sound of something caught in the fan and the monitor had a dent in the corner.
The next day I set out to fix the laptop. From growing up on computers and an IT background, I've worked on hardware a bit but it had been a while. The last time I had tried to repair an electronic was opening up an old Playstation 2 but that resulted in giving up after getting frustrated that I made a mistake and disconnected something that made it more complicated. I was worried I was going to do more harm than good. I also had to contend with some 'Should'. "I should be able to fix this easily, I've worked with computers" or "I shouldn't have been nervous about it because it's something I've done before." I used some coach training and asked myself some empathetic questions like: "What's wrong with being nervous about making more mistakes? You aren't an expert and that's ok, so what's the reason for all the self-pressure? Making mistakes is part of growth, remember?" So I carefully proceeded with trying to fix the laptop. There was also a bunch of dust inside the case so I started hyper-focusing on cleaning it out. It's a pretty common ADHD feature to zone out and meticulously do a task far beyond its usefulness. It is something that can also lead to mistakes. Once I noticed that I could break something by trying to get every spec of dust out of the computer. I put the laptop back together and the rattling was replaced by the fan making a high-pitched whirring sound.
As I kept trying to fix the annoying noise I ended up taking the laptop apart a few times and I noticed that I was getting faster and more comfortable with it. That SHOULD be the end of the story. I overcame anxiety and felt competent that I was able to do something that I was anxious about. This is where I think ADHD anxiety can be particularly stubborn to conquer. As I became less anxious about opening up and repairing my laptop I started doing it faster. When I started doing it faster I became less cautious. Unscrewing and peeling open the case went from something that I gave a lot of attention, to something tedious. As a result, I dropped a screw somewhere in the case and had to figure out how to get it out. Instead of feeling confident, I again had to deal with the frustration of making mistakes because of not being able to finely regulate my attention. It was like my forward progress on breaking through anxiety was undone because I started rushing.
This can apply to social interactions too. Let's say you are nervous about meeting people and making a bad impression but this time things go great! You get more comfortable and less on guard and bam you impulsively say something awkward. "This is what I get for being comfortable". I imagine that this kind of subconscious feedback over a lifetime can build a sense of worry that even if things go well there's always a chance I'll mess it up so confidence only gets me into trouble. It seems like a vicious cycle. A lack of focus can lead to being more mistake prone leading to worry and caution. It makes sense why anxiety can be so difficult to kick and so common in ADHD. Staying in a state of worry is a way to regulate attention. While it may be a necessary coping mechanism in difficult situations, it can be debilitating. It can lead to inaction and avoidance. "No matter how many times I try I'll always make mistakes." I think this interplay between losing focus or over focus and worrying contributes to why ADHD is so often co-occurring with anxiety.
So what to do about it? One bright side is that while variable attention may lead to being mistake prone, it also leads to discoveries that more consistent minds would not make. Mistakes lead to learning opportunities. I think for me it has built a more forgiving nature when others make mistakes. In my experience, the way forward for building confidence is centered on acceptance. Understanding that there are strengths and weaknesses to having this style of mind and lessening the shame associated with mistakes. Oftentimes the shame was placed there externally by a world that champions consistency. Errors from a lack of focus often get labelled as being careless. This can be especially disheartening because we do care. Overcoming it is allowing mistakes to be an acceptable outcome. Looking at mistakes without judgement or shame allows the space to be able to come up with strategies to avoid your common pitfalls. An example for my case would be knowing that I am prone to getting frustrated when fixing something and taking deep breaths when I notice it crop up. I have also been starting to laugh off silly mistakes that my younger self would have been down on myself for and instead see it as a drawback to many of my strengths; the yin to my yang.
Disordered Attention can often lead to small accidental mistakes. Worrying and being cautious can help regulate attention enough to avoid these mistakes. Using that caution and completing a task should lead to confidence but if a task becomes routine and less scary it becomes unstimulating and hard to focus on. This lack of focus can lead back to more mistakes. This cycle and an environment that is critical of 'careless' mistakes (we care) may lead to avoidance of even trying things in the first place because you mess up even if you are sometimes successful at it. How to help: Accepting small missteps because of attention are a drawback to other strengths that people with more consistency do not have. Identify where you are mistake prone without judgement and strategize around it.