Self-Care Through Self-Compassion: My ADHD Journey
Do you remember when self-care became the new buzzword? Perhaps its inception slipped by you, as it did me, until suddenly, it was everywhere.
I began to embrace what I thought was self-care in my 20s. This involved eating a lot of yogurt and salads, taking lavender bubble baths, and getting to bed earlier. But impatient and restless, I was out of the bath the moment I got in, making it an exercise in speed relaxing. I’d get to bed early and then lie wide awake for hours ruminating and worrying. I also struggled with impulsive eating.
In my 30s, I experienced burnout while in the final year of my degree program. I couldn’t figure out how to study within “normal” bounds of time. Not for a moment did I imagine I was taking on too much. I assumed I wasn’t doing enough! I blamed my burnout on my lack of self-care, and more rigid self-care regimes followed.
For reasons I couldn’t fathom then, these self-care rituals never quite worked for me. This pattern – of setting up self-care plans and failing to follow through on them – was a constant. Every let down came with feelings of doom, shame, and inadequacy. What was wrong with me? I blamed myself for my lack of willpower to make self-care happen – a prerequisite to achieving the life I wanted.
All my struggles made sense after I was diagnosed with ADHD in midlife. One of my many subsequent realizations was that true self-care always comprises one central component: self-compassion.
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Self-Care and ADHD
The most dominant self-care narratives would have us believe that our lives would be better – and we’d be better people — if we only ate the best superfoods, or followed the smartest exercise regime, or exfoliated more. So much of what’s considered self-care, it seems, involves superficial self-maintenance more than anything. It’s about “doing” to achieve, regardless of how we actually feel about said self-care at the end of the day.
Self-care is sold to us as the antidote to burnout. But for many people, especially for those of us with ADHD, it’s hard enough to get it together, let alone keep it together. And trying to keep it together often comes at the high price of overcompensating, and perpetually feeling like we’re not good enough. In the end, we struggle to like ourselves all that much. So much for self-care.
If ADHD neurology had factored into the self-care boom early on, it may have featured different and kinder messages to those of us who struggle to cement new habits — even the ones that are supposedly beneficial. Self-compassion might have featured prominently from the start.
The Role of Self-Compassion in ADHD
In my 40s, as I studied to become a counselor, I came across the work of Dr. Kristin Neff – a vibrant American lady who spoke boldly of self-compassion. I was alarmed but curious about this new concept. Does this mean I might have to start accepting myself? Liking myself even? Embracing my very humanness, which never seemed adequate? What did that even look like?
[Read: You Are Worthy of Self-Compassion – How to Break the Habit of Internalized Criticism]
Though the concept felt uncomfortable and a bit icky, I realized that this self-compassion stuff would become integral to my work as a counselor. Helping people find congruence and embrace their authentic selves wasn’t a journey I could lead unless I was walking it, too.
Practicing self-compassion with ADHD is not easy. When an ADHD diagnosis comes in adulthood, as it did for me, it can shatter everything we thought we understood about our personhood. By the time of diagnosis, we have lived much of our lives already with atypical neurology, which has brought us confusion around our limits and capabilities. We often feel behind others in life’s key areas. We strive; we agonize. It’s caused many of us to feel like we must berate ourselves to get anything done.
Self-compassion tells us that it’s OK to err and to be human. That it actually is okay to experience what we experience without (as one of my clients eloquently describes it) “contorting ourselves.” We are deserving of compassion by virtue of being human. As people with ADHD neurology, perhaps a little self-compassion would go a long way.
Practicing self-compassion also gives us less reason to berate ourselves. This is not to be confused with self-pity. It has nothing to do with feeling sorry for yourself, and everything to do with an inward kindness.
On this long journey toward self-compassion, I finally realize that this is what true self-care is all about. I tentatively predict (and not just for people with ADHD) that self-compassion – currently a little quirky, a little self-centered-sounding – will soon become inextricably linked to our concepts of self-care.
Self-Care and Self-Compassion: Next Steps
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