What follows is, in large part, an email I sent to a client a couple of weeks ago. It came out of their question to me about the definition of self-love and how to practice it. Self-love is something that folks with
adhd find difficult in the extreme. We—I’m also a person with adhd—tend to be generous to others, but extremely hard on ourselves, and it is my working belief that this harshness towards the self is foundational to the ways in which people with adhd struggle.
The idea of self-love provokes in me three questions:
-What is the self;
-What is love;
-Why is important to direct love towards the self?
Weirdly, the question that feels to me the most difficult to answer is the second, what is love, and I’m not going to spend much time trying to define it. To my mind, love doesn’t have a stable definition. I think the way people define it is highly individualized. The concept “love” includes so many different phenomena depending on the context. I would like to propose the the very broadest definition, which comes from the world of counselling by a person who is seen as the father of counselling psychology—as opposed to psychoanalysis or medicalized approaches to mental health—the great Carl Rogers. He’s the one who popularized the phrase, “unconditional positive regard.” For clarity, he was not talking about love or the self specifically but used that phrase to describe the way which counsellors should experience clients. That perspective was radical in the mid-20th century, when psychoanalysis was the prevailing modality in talk therapy… and psychoanalysts did assuredly not love their patients. Therapists were analysts and patients were called analysands—in other words, patients were subjects of a supposedly scientific undertaking, and it is not appropriate to love the subject of study.
All that said, I think unconditional positive regards works better than love, simply because it is less loaded and more deliberate. There is something about love that feels so ephemeral… maybe even magical. And perhaps that is part of the problem that some of us have in finding a way of directing that sort of feeling at ourselves. But unconditional positive regard is a more… well… as I wrote above, “deliberate” way of describing what we should be directing at ourselves. We must regard (from the french regarder – to look) ourselves positively (with love, esteem, respect, worthiness, goodness, morality, commendable, liked, valued, competent, etc.) in a way that is enduring, irrespective of the way things go. There is surely much more to say about the feeling of love/unconditional positive regard, but I also think we can use the definition that the American jurist Potter Stewart used to describe pornography: “I know it when I see it.” In that way we can be broad in the ways in which we can regard ourselves positively and unconditionally without needing to be too precise about what exactly love is.
With love out of the way… let’s ask about the self: what is it? Unlike love, I am going to try to more precise here, because if we are going to try to direct these positive feelings at this thing called a self, it’s going to be important to know what that self-thing is. Again… this is no easy feat… but I’m going to take a legitimate stab at defining self. There is an at least three thousand year conversation on this one from the Buddhists definition (or non-definition, i.e. the self is illusory, anattā) to a contemporary neuroscientific definition that attempts to locate the self in particular parts of the brain or in particular relationships of parts of the brain. The definition I am going to give doesn’t attempt to say what this self-thing is as final definition that negates the others. Rather, I am working with a definition that I hope pragmatically works in the context of trying to direct a particular feeling (unconditional positive regard) at a particular thing (self) in the hopes that doing so will have a good effect on the way you feel as you move through the world. Again, the definition of what we’re trying to achieve is a bit nebulous. But I think we both know it when we see it: i.e. feeling well… more energized… more decisive… less burdened, etc.
Here’s my provisional definition of self: the self is a pedestal on which aspects of past iterations of you sit in judgement of the person you are in this present moment. I think of it in imagistic terms: that “behind” me (i.e. the past) there is a pedestal on which some combined aspects of myself sits. For clarity, I don’t mean pedestal in the sense of “putting someone on a pedestal.” I simply mean a stand or a small piece of real estate. In architectural terms we might call it a plinth.
I think we all have this “self,” whether neurotypical or with neurological differences. I do, however, think that those of us with particular neurological differences have a kind of self… and that self is extremely harsh and unforgiving. The composition of that being is like an awful parent, who constantly points out the ways in which you haven’t lived up to expectations. That being only accepts perfection, but even when something approaching perfection is achieved, there is rarely any praise or positive regard but simply a grudging sense of “… fine… next.”
Here’s how I experience it: as a kneejerk—and by kneejerk i mean immediately reflexive, i.e. when the doc taps that thing in your knee with her little rubber mallet. There is no room for consideration. There is simply stimulus and reaction—reaction to the reflection that I haven’t performed well in some particular domain. For me, I experience it in cruel and diminishing language. Think of the cruellest words you have ever heard. This is what I hear from this being who sits on a pedestal in judgement of the person I am in the present.
This is an extremely common occurrence for those of us with
adhd. And so… this thing that I am calling a self for those of us with adhd is something like a cruel parent or drill instructor, who sits on their pedestal waiting for even a hint of a problem they see in the way things are going for our present being. I will say from personal and professional experience, there are not a lot of kind words or words of affirmation that emanate from that collection of past me(s). It is almost entirely corrosive and diminishing.
If this is an accurate portrayal of what this thing is that we’re calling a self, then two questions:
-Where does it come from;
-And what does it do?
I’ll answer the second one first: what that construction of self as a being that sits on a pedestal in judgement of the person we currently are and is the very best at pointing out all the ways in which we are performing badly on a moment by moment basis produces in us a diminished willingness to try… well… anything. If all performance that doesn’t approach perfection is going to be judged harshly, then why try anything? This explains, I think, the reticence all of with
adhd have in doing hard things. Hard things by definition are the most likely to produce uncertain and/or poor outcomes. This is why I think video games are so attractive to so many who have adhd: there is, in the end, nothing at stake. By this I don’t mean to shit on video games from a moral standpoint. But video games are a way to participate in a kind of life in which the self (our pedestal-self) doesn’t need to take such a harsh stand against our present being because… well… you can simply respawn or you can try again and again.
I think that this experience of having a cruel parent/drill instructor reflexively letting you know when you’ve fucked up produces a strong aversion to undertaking any activity that is more likely to produce more cruel talk. Importantly, this experience of walking around the world with this cruel self pissing in your ear the entire time has a critical effect: it teaches you a particular way of anticipating the future.
One of the things that binds those of us with
adhd together is a slavish relationship to anticipation and preparation. But if my definition of “self” is correct—at least in a pragmatic way—then this is precisely what it would produce. If we (that is our present sense of self) knows that a reflexive “what a dipshit” is around every corner, then it behooves us to do anything and everything we can do to forestall the cruel language that is directed at us. And so we ruminate and perseverate and anticipate, not because we like to or because it is a good way to spend our resources, but because it is necessary as a strategy in the attempt to keep this cruel pedestal self at bay.
And I think this participates in the way we imagine others will respond to us, i.e. that we imagine that others will be as cruel to us as we are to ourselves. But of course… upon reflection every client (and this is my experience too) notes that we are always more generous to others than we are to ourselves. So why do we intuit that others will treat us as roughly as we treat ourselves?
I think one of the most critical parts of this story is the manner in which it produces in us a particular relationship to the future. This definition of self that I am proposing creates a sense of the future in which I will fail or disappoint or hurt myself or others. And so, what is the response of the present self? It creates a sense of deep trepidation. It creates a sense of the future as the site of my failures and disappointments (inevitably so) to come. So… why would I do anything to arrive in that future? It makes more sense to withdraw or to do the sorts of things that keep that cruel parent/drill sargent at bay. That might mean solely doing things that you can confidently say you are expert at, because trying something new means automatically being inexpert in that thing. That’s true for hobbies and work, and that is true for relationships too.
Now, the important question: what do about all of this? From my perspective, what is called for first and foremost is finding a different way to predict the future. Let’s pause on this for a moment, because it strikes the ear as weird AF: I am not suggesting that you should be able to predict the future in any finely grained way. This is not sci-fi. But we are all predicting (simulating and anticipating) the future all the time. All of us… constantly. We live in the present of our predicted futures.
When I write “predicting the future,” I mean it in gross ways. For instance, do I anticipate the future as a place where I will be a fuck up and my pedestal-self will let me know about it every step of the way, or do I see the future as a place where I am a curious and engaged person, who will experience all the colours of the emotional rainbow, who will do his best, who will suffer, and who will experience joy… but irrespective of what goes down, I know that I am a hard working or kind or conscientious or whatever else you know about yourself now and project into the future.
In short, I know that I am not a perfect person and that perfection is not attainable. I know I will make mistakes. I know there is the possibility that I will hurt people and that people will hurt me. I know all of that. But I do not need to attain perfection for me to be deserving of kindness from others and from myself. I know that unconditionally, because I already know that for others. All the things that I just wrote, I have always known about others. And now I know that about myself. I deserve and am worthy of unconditional positive regard now and always not because I have achieved something of greatness but simply because I am a person.
Here’s a therapeutic exercise: to identify the episodes that have created this thing I am calling the pedestal-self and to see if you can bring some of this unconditional positive regard to the person you were who committed these crimes. That might be extremely difficult. But I have no doubt you can do it expertly for others. Maybe that looks like forgiveness. Maybe it looks like comfort and support. The task is to see if you can diminish the things the pedestal-self thinks it has concluded about you, because if the episodes the pedestal-self can point to as demonstrations of your foolishness or stupidity or whatever it accuses you of are no longer available for it to point to, then it might allow you more space to navigate the world. If the pedestal-self is quieter, it allows you to predict a future in which you are ok. And if you can predict a future in which you are ok, then my hope is that you will find the present less laden with the negative self talk produced by the pedestal-self.
My suggestion is to this as a writing project. I would start off with lower stakes offences and then work your way to more difficult material. And no doubt that you will feel some real resistance in doing this. That is appropriate and should be expected. The pedestal-self has been at this for a lot of years, but the task is even with the pedestal-self to bring kindness and patience to the exercise. If you try to hit the pedestal-self with a bat and chase it away, you will have proved its point: namely that you are a scared and stupid brute. And even if you manage to chase this part of yourself away for a brief moment, it will return with renewed vigour. But see what happens when this part of you rears up in violent anger and you look it straight in the eye and offer the unconditional positive regards we’ve been discussing. Anger and disappointment don’t know what to do with kindness and acceptance.
Ok… that feels like enough for the moment :). Take a stab at anything here. Try my writing exercise. See if you can be the older brother to those younger versions of yourself that you didn’t have. See if you can be kind to the person who you were who did the things that the pedestal-self seems intent on excoriating you for.