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Adults with ADHD: Shrinking ‘Shoulds’

Adults with ADHD: Shrinking “Shoulds”Adults with ADHD often hold all kinds of “shoulds.” These include everything from I should be able to remember that to I shouldn’t need a pill to do what I’m supposed to do to I shouldn’t need all these reminders or alarms, according to Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD.

Other common beliefs include: I should be able to do this by myself and I should be able to do it that way , said Sarah D. Wright, a life coach who specializes in working with people who have attention disorders.

“These statements aren’t helpful because they put a value judgment onto a factual matter,” said Tuckman. That is, they assume that you should be able to do something you can’t do.

ADHD is a neurological disorder. It affects individuals’ executive functioning — impairing everything from one’s ability to prioritize and pay attention to one’s ability to manage time and get organized.

As Tuckman said, “If it’s hard for you to resist distractions, then it’s hard for you to resist distractions.”

When you believe these unrealistic statements, you tend to focus on how you feel about a situation, instead of on how you can deal with that situation, he said. In other words, we fixate on wishing something away when our time is better spent on problem solving.

In short, should statements keep us stuck. “If you have this idea that you just should be able to pay attention better, then you’re probably less likely to seek the help and strategies that will enable you to make the best use of the attention that you do have,” Tuckman said.

First, it helps to distinguish should statements from deeply held (and feasible) aspirations, which you can do by delving into the origin of your shoulds. Wright suggested considering if a should statement stems from an external expectation — such as your parents — or an internal one that you actually care deeply about.

For instance, one of Wright’s clients believed she should call her father more often. She realized this was an actual want — an aspiration out of love. But her life was too chaotic, and she couldn’t fit the calls in. So she decided to carve out a specific block of time. She put the calls on her schedule for 4 p.m. every Thursday. Making these calls strengthened the relationship, and even boosted the client’s self-esteem.

Remember that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Celebrate your gifts, and capitalize on your strengths. Very often people discount their strengths because they simply come easy to them, Wright said. For instance, one of her clients loves to travel and effortlessly — and happily — navigates her way around new cities and sights. Certainly this is a great strength; many of us likely find travel to be a whole lot trickier.

Wright suggested asking yourself: What do I love to do? What is as easy as breathing? Make a list of these things. Then consider what you love about them and how this speaks to your strengths.

If you’re stuck, she said, you also can ask someone who knows you well: “What do you think I’m good at? What do you think I care about?” Such discussions can be incredibly revealing, she said.

Acceptance is key to relinquishing sabotaging shoulds. For instance, try to accept that you need help with certain activities (that’s OK! as long as they get done) or that medication helps you focus (because your brain is simply wired differently) or that reminders support your success at work (everyone works differently).

Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re happy about it, said Tuckman, author of the book More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD. Rather, it means you’ve “decided to stop wasting energy wishing for it to be different. This then frees you to focus on the things that you can actually do something about.”

For instance, he said, instead of beating yourself up about not being able to focus, accept that you tend to get distracted easily and reduce distractions so you can get things done.

One of Wright’s clients, an accomplished man in a demanding position, was having a hard time scheduling tasks in his digital device. He believed that he should be able to do everything digitally (because of our high-tech life). But he’d put off the task for months. Turns out he actually preferred paper and pencil. And when he let himself use this method, he completed the task in one afternoon.

The key is to work with your neurology (strengths and preferences), not against it. Wright’s ADHD coaching school trainer used to say: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, don’t blame the foot.”

Wright once met a man who was born left-handed but was forced to use his right hand as a child. As he got older, he went back to being left-handed. He told Wright that as soon as he did, the creativity poured out of him and he even stopped stammering. “As soon as he went back to being who he was, his life completely changed for the better,” Wright said.

Adults with ADHD: Shrinking ‘Shoulds’

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). Adults with ADHD: Shrinking ‘Shoulds’. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 25 Sep 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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