ADHD: A Lifetime of “Feeling Behind”

This may be one of the most universal complaints for adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. A feeling of being behind, and always trying to catch up.

“At 64, that’s how I’ve always felt with time, money, relationships, opportunities, tasks, commitments, etc.  I am perpetually behind and trying to catch up” rues TotallyADD Patreon Supporter, John S.

John’s lamentation resonated with me. It is so painfully familiar. 

Rick Green leans on a railing and looks at a beach

Is feeling ‘overwhelmed’ and ‘always behind’ just an ADHD Thing?

Probably not.  Especially these days given all that is going on in the world.  Everyone is affected.  Everyone is having to adapt their familiar routines. 

We’re all feeling extra pangs of anxiety. And that’s exhausting.

But what John refers to, “a lifetime spent trying to catch up,” is different.

I’m sure it resonates with many people who have the ADHD mindset. 

Always Behind, Always Late 

… plans made and then forgotten. 

For me it’s To Do lists.  They’re drawn up, and earnestly followed until any distraction.  When I find the list a week later, with the first 3 of a dozen tasks checked off, I sigh.  “Why do I bother?…”  Rinse and repeat…And repeat. 

It starts with great expectations.  Because, after all, “I had that one day where I finished a blog, and a video, and caught up on my emails!”  That day!  That one day.  In July of 2016.

And even at the end of that amazing day, the feeling of accomplishment was brief.  Because there were still so many tasks still to do, so much needing my attention, so many goals unfulfilled, so many requests to respond to, so many exciting ideas I’ve not yet pursued.

There it is… The feeling of always being behind.

Woman Feeling sad

Is This Just A Feeling?  

In one of our videos, I talk about the risk of trusting your feelings.  That doesn’t mean you deny, suppress, or diminish what you’re feeling.  But feelings do come and go, especially with ADHD. 

Why?  Because feelings are the result of our thoughts.  Someone yells at you and you might think, “How rude.”  Or, more likely, “I’m an idiot.”  But if you know that person just got fired, or lost a loved one, you might think, “They are in such pain right now,” and feel compassion. 

So, when we bemoan, “I can’t catch a break,” it might be better to say, “Right now, with all that’s happened, I feel like I can’t catch a break.” 

As I said, it’s easy for anyone and everyone to feel battered these days. Or overwhelmed by all that’s going on in the world.  Or challenged by it.

But as John says, “That’s how I’ve always felt…”   With ADHD, this sense of being snowed under, or falling further behind with each passing day, can become persistent and all-pervasive.  You may have a productive week but only see what still needs to be done.

Do ADHD Symptoms Increase This Feeling of Overwhelm?

One of the biggest changes in the understanding and diagnosis of adult ADHD has been the realization that emotions* play a huge role.

We can feel things suddenly and deeply, but not necessarily for long.  As Patrick McKenna points out in ADD & Loving It?! we can be quick to forgive because we forget what happened.  We are mercurial.  That’s true of all emotions, I think, not just the negative ones. 

We find a new hobby, a new job, or a new relationship and we’re happy, even elated.  The novelty is all consuming, eventually fading, until it feels boring or even burdensome.  And we move on. 

ADHD Anger

“For Sale: Entire Set of Scuba Diving Gear. Only used twice…” 

In our program about ADHD & Anger Dr. Kathleen Nadeau says:

I would not in any way say that people with ADHD are just like people who have an anger management problem.   There are some people that go through life feeling angry, almost a chip on the shoulder kind of attitude.  “I dare you.”  And sort of blasting at anyone and everyone that comes across their path…  But that is not at all similar to what people are dealing with, with ADHD

Our feelings can come and go, quickly.  And yet, as patron John laments, we seem to have had this feeling our whole lives.  Plus, we have plenty of evidence that it’s a legitimate feeling.  We do struggle to finish what we start, we are drawn to what’s new, we can lose track of what we’ve promised or committed to doing.

Breaking Free

So, if you are like John and I, and you feel like you’ll never get caught up on the epic amount of chores you need to do… What can you do about it?

Here are some simple suggestions that helped me to regain perspective and find the energy to tackle what needs doing:

  • Accept that this is a universal feeling.  The only way to feel like you have nothing waiting to be started (or finished) is to have zero ambition, no job, no responsibilities, no friends, no ideas, and no dreams.  And that’s not you, right?

  • That said, I’ve found that giving up some goals is liberating.  I thought I would be disappointed, and yes, for some things, I did grieve a bit.  But that soon gave way to feelings of relief and release.  Freedom.

  • Remind yourself that your well-intentioned desire to learn piano, master a second language, build a cabin in the woods, and win an Olympic Medal or an Oscar for something or other, were starting to feeling like burdens. Reminders that yet another year had passed and you hadn’t bought a keyboard, signed up for Spanish lessons, or begun training to become a figure skater. 

  • Separate what you NEED to do from what you WANT to do or imagine that you’d LIKE to do.  I want to learn a second language.  I don’t need to do it.

  • De-clutter.  Start with recycling and shredding as much old paperwork as you can.  And that’s usually way more than you think.  My wife and I are tackling two filing cabinet drawers this weekend to get rid of all the instructions, warranties, and paperwork for old cameras, phones, appliances, gadgets, fitness gear… If you need instructions, you can find a YouTube video on how to do almost everything!  I highly recommend the Marie Kondo method, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Then move on to the closet. For decades my wardrobe has grown and grown.  In forty minutes I was able to discard and donate over 1/3 of it.

  • Tidy your wallet, purse, sock drawer, cutlery drawer, bathroom cabinet, pantry, garden shed.

  • Put your phone away for a day.  For one day.  Eight hours.  And if you can’t manage that long, consider what that means.  I thought it would be easy… It wasn’t.  The ADHD brain is craving dopamine and the internet is designed to make it an addiction.

Are you afraid to make these kinds of changes?

That’s okay, because they don’t have to be permanent. 

Setting aside goals or deleting games doesn’t have to be forever. 

At some point you may have the time to learn Spanish. You can always download Candy Crush again, or, simply commit to a weekly online Zumba class instead.  

As for the warranties?  They’ve probably expired.  The instructions for the pocket camera?  I never use it anyway.  The recipe to make nectar for that hummingbird feeder?  There’s 1,000 videos and articles online.

And if you’re struggling with ADHD? 

Don’t worry, there are tons free videos about ADHD right here!

* For more on ADHD and emotional sensitivity, it’s addressed in two of our popular programs: Emotional Sensitivity and Now You Tell Me? The Emotional Roller Coaster of an ADHD Diagnosis.

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