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Emotional SENSITIVITY – A Small Trigger Sets Off a Huge Explosion

ADHD Expert Rick Green

ADHD adults are prone to being emotionally sensitive

I want to talk about Emotional Sensitivity.  Over-Reacting. Specifically, how one small setback can cause a huge explosion… of sadness.  Hmm. That doesn’t sound right. Sadness doesn’t ‘explode.’ Anger explodes. Sadness… Hmmm… It oozes? Plops and drips? Drowns?

It’s not an explosion.   More like quicksand, slowly and relentlessly pulling me down, until I’m under. Ugh.  This is about sadness. But this is not a sad blog. Thus, we begin with a knock-knock joke.

ME: Knock Knock.

YOU: Who’s there?

ME: Meredith Marjorie McMilker, the ADHD Interrupting Cow.

YOU: Meredith Marjor…


Highland Cow

On That Happy Note…

We get a lot of feedback from our live presentations. In fact, we ask for it.  We often hand out evaluation forms with a bunch of questions to find out what worked and helped, what didn’t, and the big question… Do these pants make me look fat?

One comment keeps resonating with me. It still makes me feel queasy when I think about it. Which is ridiculous, I suppose, but here I am writing about it.  The note came after I did an ADHD workshop for several hundred people.  I’m never happy with what I do, but I have to admit, it was a hit. There was laughter, tears, more laughter, a standing ovation. We were swamped with positive feedback.

But on one feedback form, along with lots of nice, positive comments, a woman wrote that she noticed a couple of typos in the Power Point presentation. And that those mistakes, ‘Made me sad.’   And that comment made me sad. Because I totally understood.

It wasn’t a criticism or nitpicking. She wasn’t scolding me for missing small typos. She just felt as if everything we do (‘We’ being adults with ADHD) was bound to be full of mistakes.  It was a valid point. But for some reason it stuck with me. Years later it still triggers something. Why am I so upset?

How Is This Possible?

It’s ridiculous. What’s wrong with me?  All that positive feedback from so many audience members, including, ‘Thank you, I think you’ve just saved my marriage,’ but what had me in its grip?  That one statement. One statement amongst effusive praise.

The reason is that I felt what she felt. I understood what she meant. Perfectly.  Reading it, I suddenly felt, well, not queasy or agitated, just… sad.  Not a ‘bursting into tears’ kind of sad, mind you, like when a loved on dies, or when the local Dairy Queen closed. More like… having all the wind taken out of my sails.

Drained. Deflated. That slide whistle going down, down… Superman near Kryptonite… Simon when discussing Garfunkel.

Guilt? Shame? Ennui?

Have you ever had this happen to you?  The sudden cringing. The weary sigh and a quiet internalized, ‘Damn. I knew it. I’m a screw up.’ It can be slightly nauseating sense that nothing will ever change. ‘I’m doomed.’

When you’re confronted by something you’ve screwed up, does the vitality just get sucked out of you?  Sometimes by small things rather than big disasters?  All those positives comments count for nothing. and 5-out-of-5 ratings… and what sticks with me is that one person was sad. Crazy, right?

The Truth Behind My Reaction

My reaction is actually an aspect of ADHD. It’s not great, but it’s natural. The very first symptom of ADHD that is listed in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM), the medical bible that doctor’s use as the standard reference is, ‘Often does not give close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in schoolwork, work, or other activities.’ 

Small, careless, mistakes… the ones that make our work look sloppy.  The oversights that make our spouses and friends think we don’t care. The little bloopers that sabotage our projects and promotions. The trivial typos that suggest we aren’t serious or concerned.

And often, the small mistakes do have a profound impact. The contract is wrong. The apology never arrives. The groom is left standing at the altar.  Knowing The Reason Helps… A Bit

Before I understood my ADHD, when I’d make small mistakes and they were pointed out, I’d often brush them off, miffed, ‘Whatever! You get the point.’ I felt like, ‘I’ve created the Mona Lisa for God’s sake, who cares if the frame has a chip in it!? Nitpickers! Critics! Complainers!’

By the way being ‘overly sensitive’ and ‘prone to drama’ are very common for many of us.  The fact is, underneath the indignation and justifying, I felt … sad. Disappointed with myself. Not again!’  Of course my defensiveness didn’t help. Justifying and defending never does. (A big tip for you husbands out there.)

The Solution Wasn’t An Anti-Depressant

The sadness passed quickly.  Another common trait for many adults with ADHD is our ability to move on. We recover quickly. Bounce back.  My character Bill on The Red Green Show has become our ADHD poster boy for his ability to shrug off disaster with eternal optimism.

So the sadness can be profound. But it doesn’t linger. No need for therapy or medication.  The solution is simply to put practices in place to reduce the mistakes.  Having someone proofread anything I’ve written. (Including this blog.)

Or coming back to it later myself, carefully reading it, word by word, to make sure there are not any more any extra unnecessary words that aren’t necessary. (See what I did there? Nice to know I’ve still got it.)

I say all this because I’m still pleasantly surprised that putting a simple strategy in place to manage some aspect of overwhelm, upset, distractibility, or a logistical issue around time or clutter… causes a huge boost on my confidence and self esteem.

Which is why finding ADHD-Friendly Strategies that work for me, creates more victories, fewer ‘Uh ohs!’, has such an impact on my attitude.  I wish my mood was less dependent on whether things go right or wrong. And I’m learning to let go of perfectionism and accept that I’m human.  But the restless, driven part of me finds this slow, steady, step-by-step progress mildly annoying at best, but it is what it is. Because I am impatient. As are many who suffer from ADHD.

Such as Meredith Marjorie McMil…




Check out 36 ADHD-Friendly tools, tips, and strategies that Rick Green and Patrick McKenna use to soar in the acclaimed PBS documentary, ADD & Mastering It!

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  1. lindsey3 November 14, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    Hi Rick, you felt sad with one hiccup amongst a storm of praise / success / achievement / connection – I really get this. All my professional life I only ever heard a mildly ‘negative’ suggestion, and could never take on board the praise, evidenced success, letters of thanks etc. But to me, this wasn’t sadness, it was devastating disappointment that I wasn’t perfect. PERFECT. That’s what I had to be in part to justify the 70 hours of work a week that I put in, to achieve what colleagues managed in 40 hours. PERFECT because the ADHD me had just worked so very hard to be in this position at all. PERFECT because I was brittle and had no personal life, only a work life – I couldn’t manage both. PERFECT because I had no perspective…….and in the end I couldn’t go on. I am currently unemployed after a long professional life.
    We notice, absorb and feel deeply about a small negative response because of profound insecurity and low self esteem, no matter what our specialism is. How many of us feel like intruders? If ‘they’ our colleagues only knew, they would see that we didn’t deserve to be there because of our difference, which we hide. We hide, and laugh, and go home and spend hours and hours trying to put something together that they managed to do before even going home. The sheer exhaustion of ADHD at work throws up extreme feelings.
    I didn’t feel sad when a constructive comment came in, I smiled and nodded on the surface at work, but went home and felt crushed. I wasn’t good enough, my cover was slipping, I shouldn’t be doing this and so on. I wasn’t PERFECT!
    Dear Rick, I suspect you are playing down your feelings because you know they are not in proportion and have settled on ‘sad’ to describe them. Did you really feel that you had let yourself down beyond redemption? That you weren’t PERFECT?
    This is a serious consequence of ADHD.
    Big hug x

  2. marr November 15, 2015 at 2:17 am

    “The fact is, underneath the indignation and justifying, I felt…sad. Disappointed with myself, yet again.” and also feel like a child all over again, and that I’ll never get it together. You described it perfectly and I totally relate!!! Once I ruminate over it a while, I try to hang onto the hope that I’ll learn the strategy that will help me, as other things have now since learning more about ADHD.

  3. Scattybird November 15, 2015 at 8:15 am

    Interesting blog. My perception of this is it isn’t so much about the ADHD trait of making careless mistakes, although it is the route because it was an error that sparked this off……but doesn’t it say more about how hypersensitive we can be? I mean your reaction Rick to a harmless negative observation amongst so many positive ones and the fact that the person giving the feedback (presumably an ADDer) latched onto a trivial point and felt the need to mention it. What you said resonates with me because I teach and we have to get feedback from the students. If something goes well and I get great feedback apart from one tiny trivial comment embedded somewhere, it’s that negative comment that I dwell on…..it eats away at me for days and I barely think about the positive comments. My colleagues seem to be able to focus on the positive points. If that negative point is about something that could have been avoided then I metaphorically beat myself up about the stupidity of my mistake. If it’s something that I couldn’t have avoided then I just feel very sad. Perhaps we are more sensitive to criticism because we have to put in twice the effort that ‘normals’ do in order to achieve the same goal, so a slight criticism is in effect multiplied out of proportion relative to the same criticism levied at someone without ADHD. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to feel sad but instead celebrate everything we do. Easier said than done. If anyone knows how to eliminate that sadness felt by imperfections please share it. :)

  4. dotsenough November 15, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    Excellent writing.
    I related to these thoughts so much as I read it. It was so easily read. It flowed downstream so nicely. I did wonder a wee bit:
    Where is this headed? What is the point going to be?
    However, I enjoyed the ride until nearly the end of the article…
    and then “BOOM”, it hit. “…any more any…” ?????
    Oh well, I’m almost done reading.
    And then after that sentence, “(See what I did there?)”.
    …No ROTFLOL!!!
    And there it was, the answer, in wonderment, with the final sentence.
    “I say all this because I’m still surprised that putting a simple strategy in place to manage overwhelm, upset, drifting focus, or some logistical issue around managing time and stuff… ends up having a huge impact on my emotions, beliefs, and self esteem.”
    I couldn’t agree more.
    (Isn’t that the comic strip I saw? …looking… Oh no, that was “I Could Care Less.” http://www.xkcd.com/1576/)
    Great job Rick!!!
    –Just recently diagnosed with ADD @58 and I very rarely comment on anything. It takes too long.
    (Know how long it took me to write this comment? How many times I reread it? Modified it? Will it be formatted correctly and display my carriage returns or do I need to add break tags? Oh well, I will just submit it.)

  5. susank November 15, 2015 at 11:52 pm

    I make dumb mistakes, too, and always blow their importance way out of proportion. I like what marr had to say about it making you feel like a child again. I don’t know about the rest of you, but my memories of being a child with ADHD isn’t much fun. Lots of frustration. And, because of my ADHD, I have a tendency to behave in a childish manner even now at 60 – I’m excitable and sometimes say inappropriate things. So, although I’m smart and have accomplished a lot – like my Ph.D., traveling the world, and blah, blah, blah – people often treat me like a kid. Sometimes it’s just easier to go with it – at least at 60, I have license to be eccentric!

  6. rachelscott November 16, 2015 at 9:59 am

    Exactly. I went to a “burning ceremony” last night and two of the three things I lifted up as what I wanted to let go of were 1. feeling inadequate, and 2. letting that one negative comment eat me alive in the midst of all the positive feedback. …What was interesting was that I opened this page before I left but didn’t read the article until this morning. I wish it was as easy as having a proof reader. I’ve been reading back with fresh eyes for years but that is part of the reason I feel like I am so slow at getting work done. (Another might be reading articles instead of making the phone call I am supposed to be making so I can actually walk my dog and get to the office.) I feel the disapproval so strongly. What I notice about ADD is how strongly we tend to judge ourselves! Most people think we are wonderful; why can’t we?

  7. cloud1 November 16, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    Rick I wear those same shoes, plenty of wins but just one critical remark and that small error over shadows it all. What a burden. With an attorney for a boss that dissects every document and communication, curled with an ADHD admin who is far more symptomatic and in denial, the workplace is a very stressful environment. Despite being a top producer, it is that improper grammar, math miscalculation or other mistake in an unforgivable environment that keeps me on edge. What is so hard about reveling in all the great accomplishments?
    You’ve done a lot in your career, so try to shake it off and enjoy the excellent conference! All the good that just the website, resources, research is enough to put you at the head of the table! The Friday funnies are a joy too. Congratulate yourself and your partners! You are enough – perfection isn’t possible no matter what others expect, that’s my mantra. Since I can barely see this on my mini tablet you’ll probably find grammar and errors abound, today lets just say it is the thought that counts.

  8. madreamer November 22, 2015 at 8:02 pm

    You so often give voice to my experiences, and you’ve done it again. Thank you for this perspective! And no. Those pants don’t make you look fat!

  9. kc5jck November 27, 2015 at 5:34 pm

    IF I had noticed a typo (keep in mind I have ADHD) I would have thought, “Hey, you don’t have to be perfect to get your point across. Even RICK makes mistakes. It must be OK for me to make them too. Whew, that makes me feel better.”

  10. sheilabridget November 30, 2015 at 4:03 pm

    Excellent Rick.
    I am so familiar with this feeling. I’m really glad you decided to write about it. It’s a feeling too often overlooked when addressing ADD emotions. I’ve had people close to me say I am too sensitive. It’s true. I don’t take teasing very well, and I hate not being taken seriously when my intent is to do so.
    It probably does go back to those school report cards. In fact, when I started suspecting I might have ADD, it was that ….does not live up to potential; doesn’t pay attention; daydreams; immature…blah blah, that hit me. I battled with that growing up. My Mom would get so disappointed and frustrated with me. I always felt deep inside, ‘Im not stupid’,….It’s just all so boring…..
    I seriously had a hard time keeping focused and paying attention. I loved daydreaming and had it down to an art form! When I finally went back to college, and worked toward my degree over the years, I was on the Deans list.

  11. lorrainec May 8, 2016 at 2:49 am

    A belated comment to your A Small Trigger Sets Off A Huge Explosion article, reprinted in your May 8, 2016 email.
    Boy, can I ever identify with the wave of sadness a small mistake can generate. I was diagnosed with ADD 10 years ago (age 50) and passed through the denial, anger and finally acceptance and relief, coupled with a good toolbox of new coping skills. However the self-doubt and sadness you describe have reared their ugly heads. For example, a couple of (minor) mistakes from the same or related projects have recently been triggering tsunamis of doubt in skills that I know I possess.
    For example, my home has a modest wooden deck on 3 sides. The 10-year-old deck framing is treated wood, but the deck boards are untreated and in the last 3 or 4 years I’ve had to replace a dozen or so boards each season. The little repair job went well for the first couple of years, then summer before last I made several
    stupid mistakes (wrong lengths, miscalculated angles etc), minor and easily corrected, but rare mistakes for me. I finished the job, but my confidence (and skills) were shaky at best.
    Last season I was almost terrified about the project, and proceeded to procrastinate for weeks, finally forced myself to do the bare minimum to make the most used part of the deck safe, and fall/winter arrived with the rest of the work abandoned (and a portion of the deck blocked off for safety) after more weeks of procrastination. Now the time is near when the old desperately needed work is due, and a handful of new boards to be installed, and the little project looms like a mountain.
    This is just one of dozens of ‘little’ tasks which have grown to this stature, and I am all by paralyzed with doubt, to the point of never starting (for fear of failing).
    Rick, this is totally out of character for me; I’ve always dived into challenges head-long. (Of course, typically ADD, if it turned out that I did not excel in a new challenge, I would not repeat it – lol.)
    I realize I have written quite the lengthy comment here, but I am hoping that you can offer some suggestions to help me overcome the quicksand in which I find myself. My usual strategies to manage these feelings are just not succeeding. Even my cognitive behaviour practices (the big guns) are not firing.
    Come on. Lay it on me. Rationally I know I have the skills but emotionally I’m fizzling. Maybe a pep talk and a few pointers from you and the Totally ADD bloggers can give me the kick-start I need.

  12. bobd51758 May 8, 2016 at 11:13 am

    Hi Rick , you hit the nail on the head with this one . I just had an incident where I got pissed at myself for forgetting something that was not that big of a deal . I was amazed at the level of anger I felt about it , and I punched the inside of my hand over it . I realize nowadays that I am different in the sense of what I claim to be important and what in general is not . Wow , are we unnecessarily hard on ourselves ! All the positives and one negative , and the whole world ends for me , is a classic . There is nothing wrong with me , it is just I receive information differently , and what a disaster it was growing up not knowing this. Well , thanks Rick for the great article , this is a big deal I try to pay attention , to !!! Bob D

  13. sdwa May 8, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    The same thing happens to me. I ace a test, and the instructor tells the class, “It was an easy test,” and I feel totally deflated. Or I get thirty positive responses on a presentation, and one set of comments from someone who’s nutty enough to tell me I come across as “cold and robotic” (who says that?)….Or I work hard to keep a calendar to track everything I need to do, get the date wrong in my mind anyway, and miss a deadline because I think it’s the 13th instead of the 3rd. These things happen to everyone, though.The echoes of past disappointments and the prediction that failure is the only possible future both contribute to blowing these things all out of proportion.

  14. danodea July 3, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    So that‘s what it is. I never knew that. I always thought it was because authority figures were always harping on me for being a screw-up. Oh, it was that too, but one can easily toss out the “Oh, he’s a screw-up” from first grade by being successful in second grade. Or third. Or maybe college or your career….
    But no, it still happens. Lots of praise for something and all I hear is, “You have to change this one tiny thing.” But….
    Reducing the mistakes using good practices is a great help in reducing mistakes, and making fewer mistakes certainly helps the old confidence level. Nevertheless, as correct as that is, I have two questions.
    1) I like a bigger picture solution, because how do you start when the feelings prevent you from even starting? I’ll answer this one: power through it. I’d like a better method and am willing to hear suggestions.
    2) This one is harder: it’s bad enough when you listen to the one critic. But what if that one critic is you? I used to think I was afraid of failure; now I realize I’m afraid of success! What a strange concept, but it makes sense. I show people things, and they all love it – but all I see are places where I can do better, or I missed something. So that’s not ADHD, that’s something else.
    ADHD causes some difficulties, sure, but I’ve learned to use its “deficits” to my advantage as well. I love having ADHD. This site has helped with that, too; thanks, Rick!

  15. danodea July 3, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    Case in point in re my last comment: I already see two writing mistakes. Dammit!

  16. ladygogo January 27, 2017 at 4:30 pm

    Ha ha, Danodea,
    I did the same thing. Only I made 3 mistakes. And wrote a lot less. Here’s my reaction, without the typos. LOL.
    The thing I hate the most is how sometimes nothing throws me off, and then other times something small has me down in the dumps, even crying. My husband doesn’t understand why I’m so upset about something that I did… or that I didn’t do. And I couldn’t explain it either.
    But I think there are two reasons these meltdowns happen. One is that I’ve had a bunch in a row and eventually one is the straw that breaks the camels back. Just one too many for me to handle.
    The second reason one mistake or screw up will knock me for a loop is that it’s public. Other people see it. Or other people are affected. It’s one thing to forget to take the clothes out of the washer and they end up going all stinky after 2 days, it’s way worse when I’m supposed to meet friends for lunch or something and I totally forget about it until one of them calls asking if I’m okay.
    One friend actually stopped calling after the second time it happened. She wasn’t my best friend, but still it really threw me for a loop.

  17. dusnoetos March 26, 2017 at 2:10 am

    Yester day my wife picked up some of my meds from the pharmacy. One medication was supposed to have 90 pills. Clearly it did not. This (in combination of a migraine and the stress of buying our first house – YAY!) I totally snapped. After an immature yelling fit that only served to scare my wife and kids, I immediately grabbed my keys and took off to give the pharmacist a “piece of my mind”. At the pharmacy I laid in to the pharmacist – complete with profanity and threat (and I am a big stocky muscular guy…) The pharmacist (to his credit kept his cool) apologized and went to fix the error. It was then I noticed the group of other customers who witnessed my stupid outburst. As I stood there shaking in pain and dizzy from the migraine, I was immediately crushed with guilt. I humbly apologized to everyone, particularly the pharmacist, and went home and slept.
    I was diagnosed with ADHD at a very young age (along with Borderline personality disorder in my early 20’s) so dealing with the many many aspects mental illness is not new to me. In spite my extensive study and professional help over the years I am still learning “why” I sometimes act like I do. This article was a huge eye opener. I am constantly trying to identify different triggers and how to properly deal with them.
    I’ve been following this site for a few years but this is the first time I felt compelled to post anything. (guess I needed a safe place to vent☺) The real world advice and concepts found here have been a big help. Thanks. (just wish there was an equivalent site that dealt with BPD in the same way…)
    Well its 1 am should go to bed.

  18. AdultWithADHD March 26, 2017 at 6:53 am

    Oh I must! No, maybe I shouldn’t. But I HAVE to! “Power Point” is a typo itself. “PowerPoint” is how it’s spelled correctly. MuhahaHA!! But so what!? It ain’t no Big Frigging Deal now, is it? The idea is what matters and your point still sinks home. And BTW, ladygogo, “the straw that breaks the camels back” should be the straw that breaks the “camel’s” back.

  19. lunatrelawney March 26, 2017 at 10:10 am

    My sensitivity has to do with ” mistakes” made while relating to others and not so much grammar.
    Case in point: one of my most early and traumatic memories from nursery school. Remember those seesaws from the 70’s? Back when we had dangerous merry go rounds chopping off little kids’ arms! ( oh the carnage, oh the blood splatters back in the day!)
    Well, one day at recess while riding on the killer seesaw with my friend ( eek, a boy!), I made a terrible mistake. I went to get off my seat at the same time he did and the seesaw flew up and smacked him ( I’m assuming in his family jewels, poor dear!). Naturally he was crying, but I started crying too after being yelled at by an aide.
    The thing is, long after he’d STOPPED crying I was STILL crying! In fact, it was picture day and I have a photo of me with red eyes (and a look of guilt only someone who ran over their neighbors’s dog would have) to prove it!
    So, what was my point? Oh…well, that feeling carries over into being overly cautious in relationships. I plan to make a prop to carry with me, that is a foot on a stick with the inscribed instructions ” in case of emergency, open mouth and insert!”

  20. sivanaholler March 26, 2017 at 6:37 pm

    Oh my mushrooms! I just learned that I may be ADD, and lately I have been struggling with depression, and the thing that had been triggering my depression, and was really pulling me down was that I felt like a failure. Every little mistake I made bothered me and added to my depression. And people around me haven’t helped with that. I just turned eighteen, but I’m in my senior year of high school, and my dad has been harder on me because I am now a legal adult. Every time I mess up he gets kind of passively aggressive toward me, and that has really bothered me.
    But lately I got kind of mad at myself because I have a lot to do, and I haven’t done any of it because of my depression, and I thought I was being ridiculous because I have everything I could ever want or need (respectively) and yet I was depressed, and never wanted to do anything (because I felt like I couldn’t because I felt like a failure) and I was just being stupid.
    So I started forcing myself to do things and to be around people, and I am a lot better. Though I still do make small, stupid mistakes, and they still make me feel sad, but I have stopped letting them bother me so much, and have just kept trying. So thank you for this article, I now realize why I was so depressed and that makes it a lot easier to help myself in the future when I get upset.

  21. Aimsmall March 27, 2017 at 9:55 am

    While I was only diagnosed with ADHD in 2009, I know it’s been around all my life. Growing up it was a lot easier to let things go but as I got older the mistakes, like someone posted before, were public. That led to trying even harder to be “perfect” so no one would realize what a “screw-up” I was, at least in my own head. So now when I make a mistake it is on top of all those other mistakes I can’t forget about and the big reaction is usually to “turn off”, go into my cocoon and not deal with anything. It doesn’t happen very often but it does seem to be the smallest things that start that big reaction. As someone else said, knowing why I react the way I do is fine, but I get tired of explaining to those around me that I’m really trying and not just using it as an excuse.

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