Testing the Margins of Forgiveness
On the outside Eric looked really quite impressive. He had advanced degrees in medicine and business, a title of Principal in a respected global policy think tank and a long line of influential projects to attach his name to. On the inside Eric felt anything but impressive. He was overwhelmed by his work load and his efficiency had bottomed out.
As he and I reviewed anonymous comments from peers in his mandatory performance evaluation, Eric was surprised by the level of vitriol. These were the professional peers that Eric thought he had a long positive history with.
The consistent theme behind the anger was Eric's repetitive habit of promising but not delivering, and of putting others in situations where they had to cover for his lack of preparation, his lateness and his lack of organization. After covering for Eric for years, they had finally had enough. They were tired of his stream of promises and excuses. Eric was out of integrity and had lost his team’s most valued asset – Trust.
Was Eric cruel and vindictive? Was he lazy and uncaring?
No. As an undiagnosed individual with ADHD, he was merely trying to locate relief anywhere he could find it. He lacked the skill to prioritize and take action in a timely fashion. He had too much on his plate and didn't know how to ask for help. Instead, as he avoided action and evaded accountability he was unknowingly dipping his cup into the ‘well of forgiveness’. He would often come up short and apologize, and his colleagues would forgive him. This continued for years because he was otherwise extremely likable and they had a capacity to forgive. Ironically, Eric joked that his favorite mantra was "better to seek forgiveness than permission".
Humans are wired to forgive. We look for every opportunity to forgive. We also love a good redemption story. It's very much human nature to give others a second chance; a chance to do better. When ADHD individuals are in a tight spot they will look for breathing room anywhere they can. The realm of forgiveness is one area that can become an area of refuge for the time/task burdened individual. At some point, though, we humans can reach a tipping point where frustration in the moment turns to a simmering resentment that is difficult to unseat.
I see this forgiveness dynamic often play out with my clients and their non-ADHD spouses. Given a choice, the over-booked ADHD individual will cancel or adjust plans with the one who offers the greatest capacity for forgiveness - the one with the deepest ‘well’. Will it be the demanding boss or the supportive spouse? More likely it will be the supportive spouse until that support begins to erode. This behavior of continually seeking forgiveness can seem short sighted, self-centered or mean-spirited. It may be. But for the overwhelmed ADHD individual, it may be more of an awareness issue. An issue exacerbated by executive function breakdowns regarding, of all things, cause and effect.
Cause and effect is a basic principle necessary for changing behavior. If the effect of an action or behavior is negative you naturally will look to causation to change outcomes. Executive function breakdowns in attention and memory can literally cut the connection between effect and associated causes.
Eric continues to scramble, scratch and claw to recover lost ground – effect. This is partly because he isn't seeing how poor planning and early decisions are making him lose ground to start with – cause. Just the simple statement of "I'll do that later" is in the realm of cause that will have big implications in the area of effect down the road.
Another factor that contributes to dipping into the ‘well of forgiveness’ too frequently is that the Global Creative’s associative style of processing has him pay attention more to connections than rules. He loves solving problems and solving problems is all about making new connections. ADHD also masks the clear boundaries readily seen by more linear sequential types. When you are focused on making hyper-quick connections, you don’t pay attention to boundaries. Taking advantage of someone's willingness to forgive is a violation of a boundary.
Sounds pretty dire but we can create opportunity when we focus collective attention on a problem.
Are you guilty of taking advantage of others' willingness to forgive?
Here is a helpful 4 step process
Disclaimer: We are only talking about the challenges of the ADHD party and not the challenges of others. I have never seen a situation where the ADHD person is the only one who needs to make changes. Everyone plays a part. Everyone needs to look at their own behaviors.!
Come clean (at least with yourself). Own the behavior of covering, evading and avoiding. Own whether you are testing the margins of others' forgiveness. Do you make excuses more often than not? Do you feel you let people down? State awareness of the challenge and a desire to create positive change. Admit your challenges regarding task management and completion. Accept your ADHD.
Stabilize your plate of projects. Do this prior to saying "Yes" and adding more. Stop making promises you are not able to keep.
Seek allies. Get help digging into the details and logistics of task prioritization and engagement. Identify positive outcomes and measurable next steps. You'll be amazed at the people who will want to support your efforts.
Assign roles. Embrace a positive form of accountability - who is doing what. People with ADHD under duress start to see problems as one dimensional. They are anything but. "I got us into this mess. I need to get us out" can be the limited thinking here. Locate the best person for the job. Often it is not you.
Once you notice and own the 'cover, avoid, evade' pattern you can start to limit that behavior. And once you limit the behavior, you'll be amazed at the time and energy you'll gain. Enroll others in your plans for personal improvement and you will access other unique human qualities – compassion and empathy.