Cameron Gott, PCC
ADHD Coaching for Leaders & Professionals
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The Global Creative Blog

Situational Rationalization

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Why do I always jump into action prematurely?

Why do I seem to delay action indefinitely?

Both behaviors are very characteristic of having ADHD although most individuals identify with one camp more than the other. Executive function (EF) breakdowns in the pre-frontal cortex contribute to both situations around inhibition for the former and activation for the latter. Both scenarios also depend on effective transitioning, a notorious friction point for Global Creatives. We, however, are not just automatons governed only by our EFs. All humans have robust belief systems that reinforce and rationalize certain behaviors and habits.

For example, we are all familiar with something like the following: "Only one more cookie because I will start my diet tomorrow".

Swap out Netflix or drink for cookie and avoidance for the impulsive behavior and we can imagine a whole host of statements where we rationalize a current behavior. We all rationalize behavior as a coping mechanism and for the obvious fact that habits are very difficult to change. In addition, people with ADHD can exhibit a practice that I call situational rationalization which is basically rationalizing any behavior, thought or feeling in a given situation or context. To the outside world the behavior can seem wishy-washy or even without principle. On the inside it can feel like the right move for the right moment.

There are a couple of factors that may be at play here in addition to EF challenges:

The Global Creative's propensity to constantly contextualize a current moment. Contextualizing is actively connecting a thought, feeling or action to some bigger vision, feeling or belief. Connecting to our bigger picture or vision can be a real ADHD super-power but contextualizing can also be used to rationalize a behavior in any given moment. This is often reinforced by our tendency to over-value the immediate moment (immediate gratification) and under-value the moment beyond our immediate scope of time (delayed gratification).

Our habit of adjusting or modifying our perception of reality in very unique and specific ways to fit the current situation especially discounting or elevating meaning of an event or falling prey to binary thinking, both described in my previous post on distorting reality.

Take these two factors of contextualizing and modifying our perception and you can see how they can play out.

Our impulsive opportunity jumper, along with disinhibition and a faulty memory of previous mistakes, will elevate the opportunity (This may never come again!) and diminish the risk. The result is jumping into a commitment without some real assessment of the opportunity or a review of projects they have already committed to.

For our action delayer something of the converse occurs. They will diminish the opportunity and elevate the risk. Toss in a little perfectionism and this character will always be able to rationalize inaction. Paralysis by analysis is an example where a decision to not act can be exacerbated by connecting (contextualizing) to some larger, vague dread or anxiety.

Not only do these situational rationalization behaviors limit dexterity and resourcefulness, they will also throw a veil over the executive function challenges at the heart of the behavior. Overwhelm is a very real ADHD experience when the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) basically shuts down due to too much stimuli and brain fatigue. And if you neuro-typical folks think you get a pass here, well you don't. All PFCs have about 2 hours of battery life per day. That's 2 hours for strategic thinking and making high level executive decisions.

Where to Begin

Developing an awareness and understanding that ADHD is first and foremost a cognitive challenge and not a matter of will or character is the place to begin.

Secondly, start to develop an awareness of your own situational rationalizing. Are you falsely elevating an opportunity to avoid some other commitment? Are you elevating the anxiety to rationalize inaction?

Thirdly, take the internal rationalizing public. With a trusted partner review the impulse or desire to determine the value of and motivation for the behavior. What core value or principle can you connect to the current thinking? What do we know to be true? Seek evidence or facts to support your decision. D-PARC is a good process that can shed some clarity here around Big Rocks and priority. Using goal setting models like SMART or CLEAR can help too.

I've always said that everyone's ADHD experience is unique but if I were to grossly simplify the struggle I would drop people into two basic categories of fundamental challenge - those who cannot start and those who cannot stop. Some will enjoy both of these challenges equally but most folks identify with one experience more than the other. Often this will align with the two types of ADHD where the hyperactive/impulsive 'bullet trains' will struggle with bringing their charging locomotives to a stop and the inattentive 'sedentary Buddhas' will struggle with activating for task. Paying attention to situational rationalization will help you notice limiting beliefs and help you build effective work arounds.