They're Not Controlling You, They're Controlling Themselves

Here's a terrific article by Dr. Ari Tuckman,  renowned author and ADHD specialist:

People with ADHD often feel others are trying to control them.  This includes family members, romantic partners, bosses, coworkers and friends.  Why won't they just get off your back? Don't they have anything better to do?

Attempts to exert control can be obvious, like when your spouse bans you from the checkbook, or more subtle, such as unsolicited advice.  I assume these actions are well intentioned, but that doesn't make them fun when you're on the receiving end.  So why are these people in your life so often trying to influence what you do?  Are they control freaks?  Do they enjoy bossing you around?

When I speak with family members and romantic partners of people with ADHD, I often find they're really trying to control their own anxiety.  They feel nervous when the bills aren't paid or when there's a lot of clutter.  They get on your case hoping to make themselves feel better by removing whatever's making them anxious or uncomfortable.  They don't intend to make you miserable, even when that's what happens.

There are two ways to deal with uncomfortable situations - external and internal anxiety management.  External anxiety management requires that you change the world around you to eliminate the source of the discomfort.  If your spouse is worried about late fees, she will ask you... repeatedly... to pay the bills.  Once the bills are paid, she doesn't need to worry about it any more.  Problem solved. However, while this works well in some situations, it doesn't work well in every case.

External anxiety management breaks down in situations that can't be resolved, or not immediately.  For example, you can't pay bills while you're driving.  We all encounter many situations where we must wait before acting.  The other potential problem is that being too insistent can strain the relationship.  Nagging may get the job done, but nobody is happy about it.  This is common when one person in a couple or family has ADHD - the non-ADHD person does a lot of reminding/nagging, and it's rarely appreciated.

By contrast, internal anxiety management is finding a way to be comfortable with something in your life that you don't have as much control over as you would want.  For example, the spouse without ADHD can decide that she will stop worrying over the occasional late fee because it isn't worth all the fighting.  She's not happy about the late fees, but she recognizes that being upset about them is making her miserable and ruining the relationship.  She decides to let this one go (for the most part) and focus her energy on things she is more likely to affect positively. For people with ADHD, this means that, although it can look like these other people are trying to control you, they're really just trying to control their own anxiety - using external anxiety management.  It may or may not be effective, but it probably causes more bad feelings than either one of you would want.

Usually, the best scenario is a balanced internal and external approach.  In therapy with a couple or family where one person (or more) has ADHD, I tackle the situation from both sides.  I try to help the person with ADHD be more consistent and reliable, so the other person indeed has less to worry about. But I also work with the non-ADHD person to learn ways to manage his or her anxiety internally. The non-ADHD spouse can reduce anxiety by picking battles that really matter, and tolerating things that aren't worth a battle.  By working it from both sides, there's less conflict and both parties can better deal with all the usual stuff that comes up in relationships, as well as the unusual stuff that comes up in couples where someone has ADHD!

The next time you're feeling controlled, remember that the other person may just be trying to control his or her own anxiety.  This might help you take a step back, calm down and deal with the situation more productively.  Of course, if you find yourself doing the controlling, consider whether an internal anxiety management strategy might give better results.

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Dr. Ari Tuckman is the Vice President of ADDA.  He is a psychologist in private practice in West Chester, PA.  His second book, More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD will be available in May 2009.