by Dr. Thor Bergersen
In early childhood, our ability to pick up on social cues is dependent upon the degree to which we devote our attention to noticing these cues. When an environment full of stimulation and often confusing information is thrust upon us, we tend to focus on that which is most urgent and pressing. If attention is limited, some things will go unnoticed. If our ability to filter out extraneous stimuli is lacking, we assign equal importance to everything that gets through, making it impossible to prioritize and process information.
As children, people with ADHD are often delayed in their social development because their attention is not focused on social cues. As adults, the “all or nothing” quality to their focus results in an imbalance between work, self-care and relationships with friends, family and partners. It is very common for relationships to be neglected while work or school receives all of our focus, or to neglect ourselves in favor of devoting undivided attention to others. As a result, people with ADHD are often perceived as selfish or selfless.
When you arrive late to the restaurant for dinner, your date might think you didn’t think it was important enough to arrive on time. If you forget to pick something up at the store on the way home from work, your partner might think you are so self-absorbed that the needs of others are dismissed. If you spend long hours at work, only to arrive home exhausted and mentally unavailable, your spouse might think there is no room in your life outside of your career.
All of these imbalanced situations arise because divided focus is difficult for the ADHD individual. Finding a balance between work, school, recreation, exercise, sleep, friends, and significant others is difficult for most people, but it’s especially difficult for a person with ADHD. When adequate attention is not given to the people in one’s life, they will feel neglected.
The key to this problem is self-awareness. The more we are able to take a step back and look at what we are doing, think about how much time we are spending on any one thing, take a deep breath and be in the moment, the more we are able to get a sense of what balance actually is. Some call this “mindfulness.”
Self-awareness or mindfulness can be cultivated through various types of meditation, exercise, coaching and therapy. Simple breathing exercises in which one focuses on the breath coming in and out are very powerful mindfulness tools.
Paying attention to social cues as children is much like cultivating self-awareness for adults. Both involve the realization that the people in our lives are every bit as important as what we accomplish.