You made a comment that someone is a hoarder. What you meant to say was that they are a clutter bug, but somehow your comment came out too harsh, too abrasive. Now you realize what you said was cringey and made people uncomfortable, so now no one will look you in the eye and you wish you had a time machine and go back and fix it.
If only this was the first time something like this happened to you. Thinking back, it reminds you of other times when you told a joke that turned out to be a zinger that landed wrong and instead of making people laugh, you insulted and shamed the person when all you meant to do was make a joke.
You vow to stop saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But when will it end?
As a person with ADHD, you often go into the wormhole when you’re talking and say things you meant to filter out. Instead of ending the conversation, you go on and on about some personal detail and by the time you’re finished, the people listening have your bank account numbers and a history of the sexual dysfunction in your family.
Sometimes your tone is too vehement or you don’t read the room correctly. Despite the fact that you would never hurt anyone intentionally, your words offend and then you have to live with the regret and self-regulation hangover that sets in. Why couldn’t you just control your mouth?
Think Before You Speak
Telling neurodiverse people to “think before you speak” is a nice sentiment, but for most neurodivergent people thinking before speaking is quite tricky.
Instead of mastering how to think, many simply stop speaking in crowds altogether or live with the vicious cycle of regret.
For adults with ADHD, the challenges are many:
- missing social cues
- a deep desire to share with everyone
- intense emotions
- lack of situational awareness
Each one leads to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.
So, how do you avoid this pitfall?
Before we get into solutions, there’s one critical detail you have to hear.
It’s a lot of pressure to get this right.
And I want you to hear me when I tell you that no one is perfect. For most of us, well-meaning advice has not caused us to stop saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Because the truth is, we would have changed this and stopped saying the wrong thing at the wrong time a LONG time ago if we could have.
There’s nothing wrong with you that this hasn’t been easy to fix.
The key is to have a game plan to help you avoid saying the wrong thing at the wrong time moving forward so you can change your life.
Part of that process includes moving past previous mistakes and reinventing yourself along the way. Here’s how we do that.
#1 Shift Your Self-talk
It’s easy to ruminate and create a story about every social misstep. And then to come up with a story you tell yourself about how people feel about you.
For example, “I’ll never get asked to go to another party because of how I behaved.”
Or, “I had to open up my big mouth and say way too much in that meeting. There’s no way I’m getting the contract now.”
Or, “I’m sure the reason they haven’t asked me to hang out again is because of the way I acted.”
Instead of just believing all of your negative inner self-talk, fact check your reasoning by asking yourself some powerful questions, including:
- What is the story you are telling yourself?
- What evidence is there that this story is true?
- What else could be going on?
This doesn’t have to be a complicated process. The point is to not allow your reflexive or “instant” reactions to reinforce the story that you “always say the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
Sometimes it is true, but certainly not always.
And if you have said the wrong thing, try to practice some self-compassion and self-forgiveness so you can move forward.
Forgiveness starts with shifting your self-talk and the story you tell yourself about your past social faux pas. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes is key so you can move forward.
Ask yourself what is a replacement or different thought you can use instead of the negative story you have in your head.
Instead of, “that gaff just cost me this friendship,” try something like “it’s one comment in a long relationship.”
Or, “It’s normal for recruiters to take time before following up from an interview. It doesn’t mean I’ve lost the job.”
Adopt a learning mindset
Rather than focusing on how you performed, try to focus on what you learned and how you are trying to learn in the future.
“Everyone says the wrong thing sometimes.”
“I am a good person trying my best.”
“No one is perfect, and I’m a work in progress just like everyone else.”
Stop obsessing over things out of your control
The fancy word for mental obsessing is “rumination.” This is when thoughts run over and over in your mind like a hamster on a wheel. They are a mental poison to people who fixate on their character flaws and one of the chief ways you keep yourself stuck in old beliefs and habits.
Stopping the rumination cycle is key to move from self- recrimination to self-compassion. You do this by focusing on “what” not “why” questions as you’re revisiting past behaviors in your mind.
Why questions look like this:
- Why did my boss look the other way?
- Why didn’t my friend respond to my text?
- Why didn’t they call me back?
- Why was I picked last for the team?
- Why didn’t they like my status on Facebook?
Research shows that “why” questions are ineffective because you are asking why without the data from other people, without your boss, your friend or other information you cannot solve the why.
The ruminative loop keeps people turned inward rather than looking outward to read and interpret the situations. It prevents people from using outside evidence to validate or prove their point.
And, this is particularly challenging when you struggle with a belief that you say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Because here’s the truth, if you believe it’s true, it is in your mind.
The only way to disprove this thought is with evidence from other sources.
#2 Identify The State You Were In When You Entered A Challenging Social Situation
When flooded with sensory information, lights feel brighter, sounds are louder and crowds seem to close in on us. Sensory bombardment and overwhelm can make situations draining and anxiety-provoking. The sharp tone we employ in the moment can come from our emotional state, feeling of overwhelm, ghosts of the past and fear of failure.
Start by diagnosing your emotional state as you enter a social situation. Check in with yourself about what has triggered you in the past and led to you losing control and saying the wrong things before. It’s hard to pay attention to social cues, think about who you are speaking to and modulate your tone when you are struggling emotionally.
Was it the:
- sensory experience
- topic of conversation
- what happened earlier that day
- triggers from the past
- something else
Do some self-diagnosis.
When I .. (insert experience) then I … (tend to do)…
Knowing what might raise your stress levels or flood you with emotions is critical to gaining control over your reactions. It may not change how you react right away, but it’s a vital clue to figuring out what triggers your reactions. And knowing what triggers you will get you a lot closer to understanding why you do what you do in various situations.
#3 Work On Self-Regulation
Self-regulation involves having the forethought, insight and choice to behave in calm or stressful situations the way you want to behave. It’s owning that the responsibility to “be different” lies in your hands and accepting that you have the choice to learn how to be the person you want.
It isn’t controlling yourself; it’s working on managing your arousal states which means you are aware of the emotions inside and addressing what you need to realign your internal homeostasis – which is really a fancy way of saying aligning your inner equilibrium. (Shanker, 2016, p. 69)
Is it easy, no.
Is it simply, no.
But does it work, absolutely.
ADHD & Over-stimulation
When someone with ADHD is “overstimulated,” it means they are overtaken on many levels by what’s going on both around them (as experienced by their five senses) and inside of them (as experienced by their inner dialogue and internal bodily functions – heartbeat, blood pressure etc.).
A person may find themselves simmering in their own emotions, bombarded by people talking, squinting because of the sunshine, churning about something that happened two minutes ago, while struggling to find their keys (that happen to be in their hand) all while walking into a social situation.
Social situations can be stressful and emotional for people with ADHD.
Whether that is parking your car five blocks away while you run to an event late.
Or getting a call chiding you for missing a deadline earlier in the day.
Or ruminating about the fact that you hate crowds and are about to enter one.
Being social can be stressful.
When you become activated by stress your arousal levels in your body and brain go up and up like an elevator climbing in a high rise. Losing your self-regulation occurs when those activation levels continue to rise and consequently, throw off your internal homeostasis.
As a result, you are activated and then flooded with emotions and you enter fight, flight or freeze. In that state it can feel impossible to read social cues and feel prepared or in control of what you intend to say.
Given that people with ADHD also experience weak executive functioning, managing your daily social interactions takes work.
With the goal of bringing your body’s arousal levels down so you can return to homeostasis, here’s how it can be achieved:
- Take 5 minutes to become more centered, by engaging in a guided meditation, deep breathing, move a rock back and forth in your hands or other tactile stimulation that redirects your attention away from your heightened state of arousal to a calmer state
- Expel some of your energy by doing a short burst of exercise – jumping jacks, running up stairs or doing push ups for 15-minutes will increase serotonin and dopamine and calm your mind down
- Take a walk outside or in the woods to experience a different canvas for your senses
- Inhale a scent that calms you, breathing deeply and slowly until you reach a calmer state
- Engage in Havening which can be CPR for the amygdala. Havening uses electromagnetic waves in the brain by using palm-havening = rubbing your palms together, face-havening rubbing the face and arm-havening self- soothing by rubbing the motion – the delta waves in the brain signal the amygdala that there is no threat and reduce anxiety and stress. This video is one of my favorite ways to teach self-havening to clients.
#4 Start Learning How To Be A Social Spy
If you are talking to someone, entering a social situation or realizing you are not sure what to do next- start with social spy.
Social spy is one of my absolute go-tos when someone needs to learn how to manage their social behavior but they’re not sure how to do it.
It looks like this: Scan the situation and watch people’s body language, facial expressions and social cues. If you struggle to manage conversation and spy, then zoom-in on their face and then zoom-out on the room conversation and the bigger picture.
Finally, listen and observe what they talk about with others, what they read, what clubs they are members of and what sports they play.
You can read the full script and process for social spy here.
#5 Know Your Audience
When you enter a social situation it’s hard to know what to say and what not to say. Unless you consider the situation and what the situation requires, it’s easy to respond incorrectly.
Not sure what the appropriate response should be? You can take your lead from observations you have made, including who is there and what they are about. For example:
- Do they like to joke around?
- Are there topics they prefer not to talk about?
- Do they speak loudly or quietly?
- Are they a small group or do they include lots of people?
- Do they use slang, curse words, other jargon or language that’s inclusive of a specific group or interest?
When you know your audience, you have the greatest chance of reading the situation correctly. Then, what you say is adjusted depending on the situation, the people who are there, your relationship with them and your comfort level with them.
Not sure what to do? Ask yourself what you do know to give you clues including, what you know about this person, their background, and their values?
If you’re unsure, it’s best to stay away from a few sensitive topics including:
- raw emotion
- sexual history
- medical history
- body fluids and
- childhood trauma
Knowing your audience is one of those super-skills that acts as a gatekeeper on your behavior. By putting certain topics “off limits” and adjusting your words to align better with your audience, the stress of saying the wrong thing will wane.
Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time is all too common for people with any of the neurotypical profiles. When you learn and practice these 5 skills, they act as the antidote to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. They are also the stepping stones for reducing the stress and anxiety you feel thinking about new social situations.
The reality is as a person with ADHD you have very likely had your fair share of “whoops” and “oops” and moments you wish you could erase from your mind. Unfortunately, we don’t have a time machine to transport you back. But, you can learn how to adjust your behavior such that in the future when you’re compelled to speak out of turn, or say more than you intend, your muscle memory will have a chance to step in and remind you of these skills and a different way of being.
If you need help understanding Social Spy, please review this article that has all of the details you need.
And if I can support you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.