ADHD – Executive Functioning (part 3)

Part 3: Improving executive functioning

If you have missed my last couple of blogs, you can read them here:
Part 1: Living with ADHD
Part 2: What is executive functioning

Executive functioning is affected by ADHD. But the good news is that we can do something about this.

As you read through these strategies – don’t try and do them all at once.

Pick a couple of strategies that are manageable for you and implement them.

By manageable I mean strategies that naturally fit you anyways (or fit the best). Once you have mastered those strategies then add in more. If you try them all out at once, you will burn out – and you won’t know which strategies actually worked well for you.

I will look at 3 key areas that you can adjust:

  • medication
  • changing your brain
  • managing your environment

Medication

Many people with ADHD find that medication helps improve their executive functioning. Sometimes if one medication doesn’t work for, then you might have greater success with another type of medication.

This is a personal choice that should be made in consultation with your psychiatrist or neurologist.

Change your brain

Did you know we can change our brains? The idea of neuroplasticity is that your brain is able to change, making it possible for you to improve you executive functioning. Neuroplasticity creates new neural connection in the brain through learning and behaviour – ultimately making tasks easier to complete.

Four ways to change your brain are through:

  1. neurofeedback
  2. self-care
  3. exercise
  4. challenge your mind

Neurofeedback

A great way to change your brain is through neurofeedback, which you can access through a specialised psychologist. 

In neurofeedback an EEG is taken of your brain and targeted brain training is conducted. 

It’s something I have done personally and I highly recommend neurofeedback.  You may be able to do neurofeedback under a Medicare mental health plan.

For more information on neurofeedback in Australia see: https://www.neurotherapy.com.au   

Self Care

When we are happy, calm, well-rested, physically fit, and feel socially supported our executive functioning Improves.  

Whilst self care does not directly improve executive functioning, they do support executive functioning to happen in the first place. Self care won’t strengthen it, but it will set you up for success.

Just another great reason to look after yourself.

Exercise

Exercise can directly improve our executive functioning as well, but it has the be the right kind. 

Whilst straight up cardio like running or riding a bike supports our executive functioning, exercise that includes a challenge will directly improve our executive functioning.   

The “right kind of exercise” is the type that requires intentional and strategic movements.   

Some examples of exercise that will improve your executive functioning are:

  • dancing 
  • martial arts
  • drumming circles
  • social circus 
  • sports, such as tennis, soccer or hockey

Challenge your mind

Doing things that are mentally challenging will not only stimulate you, they will also improve your executive functioning.

Some example include:

  • Take an acting class or join a local theatre.  (This is obviously harder with COVID).   
    Acting requires you to lean lines, cues and choreography as well as work with others. These activities can help improve attention and working memory.   
  • Learn an instrument – actually very similar to acting in terms of the challenge that it provides.   
  • Use Brain gym app such as: CogniFit and video games that include puzzles, logic or have other thinking skills components

Change your environment

Changing your environment means changing the how, where, or what you are doing. It might be changing the actual environment or it might be changing you in the environment. Four elements that I will look at are:

  1. Know yourself
  2. Task analysis
  3. Manage your time
  4. Manage distractions

Know yourself

Do you know what strategies work for you?

I know what helps me stay focused is listen to loud music through my headphones. I know this works, because it helps me to completely submerge in my task.

What is your go-to strategy?

If you’re not sure what works for you, then start keeping a journal for 30 days.  

Record the following things:  
 
1. What is working well 
After you’ve had (or you’re having) a productive time try and notice what might have sparked your ability to focus.  What was happening internally and externally?  Try and notice as many things as possible and write them down 

2. What is not working well 

  • When you are struggling to focus do the same thing.  What is happening for you?  Why is it hard right now?   Write your answers in your journal.
  • When you are procrastinating, stop and ask yourself: what do I gain by avoiding this task?  We often procrastinate for short term gain, so what is it that you get out of it?  This isn’t a judgement, but rather a recognition that all behaviour serves a purpose – and usually that purpose is to make ourselves feel better in some way. Record the feeling, process or activity that you are avoiding and why?   

After 30 days you should have some clues.  These clues will point to what is working well. Things that help you to be productive, like me with my music. Use these clues to help you figure out what you can do more of to help create environments that are conducive to learning/working.   

You will also have some clues as to what is not working well. Use these clues to help you figure out what you can do less of.

You might also be able to devise some strategies that help you get around the things that are not working well.  For example, if you avoid paying your bills every month because you hate how long it takes you to log into your credit card website each time, then a better strategy might be to put your bills on direct debit.   

The real strength of the “know yourself strategy” is that you will find out what does and does not work for you.   

Task analysis

Task analysis means looking at the smaller parts of a task or goal.  

Sometimes a goal is too big and we get overwhelmed by trying to achieve the entire goal in one go.  For example, I know that I cannot do a full grocery shop and cook a big dinner on the same night, because I will be too exhausted.  So I structure my week so that I don’t shop and cook on the same night.   

If you know that a task is too difficult/overwhelming for you, break your task down into smaller more manageable tasks.  This will make the task less overwhelming as you will have a set of smaller goals.  You can feel success in achieving these smaller goals.  

For example, after reading this blog you might decide that you will start eating healthier as part of helping your brain to do better.  But eating healthier is a big task (and also a very vague goal).  A task analysis on this goal might include 

1. Research some healthy recipes   
2. Write a list of ingredients for the recipes.  
3. Buy the ingredients.  
4. The night before you intend to cook read your recipe again.   
5. Cook your recipe!  

Improving mental task analysis  
Lots of people with executive issues struggle doing mental task analysis.   That is: they don’t plan their tasks, they just plunge in and then forget crucial steps.   

This might look like:  

  • Starting a recipe without having all the ingredients.   
  • Writing an essay without doing any research or planning the structure of your essay  
  • You have trouble starting tasks (because you are not sure where to start) 

If that’s you, I would recommend that you practice doing task analysis.  If you’re able to write down your task analysis, even better.  

A really practical way to do this is to write procedures at work or home for tasks you do often.  Ask a friend or family member to follow your procedures to see if there are any steps you missed out on or didn’t communicate properly.   
 
If you want an extra challenge, try and estimate how much time each element of the task might take and see how accurate you are in your estimates.

Time management

Manage your time well  

If you have ADHD you should just know that things take longer because you are you. Plan for that!   

I always try to run early, because I know that I have to factor in time for forgetting some things three times, taking a couple of wrong turns on the way there and then getting distracted by something when I do finally arrive.   

Estimate how long each activity will take and build in extra time for problems that might occur.   

Make the most of your focus time.  

  • If you do have time where you are focused and motivated – make the most of that time.   
  • Tackle some difficult tasks or things you’ve been putting off.   
  • Don’t waste your productive time on easy to do tasks.  

Pair fun activities with boring ones  

If you are finding that you are struggling to do focus time, pair up your fun activities with activities you procrastinate on.   

For example, I quite like doing spreadsheet work, but I hate calling people on the telephone.  I might do my spreadsheet work first, which makes me feel good about myself.  That then gives me the motivation to do my calls. 

Distractions

Manage distractions  

Control impulsive behaviour by having fixed daily routines.  For example, have specific times for working/learning and for having fun.

If fixed isn’t you, you can try something something more flexible. Work hard for 50 minutes and then do something you think is really fun for 10 minutes.

It takes hard work to establish new habits so expect this to be hard.  I say that, because sometimes we give up too early, before we get the benefits of our hard work. Expect to take about 2 months for new habits to form.   

Block access to things that tempt you.  

  • Don’t put things in your work or study space that will likely distract you.   
  • Put things that you find tempting (like chocolate or your phone) out of sight.  
  • Turn off social media and put your phone on silent.   
  • You can even build rewards in that you will only check your socials. between certain times, like on your lunch break. .  

Are you distracted or are you bored? Increase the challenge.  

Focus on building your motivation by setting more difficult goals. This will help you if you’re feeling bored or not feeling challenged enough.  If your task does not have in-built ways to make it harder, make them up yourself. 

For example, I don’t compete with others, but I compete with myself all the time.  Find ways to make your tasks harder or change the expectations (even if your work or study doesn’t need you to do that – do it for yourself). Challenge yourself to set new personal bests.  Make up personal bests at work, at home, at school.  You can compete with yourself on pretty much anything.   

Readings that inspired this series (Part 1 – 3)

Correlation between videogame mechanics and executive functions through EEG analysis

Can playing video games improve executive function

Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not

Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations

Try Inhibiting Serotonin to Return Executive Functioning 

A review of the efficacy of atomoxetine in the treatment of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children and adult patients with common comorbidities

ADHD and Comorbidity

Living for the (costly) moment

Legal, Financial and Relationship Challenges of  Adult ADHD

The social and economic costs of ADHD in Australia

Prescription stimulants in individuals with and without attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: misuse, cognitive impact, and adverse effects

Can Playing Video Games Improve Executive Function?

ADHD with a side of perfectionism

ADHD – Executive Functioning (part 2)

Part 2: What is executive functioning?

In my last blog I looked at what it is like to live with ADHD. This blog examines what executive functioning is.

ADHD as an Executive Functioning Disorder

Exeuctive functioning is mainly coordinated by the prefrontal cortex in the brain. This part of the brain then coordinates with other parts of the brain.

Executive functioning begins to develop around age 2 and finishes around age 30.

Those with ADHD are generally 30-40% behind their peers in the development of executive functions.   

People with ADHD will generally have issues across the executive functions.

Co-Morbidities

Many adults with ADHD have other co-morbidities (meaning another condition that happens at the same time) that also affect executive functioning.   You might even have more than one condition that impact on your executive functioning. For example, I also have anxiety and autism. This means that my issues with executive functioning are both complicated and compounded.

This is good to keep in mind when you are trying to apply strategies to address executive functioning. What is going to work brilliantly for some people may not work at all for others.

Executive functioning explained

Executive functioning are the processes that help us reason, problem solve and plan. The process parts of executive functioning are working memory, cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control.   

Working memory includes the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information for cognitive tasks performed in daily life.   It’s a little bit like the RAM in your computer.    You can hold a limited amount of time in your working memory, on average maybe 5-7 items.  How well your working memory operates depends on your ability to control your attention.   

Cognitive flexibility refers to being flexible in your thinking. This includes seeing relationships between different things and ideas and being able to view concepts from different perspectives.   

Inhibitory control includes:   

  • self control 
  • being able to ignore distractions 
  • resist temptations 
  • regulation of emotions   

It keeps you from acting impulsively and is critical for avoiding faux pas and adhering to social norms. 

The tasks of executive functioning

These processes work together to do the tasks for executive functioning. The key jobs of executive functioning include:

  • paying attention 
  • organising and planning 
  • initiating tasks and remaining focused 
  • regulating emotions 
  • self monitoring 

In my next blog post – I will discuss what some of the things that you can do to manage and strengthen your executive functioning.

ADHD – Executive Functioning (part 1)

Part 1: What is it like to live with ADHD?

If you have ADHD, you probably know that it can affect all areas of your life. We all tend to experience ADHD a bit different, but our struggles are underpinned by the same issues. Everyone with ADHD has some issues with executive functioning.

In this blog series I want to take a look at
1. What it is like to live with ADHD
2. What is executive functioning?
3. Some strategies for improving Executive Functioning.

What is it like to live with ADHD?

About 4% of the adult population is diagnosed with ADHD in Australia. Though as many people are only diagnosed as adults, this figure is likely to be higher.

Some of the ways that ADHD affects me is that:  
– I interrupt people I know this really annoys other people, and it’s something I struggle to control sometimes  
– I forget things. My keys.  Appointments.  What people have told me.   
– I impulse shop.  Food, clothes.  Stationery.  I could basically open a stationery store.  

There are some common threads that people with ADHD struggle with, and that is in part because ADHD affects our executive functioning. Research into ADHD adults as a cohort has found some specific things that we struggle with more than others. Some of these things may resonate with you. You might even say “Oh, I didn’t realise that was an ADHD thing”.  

Not all of these things will apply to you. This is because you are not just your ADHD. You also have your own unique strengths, talents and experiences which influences how you express ADHD in real life.

Let’s look at some of the things that we struggle with as those with ADHD. 

Money 

We struggle with money. Compared to those without ADHD we:

  • pay more late and overdraft fees  
  • are more likely to have a poor credit rating 
  • are more likely to be in debt 
  • engage in much more impulsive buying 
  • have more difficulty in saving money   

ADHD doesn’t just cost people who have ADHD, it also costs the economy.  Deloitte’s estimates that ADHD has a cost to the economy in Australia of about $20 billion.   

Work 

We struggle at work.  Compared to those without ADHD we

  • switch jobs more frequently due to disliking the job 
  • are more likely to be fired 
  • are more likely to work in unskilled work  
  • are more likely to be unemployed 

Relationships 

We struggle with our relationships.  In our relationships, ADHD:

  • negatively impact on intimacy 
  • leads to higher rates of conflict in relationships
  • leads to higher rates of relationship breakdown than those without ADHD  

Interestingly, studies showed that people with ADHD generally noticed less of the issues in the relationships. However, those without ADHD in a relationship with someone who has ADHD, really felt the impact of these things. 

School 

We struggle with learning. Compared to those without ADHD: 

  • we experience higher school/university drop outs  
  • we have lower overall academic achievement 

Self Medicate 

Especially when we are undiagnosed, we self-medicate ourselves.  We use coffee, alcohol, other drugs to help regulate and manage ourselves.

Compared to those without ADHD, we are more likely to develop a substance abuse disorder.   

Self-Esteem and Self-Concept

These lifetime of struggles are going to affect how we view ourselves (self concept) and how we feel about ourselves (self esteem).   

This is exacerbated when we are perfectionists as well, because we hold very high expectations of ourselves. When we’re hard on ourselves we compare us to others – neurotypicals. We say “if they can do it, why can’t we?” Or even worse – that’s what we’re told by our parents, teachers and partners: “why can’t you be like a normal adult?”

Living in a world that is constantly focused on what we struggle with is demoralising.  And even more so when they don’t understand what ADHD is like.   

Not hopeless  

However, we are not hopeless or helpless, because there are things that we can do to improve ourselves and our lives!  

ADHD can be viewed, in part, as an executive functioning disorder. And because of that, knowing about executive functioning and what strategies we can implement can empower us to make meaningful changes in our lives to help us cope better.

In the next blog, I will discuss what executive functioning is. Then in Part 3, I will give some practical strategies to manage and strengthen your executive functioning.

Spoon Theory

This post follows on from my last entry on invisible conditions.

Yesterday after a full day of work and reheating dinner I collapsed in a heap in front of the TV. I was thinking (beating myself up) about all the things I still had to do and how normal people can just get stuff done in the evening. I felt bad that I wasn’t spending quality time with my child. I felt lazy. I had to remind myself:

“I’m not lazy, I’ve just run out of spoons.”

What is spoon theory?

Spoon theory was developed by Christine Miserandino. It is a visual metaphor (spoons) to explain the limited energy reserves of people with chronic illnesses. Every activity you do costs you spoons. This means that you would need to proactively manage the activities you do each day so as to not run out of spoons.

Image Source

How many spoons do I have?

When I first learned about spoon theory I got very excited, because it made a lot of sense to me. It explained why I would just collapse after certain activities, whereas other people could recover.

Spoon theory is a way to understand and explain your energy levels.

But I like to know the details. I tried to backwards calculate from the activities that I did each day how many spoons I had. That just doesn’t work.

Spoon Myth: The amount of spoons you have is static

Not everyone will have the same amount of spoons. Some may have 10, some may have 20. The amount of spoons that you have will likely vary each day.

This is because you are more than your chronic illness. There are other things that impact on your energy levels, for example, how you slept, if you have a cold/virus, extra stress, or are just generally having a difficult time (like being in the midst of a pandemic).

The same goes for how much energy something takes to do. The first thing I always notice about spoon charts (like the one above) is that a shower costs 1x spoon. This sits wrong with me, because I think showers are invigorating and give me energy.

The point is not to have a detailed log of spoons spent each day. Rather, the point is to use spoons as common language/metaphor that communicates the costs of completing activities for someone with a chronic illness.

Spoon theory can help us focus on our wellbeing

We can also use spoon theory to refocus the conversation. Instead of focusing on what I can’t do (my limitations), I can talk about what I can do – which is a strengths-based focus. When I talk about using spoons, it is a reminder that I am making smart choices for my own wellbeing and living in a way that is sustainable.

“I don’t have the spoons to . . .
Let’s reschedule for another day.”

Similarly, we can use it as a tool to demonstrate our understanding that other people may have limited resources.

“If you have the spoons, you could…”
This acknowledges that whilst something may be a great idea, it may not be practical. It empowers the person to say no.

Spoon Myth: You can bank your spoons

If you don’t use up all your spoons today, it would make sense that you have extra spoons tomorrow. This would be true if the spoons were a literal, concrete item that we were given each day.

However, chronic conditions don’t play fair. You wake up feeling energised and hopeful for the day, but within an hour you’re back in bed. You eat right, you exercise right, you say no to extra commitments, and still you feel exhausted. Chronic conditions are complex. Be prepared to be flexible every day. Just because we did not use a lot of spoons doesn’t mean we are guaranteed extra spoons tomorrow.

Spoon theory does not explain everything.

As much as I want to give you an easy answer and tell you that everything will be great now that you know about spoon theory. It’s not. It won’t be. Like everything, there are strengths and weaknesses to the concept.

Spoon myth: Spoon theory explains everything

Chronic illness is complex, but people crave to simplify the complex. Which is understandable, but unfortunately not possible by definition. Spoon theory in essence is a very simple analogy. To call it a theory is probably going a bit far. It’s just an analogy of limited physical energy.

However, the great thing about spoon theory being so simple, is that we can adapt it. Ultimately, the goal of spoon theory is to facilitate compassion by highlighting that we are not being lazy or flaky, but rather we have to prioritise our energy expenditure in a way that’s sustainable and maintain our overall wellbeing in accordance with our invisible conditions.

You should pick and choose from any theory and adapt it to what works for you.

Some people have suggested that spoon theory has been appropriated by the wider disabled community. I think that this is actually essential in social sciences (and very different to cultural appropriation), because through building on theories we actually build a much richer understanding of people. Theories are here to serve us, to explain our experience, not the other way around.

How I used spoon theory in my life

This is embarrassing to write down on the internet, where it will be forever, – but trying to live by my blog name strength through vulnerability.

Since forever, I have lived my life in a pattern that look something like this:

Not until after my autism diagnosis in my 30s did I break this cycle. Learning about autism I realised that feeling overwhelmed by my commitments was probably related to autistic burn out. That neurotypicals find a lot of things easy that I did not, like meeting with a couple of friends (I usually need to have resting time before and after in order to cope).

Having my diagnosis was a life saver, because it gave me permission to stop trying to measure up to what everyone else was doing and find my own path. I analysed what my priorities in life were. I took the top 3 priorities and I dropped everything else. I didn’t like it. I resisted it at first. But I dropped everything.

For the first time in my life I quit the things I loved not because a crisis was forcing me to, but as a way to proactively take control of my own wellbeing.

In doing so, I created extra space for myself to breathe. To come to terms with my diagnosis and really realise what this meant for me. To teach myself how I needed to live my life differently in light of my autism diagnosis. I spend more time processing things, emotions, situations, so that they weren’t building up. I learned to look after myself emotionally, and not rely on others to calm me down.

The idea is that eventually I will begin to incorporate more activities back into my life – and I have. I am looking for long-term sustainable ways that I can live, rather than short term gains by living like a neurotypical.

Chronic invisible conditions

What are invisible conditions?

Chronic invisible conditions include illnesses, disabilities and neuro-divergences that impact on the functioning on a person, but usually the effects are not directly observable from the outside. It is estimated that around 1 in 5 people have some type of invisible condition. Example of invisible conditions include: 

  • Chronic fatigue 
  • Anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses  
  • Autism, ADHD, and other neuro-divergences  
  • Lupus, fibromyalgia, and other conditions  
  • Multiple Sclerosis, Lyme disease, and other diseases  

Plus many others. 

The vexation of invisibility

How often have you heard this?

This might seem like a fairly innocuous thing to say, but it completely invalidates what it’s like to live with an invisible condition. It is highly dismissive of the pain I carry. Rather, you thinking that I look normal reflects that you only see what I am choosing what I share with you.

When I disclosed my autism diagnosis to a guy I was newly dating he responded: “You don’t look autistic. I’m not going to accept that you’re autistic. I’m going to pretend you’re normal.” My autism is part of my identity, so I felt like this was an outright rejection of who I am. Needless to say, we did not date for long.

Strangers also do the “but you look normal” thing. When they give us a death stare for using the accessible bathroom. When they question why we have a accessible parking permit. When they question the need for our accomodations at work or school.

Some people have opted for these types of stickers after being abused for using accessible parking spots.

“But you look normal” even complicates the diagnostic process. I was refused a referral to a psychologist for an autism assessment in my 20s, because I was able to make eye contact (That’s neurotypical speak for: “you’re too normal to be autistic”). Many invisible conditions do not have a specific test that can definitively prove that it exists, rather they rely on experience and knowledge of the diagnostician and/or ruling other things out.  It can be expensive, frustrating and dehumanising to go through these processes, especially when dealing with health care professionals and friends or family that do not believe you. And often, even after an official diagnosis, those arounds us often still reject our diagnosis, which makes it harder for us to accept it fully.

4 tips on how to support someone with an invisible condition

If someone has chosen to disclose their invisible condition here are four tips on how you can support them:

Believe us. We are not making this up. If we have disclosed our condition to you, don’t be dismissive. Show support and understanding, and if you’re not sure how to do that, maybe say: “How can I best support you. What do you need from me”. We might not need anything, we might just be showing that we trust you.

If we have asked you for something, we’ve probably already agonised over that decision and beaten ourselves up about letting someone else down. Please be patient. We are not lazy or trying or making excuses: our pain is real. When we ask for a favour, call in sick, cancel plans or are trying to get accomodations at work or school: We are trying to be advocates for our needs.

Stick around. A broken arm heals.  A cold usually resolves itself.  But chronic conditions stick around.  People with chronic invisible conditions do not get the relief of the condition resolving itself. This can be a significant strain on our support systems. It can even lead to our relationships dissolving, because for some people it’s too much to support someone with an invisible condition.

So stick around, because we need you. I would like to think that even with my invisible conditions, I still have plenty to give to you as well!

Empathise. Empathy is when you understand something from another person’s perspective. Not everyone experiences their invisible condition in the same way as others, especially not if it’s mixed up with more than one invisible condition.

Ask me about my experiences. Most of us are experts on our conditions, because not only do we actually live them, many of us get involved in advocacy, talk to others with the same condition as us, and do a lot of research on the topic. Be careful that you don’t unintentionally minimise our experience either.

Don’t offer solutions (unless asked). This one is very counter-intuitive. If you’re my friend, it’s likely because I consider you to be a good friend, you’ll likely have empathy and be generous. And good friends like to help each other by sharing tips. However – wait for me to ask you. Unless you happen to be an expert at something to do with my condition, it is seriously unlikely that I haven’t already tried it.

When my migraines became chronic I researched non-stop and saw a bunch of different specialists. I tried different medications, supplements, diets, exercises and holistic treatments. I tried CBT, talk-therapy and neuro-feedback. In hospital I tried infusions, morpheine and a week long lidocaine drip. I tried Botox and even had a neuro-stimulator implanted in my brain. I went to church and was prayed over in a more than a few healing sessions. Nothing worked. But – I was very well researched, both about potential migraine treatments and about how I experienced migraines, such as onset and triggers. And still people would come to me with absolutely ridiculous suggestions to cure my migraines, like:

  • Have another baby (suggested by a GP)
  • Get a hobby to distract yourself
  • Rub half a lemon on your head
  • Try doing a green juice cleanse

Tips on how to support someone who hasn’t disclosed their diagnosis with you.

If someone hasn’t disclosed their diagnosis with you, that may be for good reason. Some conditions carry huge amounts of stigma. Many people have experienced discrimination. It takes courage to share a diagnosis and doing so is a deeply personal choice. Honestly, some days I can’t face the “but you look normal” conversation.

Since so many people live with an invisible condition, the best thing may be to assume that everyone has one and treat everyone with kindness.


If you have an invisible condition I would love to hear your experiences as well. I’ve written from an autistic/migraineur perspective and your experiences may be different.

My next post will be on spoon theory and how those with invisible conditions can use that in their life. Subscribe to have the post delivered to your inbox!

3 tips on being positive

Positive emotions

We greatly prize positive emotions: joy, love, gratitude, happiness, hope, inspiration, etc.  So much so, that we tend to classify these positive emotions as being “good”.  And whilst one of the functions of positive emotions is to make us feel good, emotions themselves are neither good nor bad, they just are. They are here to serve a function.

Some of the other functions of positive emotions is that they help to:  

  • Motivate us to engage – with our relationships, our work, and our external world. It urges us to explore, to innovate, to learn and to expand our self  
  • Encourage us to continue – they are internal signals that what we are doing is good and is working for us.  They increase our attention, cognition and action.   
  • Build physical, intellectual, and social resources.  For example, by building our resilience or helping us bounce back from illness more quickly 
  • Undo the effects of negative emotions  

3 ways to get more out of positivity!

1) Share the love with others 

It’s almost a cliché: “positive breeds positivity”.  And sure, it’s true, but why?    

Research has found that when you share your happiness with others, it actually makes you feel even more positive.  It also increases your overall life satisfaction.  The sharing with an empathetic listener – someone who is happy for you that something good is happening – creates a positive reinforcement where you are both lifting each other up.   

Another reason that positivity creates more positivity is that by sharing with others you actually make it easier for you to access the positivity memory and create associative links, making your positive experience more real.  This means that you will have greater and more readily available access to your positive memories.  

So take the time to share your good moments with those around you and celebrate your achievements – no matter how small they are.   

2) Avoid toxic positivity  

Being positive doesn’t mean ignoring the reality of the situation.  This is toxic positivity, and it can seriously impact on our mental well being.   

For example: Right now we’re all dealing with a crazy pandemic.  It is scary and it is having real effects on people. Some people have lost a loved one, some their jobs, some their homes.  Even for those who haven’t lost these things, we’ve still lost the normality of everyday.   No matter how often the politicians on tv announce “this is the new normal” there is nothing normal about this time.  It is traumatic and stressful and likely that people will be affected by this for a long time.  Many of us our grieving what we’ve lost.

Yet some people have created this toxic positivity around COVID:  

Toxic positivity can make us believe that there’s something shameful about the way we are feeling.  It is an isolating experience because it asks us to suppress our real feelings.  We’re left feeling invisible and isolated.  Part of being wholehearted is that we feel all our emotions.  And the negative emotions make up part of our core emotions as much as the positive emotions do – because they serve important functions too.  To numb negative emotions, to ignore them, to silence them, is to be not whole.  You cannot experience your positive emotions fully if you do not fully experience your negative emotions.   

Don’t get me wrong, having those darker feelings is difficult.  Sometimes things really do just suck and life seem hopeless.  It is fine to acknowledge when you have difficult emotions or are in a difficult situation.  And sometimes our negative emotions overwhelm us and we need to get professional help with them.  Instead of forcing toxic positivity on yourself or others, try and acknowledge that it is okay not to be okay and deal with the reality of the situation.   

For a more in-depth article on toxic positivity in the context of wider societal issues, see this excellent article by neurodiverse woman Megan Wildhood.

3. Lift yourself up 

Part of my philosophical background is that I am post-modern and constructivist.  What this means is that I believe that we, as individuals, are agents of change.  I believe that what we think, say, and do means something.  The whole “you reap what you sow” thing.  

For years I struggled with negative self-talk.  I still do sometimes.  If someone complimented me, I’d instantly deny it in my head.  If someone told me I was pretty I would tell myself I was ugly.  If someone said I was smart I would remind myself of all the dumb things I had done.  And if someone was critical of me, the barrage of hate I’d unleash on myself was relentless.  

It is hard to be happy when you carry that level of negative self-talk.  This type of emotional dysfunction meant that my negative emotions were no longer fulfilling their proper function. If anything, they were over-functioning and that stopped my positive emotions from being able to do their job. My negative emotions were being toxic in this case.   The incessant negativity resulted in me constructing this person, this identity, who was so unlovable that the problem wasn’t just that I didn’t love myself.  I hated myself.  And it took me decades to turn that around.  

I wish someone had given me permission to be kind to myself.  And to be really honest, maybe someone did and I just was not ready to hear it.  I had to learn that the inner critic of perfectionism does not always see reality.  I had to learn gratitude.  And not the kind of gratitude where I post perfect Facebook pictures to create envy in other people.  But the kind that accepts who I am and what I have and finds the good in that.    

I am a lot more resilient now, and in part that is because positive self-talk helps to process thoughts, deal with painful or stressful situations, emotionally regulate and increase self-control.  Here are two techniques to increase your positive self-talk.   

Decrease negative self-talk This is trying to catch yourself when you are in a cycle of negative self-talk and simply not allowing it.  Usually our negative self talk is based on a type of cognitive distortion.  Try and identify which ones applies to you, because it will make it easier to for you catch your negative self-talk.  It might be more than one – it might be most of them.  That is ok.   

If you have the emotional space – ask yourself where did the negative self-talk come from?  Identifying the root causes can be helpful in breaking the cycle of negativity.   

Replace the negative self-talk with positive self-talk.  A really concrete and practical way to increase positive self talk is with the following exercise:

  • write a list of some of your negative self-talk.
  • for each example, write the opposing positive self-talk

When you catch yourself using negative self-talk, replace it with your positive self-talk.  Similarly, when you catch yourself using positive self-talk, take a moment to acknowledge that you’re growing.  This creates a positive feedback loop for yourself.  

One way I increased my positive self-talk is by comparing the standards I had for other people and that I had for myself.  I considered others worthy.   I was positive and encouraging towards them.  Myself, less so.   I really challenged myself on this disparity and started holding myself to a higher standard.  Deciding to treat yourself respectfully, like a friend, and not putting up with abuse from yourself any longer can be an incredibly freeing and validating experience.   

Readings that informed this blog:  

Brown, B. (2018). List of core emotions.  

Fredrickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.

Lambert, N., et al. (2012). A boost of positive affect: The perks of sharing positive experiences. 

Oles, P. et al. (2020).  Types of Inner Dialogues and Functions of Self-Talk: Comparisons and Implications.

Wildwood, M. (2020).  There’s Something Spreading Faster Than COVID-19, and It’s Not Fear. It’s Toxic Positivity.

Sorry.

Apologies are a powerful thing.  When trying to restore connection, relationships or justice, they are an effective tool. But there’s another kind of apology that is powerful in a very different, soul-destroying kind of way.  It makes you invisible. It reinforces the belief that you do not matter nor deserve to take up space in this world.  

It’s happened to all of us hundreds of times.  You’re walking along and someone is coming from the other direction.  Unless one of you moves, you will collide.   My heart will beat slightly faster.  I direct my gaze down to avoid eye contact, trying to avoid any confrontation.  There is an internal dialogue racing through my head: “Is he going to move?  I should move.  If I don’t move, what will happen”.   

Asking myself “What will happen” may seem like catastrophising. But enough of us have had encounters with men that left us feeling violated or scared.  And unfortunately, you can’t always tell from the outside if a man is an asshole or someone who will treat you with respect.   

Better safe than sorry, I move out of the way.  To top it off, I usually apologise as well, “Sorry”.   

And that apology is the powerful, soul destroying kind.  Because I just apologised for the most imagined slight that I might have caused.  I just apologised for being.   

This incessant feeling that I need to apologise extends well beyond this particular type of encounter. It also happens when:  

I’m out with my child and he is being loud, excited, playful – pretty basic kid behaviour.  

I can’t answer a colleague’s question.  Because I wasn’t at work.     

Refusing the advances of a man.   

I have literally removed men’s hands off me after unwanted sexual advances and said “No, sorry”.  

When I am sitting there terrified, because I have already given a 100 signals that I am not interested.  When I have told him I’m not available, resorting to referring to myself as another man’s property “sorry I have a boyfriend”.  In a bar full of people having to overtly refuse a man, a stranger, access to my body, saying no equates to needing to apologise.  After all, I have just refused him something he wants.  

I know that I am not the only person who feels like that.  A quick Google search “apologising for taking up space” shows many other articles like mine.  Whilst I feel highly validated that I am not alone, I also feel sad.  Actually no – outraged, because there are many other women like me who are going through life apologising for the space that they take up.   

I know part of the reason why I apologise.  I have been conditioned to meet the needs of men.  “How to please a man” is the cover of many a magazine.  My religion is largely male dominated, with women taking serving, not leadership, positions.  My mother’s comments as I became a teenager would always reflect on how my behaviour, thoughts and feelings would not attract a quality man.  Essentially, systemic sexism and gender stereotypes has taught me what my place is as a woman.  And it’s to do whatever I need to do to please him.  Whether that is getting out of the damn way, shutting up, or have unfettered access to my body.   

I have decided to stop apologising for taking up space or for saying no.  I realised that a more appropriate reaction than being demure and saying sorry to a man trying to assault me is to yell “fuck off” at him.  

I feel like I am now in open rebellion of what I have internalised my whole life. And that is necessary, because some people don’t play the game by the same rules that I do.  In my rules, no means no, stop means stop, you apologise for wrongdoing. Turns out some people play the game chaotically, willing to break rules, or even the game, for their own gain.  So I will not be apologising anymore when that apology is something that causes me to become invisible, powerless or broken.   

No more apologising for taking up space.  

No more apologising for enforcing my boundaries.   

No more apologising for being me.  

I’m taking after Blake Lively in A Simple Favor and kicking this awful female habit!