Tips for Gifted Adults with ADHD
Coach Eric Tivers on helping 2e adults discover their gifts
Posted Feb 27, 2018
Among the many myths and misunderstandings of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is that exceptionally smart people can’t have ADHD (or, conversely, that ADHD comes pre-packaged with gifts of creativity and high intelligence).
However, as Dr. Thomas Brown explains in “The Mysteries of ADD and High IQ,” ADHD “has nothing to do with how smart a person is. Some individuals with ADD are super-smart on IQ tests, many score in the average range, and some are much lower.” The difficulties from ADHD result “not by lack of smarts, but by chronic inability to deploy their smarts in effective work and in getting along with other people.”
Or, as Dr. Russell Barkley is famous for saying, “ADHD is not a problem with knowing what to do; it is a problem of doing what you know.”
Twice the Challenge
Giftedness co-existing with ADHD is an example of twice-exceptionality, or 2e: two exceptionalities that differ from how most people experience life and learning (see also "The Twice-Exceptional Adult" by Dr. Dan Peters). It is not unusual for adults to realize later in life that they are 2e, in part because as children they were able to compensate somewhat for ADHD symptoms or their ADHD took center stage and precluded any recognition of giftedness. Dr. Marianne Kuzujanakis, co-author of Misdiagnosis & Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children And Adults (2nd edition) reminds us that “while some gifted kids are erroneously labeled and medicated for mental health disorders they do not have, others are unrecognized for learning or mental disorders they do have.”
2e Adults and Emotional Flooding
Eric Tivers, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, coach, and podcaster at ADHD reWired, works with many clients who are both gifted and have ADHD, and I recently interviewed him about his experience with and tips for 2e adults.
Eric learned he had ADHD in college, and he remembers as if it were yesterday being diagnosed and getting treatment. As he recently told Linda Roggli at the online ADHD Women’s Palooza, “I felt normal for the first time. I was able to actually read and understand what I was reading, and for the first time in my life, I was getting As.” However, as he raised the bar for himself, he also raised his anxiety about maintaining success. People with ADHD often don’t know if they can repeat tomorrow what they are able to do today, nor do they understand how they were able to succeed yesterday at what they seem incapable of doing now.
Eric has noticed that when highly intelligent clients with ADHD get stuck or are overwhelmed, “they get flooded more easily or shut down.” Thomas Brown explains that emotional flooding occurs when “the working memory impairments of ADHD allow a momentary emotion to become too strong, flooding the brain with one intense emotion.”
In the gifted, who often have what Eric calls a “vast pool of capacity” as well as unusual intensity, the frustration of not being able to perform routine tasks easily or having to slow down to normal speed or simply being overtaxed in terms of executive functioning triggers emotions that quickly become unmanageable or the sole focus of their attention.
An ADHD Coach's Tips for 2e Adults
To help with emotional flooding and other 2e challenges, Eric Tivers offers these three tips for anyone who both has ADHD and is smarter than the average bear.
1. Accept that giftedness is not necessarily a gift. Both ADHD and giftedness are poorly named, because ADHD is not primarily about attention deficits or hyperactivity, and giftedness can feel like anything but a gift. Eric says gifted people can internalize expectations that everything should come easily or they should be able to succeed at anything just because they are highly intelligent or unusually talented. These expectations are not appropriate in general, and they are even more problematic for those with ADHD, for whom some aspects of even daily living that do come easily for other people are inherently more difficult.
2. Practice self-compassion. Especially for adults with ADHD who went many years undiagnosed, unrealistic expectations combined with a lack of self-understanding can lead to constant self-criticism:
Why can’t I do this?
Why did I screw this up…again?
Eric suggests using the same words but changing the emphasis and tone to that of curiosity and self-knowledge:
Why CAN'T I do this?
Why did I screw THIS up…again?
WHY is this hard?
Why do I keep making THAT same mistake?
Instead of self-criticism, he encourages clients to take a problem-solving approach to themselves, to challenge themselves to identify what isn't working and to find solutions and workarounds. Once they have had the opportunity to work through a significant struggle and have some success, they can gain confidence and even begin to wonder what else they might be able to do.
“There are so many things that I’m really bad at,” he admits with a laugh, “but I don’t spend my time focusing on that stuff. I’m not ignoring it, but it’s about asking for help and being okay with the fact that you need help with some things.”
3. Find community. Whether it’s giftedness or ADHD, Eric urges, “Don’t just read about it. Don’t just listen to the podcast. Find community.” This is especially important because of the stigma of ADHD and what he refers to as the reverse stigma of giftedness: “Find a community where you can share your stories and hear people say the thing that you assumed only you thought.” The importance of community is one reason he has focused in recent years on coaching and accountability group work.
While some people view both ADHD and giftedness as gifts, Eric says that they are not gifts he would choose to give anyone he cared about. However, they do offer opportunities:
"When obstacles are put in our path, and we are able to find ways to work around those things, we may discover gifts as we discover workarounds. Sometimes gifts of grit, resilience, self-advocacy, self-determination, and self-awareness are what we find in our journey on the road less traveled."