I’ve been struggling with some mounting anxiety about writing choices lately. I tend to get into worry spirals about my plot decisions and characters and how different people I know, and lots of people I don’t know, might react to them. Sometimes I can cope with creative anxiety by emotionally pulling back from my work, especially when processing professional feedback, but I think I’ve actually done that too much. I’ve kind of lost track of my affection for Orane and my emotional involvement in her journey. Some distance is definitely good, because a writer who is afraid to make bad things happen to their good people is generally not going to tell a very compelling story.
On the other hand, though, staying that emotionally detached from the story has left me much more subject to the pressure of other people’s opinions. I can’t really feel comfortable with any of my choices because I’m not trusting my own judgement and creative intuition anymore. There’s no point writing a book entirely driven by what I think other people might think. There’s nothing wrong with writing to a particular market, but that’s not my goal at the moment and it’s definitely not what I’ve been doing. I’ve just been scared of judgement. My instinct is to escape the judgement by not writing anything anyone could possibly judge, but that really means not writing anything at all.
That anxiety reached an unpleasant peak this week, where I couldn’t even think about my work without my head just filling up with a whirlpool of worries. I literally can’t function under that much external influence, since every single thing will ultimately be judged negatively by some people and positively by others. There’s no way to please everyone, so for now I’m trying to focus inward and reconnect with my own judgement and creative preferences.
I’ve started watching the Tidying Up show with Marie Kondo, not because I’m actually planning to follow her method at the moment, but just because she’s such a delight to watch and listen to. I also loved her book, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and would highly recommend it as a very relaxing read. It’s an excellent bedtime book.
In spite of all the totally legitimate criticism of the minimalist movement, Marie is really nonjudgemental and seems to be purely motivated by a desire to help people make their own environments comfortable for themselves, not to make them fit into any particular image. If that box of Star Wars memorabilia makes you happy, she wants to help you display it, not guilt you into throwing it away. She really strikes me, above all else, as a person who has completely leaned into who she is, her own unique view of the world, and what matters to her. I think that’s pretty special.
I have a slowly growing little list of shows that are both positive and relaxing, and Tidying Up is going on it. The Great British Baking show and Queer Eye are also pretty high up there. I never realized how starved I was for just seeing basic kindness on TV until I first found myself watching a baking competition where the contestants would often stop work just to help each other. Even the comedians on GBBS give out hugs and encouragement in equal measure with their kindhearted teasing and jokes.
Queer Eye offers something even more rare, which is a group of men doing emotional labor for other men. Many straight men rely almost entirely on their female partners for that kind of emotional processing and support, and it can be terribly isolating. The men of Queer Eye are gentle and encouraging, and they provide a great image of non-toxic masculinity. Plus, the show offers a lot of body positivity for men, another rarity.
Side note: There was a great discussion I saw a while ago about how this heavy reliance on their female partners can encourage men to believe in the mythical Friend Zone. Men tend to view any kind of emotional labor as something you only exchange with a romantic partner, whereas women usually also give and receive that kind of support from friends. Thus, basic supportive friendship for a woman looks, to a straight man, like a relationship. This is not a good thing. It wears women out, trying to keep up with the needs of a person who isn’t getting emotional support from anyone else in their life, and is part of why older men tend to die soon after losing their partners. They have no emotional support networks to take up the strain, unlike most older women. Plus, it encourages men to ruin perfectly good friendships by putting their female friends in The Girlfriend Zone. Knock this off, dudes. Being friends isn’t a consolation prize, y’all just need to learn how to do it right.
Here are some of the shows on my kindness porn list:
This one is not a TV show, but Jessica Kellgren-Fozard has a youtube channel, Jessica Out of the Closet, that is pretty much like distilled sunshine. She’s a disability activist, vintage beauty vlogger, and she shares stories about her life with her wife and their two dogs. Sometimes she also talks about her beliefs as a quaker, and about queer and disabled historical figures. She’s one of the most positive and intentionally kind people I’ve ever seen in my life.
Big Dreams, Small Spaces is a British show about renovating small gardens so that they’re more functional and beautiful for the families who need them. They often feature disabled people, with a focus on accessibility and tailoring those spaces really well to the people who will use them.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is a short one, but very fun to watch. The host, Samin Nosrat, is incredibly passionate about good food, with none of the usual quibbling about calories or creepy talk about guilty pleasures. She enjoys herself, teaches about the important basic elements of flavor, and she goes out and talks to people who make amazing food around the world. She also has a book.
If anyone has any suggestions for more shows I should add to this list, I’d love to hear them.
Halloween is theoretically a spooky time, but let’s be real, it’s all just fun. People enjoy the little thrills, but mostly it’s an excuse to be creative and silly. Those thrills aren’t even really fear, they’re the excitement of being allowed to look at and celebrate things that are still slightly taboo. We’re not supposed to talk about death too lightly, except right now, when we can hang human skeletons and cute little ghosts from our trees. They’re even selling adorable little fake dog and lizard skeletons in every shop, although most of the time people might think it’s a little weird that I keep real ones in my office.
The most exciting things in life are often the things that have the capacity to be a little scary. That’s why we like roller-coasters, painfully spicy food, kinky sex, and sharing our artistic work in spite of the fairly legitimate terror of rejection and/or mockery. The people who seem to enjoy themselves the most fully are the ones who manage to do what they do in spite of the fear, even learning to embrace the fear, rather than because they had no fear to start with. It’s no fun without the thrill, or maybe there’s just less of a sense of triumph if we didn’t have to push through some discomfort to get to the goal.
People who procrastinate tend to be overly optimistic about how long things will take. Its not that they don’t think about the time, it’s just that they tend to expect things to go well. I’m often late to appointments, because when I think about how long it takes to get to my psychiatrist’s office, I only remember the times when there was no traffic, the lights were all green, and I got there with a couple of minutes to spare after leaving late.
This kinda makes sense, because technically that is the most accurate example of how long it actually takes to drive there, but it still makes me late. Of course, the sensible thing to do would be to take that best-case scenario I came up with and tack on extra time for dealing with potential traffic, but that optimism also applies to my memories of how much the traffic could slow me down. I remember that one time I got stuck in traffic and was still only five minutes late, not the multiple times when I missed my appointment entirely due to a complete standstill on I5.
I think that the perfectionism that often comes with ADHD can be linked with this misplaced optimism when planning. When we look ahead, we often envision how everything should go, not how badly it might go. When we think about a project, we think of how it should turn out, and don’t leave ourselves much room for error, or even just for being human beings with human limitations. “Good enough” isn’t a thing that ADHD life primes us to celebrate, even though good enough on a consistent basis can be so much more powerful than occasional perfection.
When I think about doing a good job on a project, I envision perfection, not my personal best work, and certainly not my personal norm. My personal norm involves difficulty with focus, annoying nausea, rushing to finish things that I forgot, being extremely tired because of lack of sleep, and responsibilities to other people. It’s messy.
My personal best generally shows when I get lucky and none of these things wind up impeding me. Those days are my commutes without traffic. They’re the shining image of productivity that I hold up in my mind when forming expectations, optimistically believing I can duplicate that experience whenever I need to, even though many potential complications are actually out of my control. Life happens, and ADHD itself frequently makes the roads to success more trafficky. It causes accidents that can block progress for the rest of the day.
I believe that the excess of negative reinforcement that ADHD kids tend to receive contributes to this underlying belief that only perfect outcomes are worth considering. Our personal best sometimes looks a lot like the bare minimum to neurotypicals, which means we don’t get much praise for even our most extraordinary efforts. The people around us can’t always see that effort, and the results alone may not impress them. They only see that we didn’t do as well as they expected. Instead of praise for doing what we could, we frequently face nitpicking and corrections. This encourages a belief that only complete perfection will ever satisfy our parents, and later-on our partners and friends.
If our very best wasn’t good enough for others, why should it be good enough for us? Sure, we could say “screw them and their negativity” but that’s simply not how people work. We’re not designed to ignore that kind of conditioning, especially when we’re young, but even as adults. We’re likely to either give up, because we can’t do better than our best and our best wasn’t good enough, or to chase perfection till we fall apart. Often, we wind up swapping between those two, because perfectionism is exhausting, but you’re just not allowed to quit being human and become a cat.
Another aspect of this constant negative reinforcement is that we’re basically taught to ignore limitations like lack of sleep, trouble with focus, and other legitimate struggles. When we’re constantly being told that we’re lazy and just not trying hard enough, what we’re learning is that nothing is ever a reason to fail. When being tired, confused, uncomfortable, or unable to find vital materials is never accepted as a roadblock by the people around you, you learn to just not think about what might go wrong. Why should we, if it feels like there’s nothing we can do to stop having problems, and they’re not really acknowledged by the people judging us? It’s not a realistic way to engage with the world, but it’s a potential side-effect of perfectionism. We just don’t consider our own limits, because our limits have never been respected or acknowledged. Under those conditions, thinking about worst-case scenarios doesn’t feel like productive prep-work, it feels like a recipe for an anxiety attack.
A final example of all this in action: I wound up writing most of this post at 2am on Thursday and then finishing it Friday night, because I didn’t expect to need more than a couple of hours to wrap it up. That’s how long it usually takes me to edit a post when I have most of my thoughts on the page in advance, I’m very focused, and nothing pulls me away from the computer. It is not how long it actually takes me on average to finish a post, but my brain refuses to accept most of that imperfect data. It’s tainted by all those other factors. Even when I’m literally writing a post about this phenomenon, it still gets me.
Edited to add, because I got a bit carried away and forgot to actually articulate the tip: I guess the point here is really just to consider what might be affecting your expectations, and try to compensate for that with better context and more self-compassion. You’re not wrong for struggling, and the things that stop you are legitimate and worth considering. Both your best and your norm are good enough, and being able to live with those standards will take you much farther than perfection ever will.
Man, I am really struggling to write this post. It’s not that I’m thinking about a difficult topic, it’s just that I don’t really have anything coherent on my mind. There’s plenty of stuff floating around up there, but none of it seems to be coalescing in a timely fashion. I’ve started a couple of drafts on different topics, but I’m not ready to share those ones yet.
I did go for a really nice walk around the neighborhood this evening, partly in hope of kicking my brain into gear. It helped a bit, I think. There’s a pretty little park a few blocks up from me with a really great view, and the pups and I wandered around in it for a while.
I’m working on weaning myself off using my phone to fall asleep, which is difficult, and a bit scary, because I’ve really relied on audiobooks to help me sleep for a long time. It was what I needed around the time when I started, but I think it’s become more of a distraction than a help as my general mental health has improved. Plus, I hate getting tangled in my earbud cord when I roll over. It’s so annoying.
Keeping myself occupied was a good strategy when I couldn’t generally control or predict my mental state, but I really want to get comfortable in my own head again. If for no other reason than to boost my general creativity. Taking inspiration and learning from other people’s work is awesome, but it can be hard to create your own things when you’re constantly exposed to the creations of others.
A lot of people say that writer’s block doesn’t exist. I’ve heard it compared to having doctor’s block, or plumber’s block. Obviously, people in other professions get stuck, and frustrated, and aren’t always feeling it, but they don’t get to claim they’re simply incapable of working because of some mysterious force. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t be encouraged to sit around for a while and wait for the inspiration to return.
Writer’s block is pretty much a catch-all term for a handful of common creative problems, and refusing to name those problems doesn’t generally help anyone. I get stuck a lot, but there’s always a reason. It’s not that the words have abandoned me, it’s often that I legit can’t picture what I meant to do next, so my brain is refusing to move forward. If I identify that internal resistance and work out a plan of attack, I can often move past it. If I just called it writer’s block, I might be more inclined to wait it out, which in that particular case would be the exact wrong move. The plan won’t get any clearer if I stop working entirely, only if I shift my focus to where the actual issue is.
It gets more complicated, though. There is always a reason when I get stuck, but sometimes that reason actually is a mysterious force that grips me and refuses to let me work. I know, I know. That sounds a lot like writer’s block. Bear with me, because it’s really not.
Most creative advice assumes that the audience is neurotypical, and that’s pretty unrealistic, especially given the high percentage of artists and writers who struggle with mental illness and/or have neurodivergent conditions like autism or ADHD. Conventional wisdom assumes that everyone is working with, more or less, the same mental and physical toolset, which just isn’t the case. There is a weird and unpredictable force that strikes some people, but it isn’t the fault of any muse (probably.) It’s called executive dysfunction, and it sucks hard.
Executive dysfunction is like a glitch in the brain’s programming. It’s that feeling when you click on an icon, and you can see it acknowledge that you clicked it, but nothing happens. So, you click it again, and nothing happens. This happens twenty more times, and then you have to stop before you throw the phone at the nearest wall, because it is infuriating. You had the thought, tried to initiate the process, but nothing happened. No error message pops up to tell you what’s wrong. It just. Won’t. Do.
This is not the same as procrastination. Stalling and procrastination are behaviors that a person can generally control, even if it’s hard. They’re not always conscious choices, but they’re avoidance habits, not an actual inability. It’s the difference between “I really really don’t want to do my homework, so I’m doing the dishes and watching this episode of Friends for the fiftieth time” and “I physically can’t seem to reach over and open my laptop, even though I’ve just been sitting on the couch and scrolling through Facebook on my phone for two hours hating every moment of it because I desperately want to be getting my work done. Now I’m hungry, but I still can’t move or take my eyes off the screen. Send help.”
There isn’t an easy solution to executive dysfunction, but some of the advice for dealing with writer’s block can help a little:
“Switch environments.” Go to a friend’s house, or work in a coffee shop, or just go for a walk and then come back to it. Light a pretty candle or put on music. Changing something around you can sometimes help break through the mental barrier.
“Set yourself up to succeed.” Make your office or work-station a comfy place to be. Make sure your computer is always charged. Stick a water bottle and a granola bar near your work area, so you have them in case you’re having trouble switching tasks later. Tidy up your supplies when you’re done with them, and make sure there’s never anything physically stopping you from doing your most important tasks, because even one additional step between you and that work might be the thing that trips you up. Use the energy, when you have it, to be your own parent and take care of future you.
“Remove social media from your list of options.” This goes with the previous item, but it deserves its own section. Block Facebook, Youtube, or whatever other sites you tend to get sucked into on your computer, uninstall them from your phone, hide the icons, or just be really sure not to open them when you need to do something else, even for a second. Don’t sit down for a short break anywhere near the TV. Hide the remote. Whatever makes it harder to get trapped. It’s not a willpower problem. It’s not being weak. It’s taking care of yourself.
“Downgrade your expectations to lower the pressure.” It really doesn’t have to be good. You can’t edit a blank page, and any words that you write really are better than the ones you don’t. A practice sketch still represents valuable experience, even if it isn’t something you’ll want to show anyone.
“Review the steps in front of you.” Do you have a plan, or has the task become an amorphous blob of stress in your head? Have you written down each step you need to take, or at least gone through them in your mind? Can you break them down into more detail, or do some research about the process? Not being able to picture what’s next can trigger genuine dysfunction.
“Stop trying to do this thing, and see if it’s possible to do a different thing.” This sounds like procrastination, but it can be really good advice if you’re dealing with executive dysfunction. Can’t do the art, but you can maybe manage doing the dishes? Great! Can you feed yourself? Take a shower? Walk your dog? Write in your journal? How about a blog post? Try anything that will help you get out of the rut and into motion, because building up a little momentum is often at least half the battle. Executive dysfunction is mostly a starting problem, so see if you can sneak up on the task by going around it.
“Be patient, and wait it out.” Try not to be angry with yourself if you’re just stuck. Try to stay hydrated. As soon as the spell lifts, even if it’s right before bed, try to get a tiny bit of something done just so you can feel some sense of progress to combat the frustration, even if all you produce is a really crappy drawing of your cat, or a few sentences on a page. It’s still something. Try again tomorrow, but don’t stay up all night trying to catch up. Sleep deprivation makes everyone’s executive function worse, across the board. It snowballs.
Conventional advice you might want to avoid:
“Just do it.” Um, yeah. This generally won’t work if you’re dealing with executive dysfunction. That’s why it’s called dysfunction, not mild reluctance.
“Write/draw every day.” Maybe just modify this to write/draw/other creative pursuits every day you’re able. The idea is not to make yourself feel awful or burn yourself out, just to build up experience and skill as consistently as possible.
“Get an artistic buddy and keep each other accountable!” This can really backfire. It might work for you, but if you experience a lot of guilt and anxiety, do not let your relationship with this friend be poisoned by it. You don’t want to wind up avoiding the friend because you feel like you’ve let them down every time your brain isn’t working.
Encourage each other, absolutely, but accountability is for people who are procrastinating, not for people dealing with a disability or illness.
Here’s a suggestion that isn’t usually given for writer’s block: Seek help. Not just from a buddy, but from a professional. Mental health is physical health, and there are medications and therapies that may be able to help. If that glitchy brain is screwing up your life, get thee to a brain doctor.
Maybe this series should be titled Ideas for ADHD Creatives, not tips. Tips implies that I know what I’m talking about with a little more certainty than I actually feel, but here are my thoughts on habit and ADHD.
It sometimes seems to me that people with ADHD have a double curse. We tend to thrive when our environments are consistent, because it cuts down on distraction and reduces decision fatigue, but we are also easily bored and frustrated by sameness. We aren’t always able to build habits the same way neurotypical people do, and may even unconsciously rebel and mess up the habits that we do build when they become too constricting.
If you’re one of the ADHD folks who struggles to build habits at all, no matter how many times you do the same thing, you may find even the simplest repetitive tasks frustrating. I hate brushing my teeth, personally. It bores me. My impression is that for neurotypical people, toothbrushing is mostly an autopilot experience, but that’s not how it is for me. Every day, I have to make the choice and spend that willpower to get my teeth brushed, every time. The habit that is supposed to make it an automatic action doesn’t ever seem to kick in. This has left me feeling kind of like a failure, because I’ve heard all my life that good habits are all I lack to be a more productive person. (Gotta love that old “you’re too smart to be failing” speech.)
I’ve read The Power of Habit, and it was definitely a very interesting book that I’d recommend to anyone who finds the human brain fascinating, but my brain’s not really on board with the whole habit thing. ADHD folks have probably all been told at one point or another that they’re just being lazy because they won’t develop a consistent work ethic, and it sucks, because ADHD is not a mindset problem. It’s a fundamental difference in brain function, and many neurotypical people fail to grasp that concept. If your brain has never let you down in this way, it’s hard to understand that there’s a gap between your choices and your ability to execute them consistently. Brains are complicated machines, and they can break down in confusing ways, and thinking harder at the problem is not always, or even frequently, a solution.
So, why might routine or ritual potentially be more helpful than habit? They are pretty similar.
Well, for one thing, it takes a little bit of the emotional pressure off. If you can’t form the habits you want, or if your habits are unreliable and require more energy to maintain than you feel they should, it’s easy to get discouraged. A ritual or routine is something you do regularly, but they don’t carry the same expectation of some kind of internal change or impetus. I kinda like ritual right now, because it even carries a little bit of the connotation that it’s supposed to take some energy to complete. The ritual has value in itself, and you can feel good that you completed it without being frustrated that it didn’t happen automatically. The energy put into the task is part of the act.
A routine can be more mindless, though still lacking that expectation of increasing ease over time, but a ritual is supposed to be a bit of an event. Both can be really helpful.
People with ADHD are always going to have to work a little harder for their consistency, but it doesn’t have to be a massive drag. It’s okay to find ways to make consistency fun, or at least bearable. So, when you sit down to work, maybe light a candle. Do some breathing exercises that make you feel good. Make some tea, coffee, or fizzy juice. Put in headphones and turn on loud bouncy music, if that does it for you. Take a few minutes for mindfulness meditation or yoga. Have a shower and scrub off all your self-doubt before you go to the blank page, or take a bath with nice scents and focus on your muse. An act of self care, like toothbrushing, can at least become a little more tolerable when seen in that light, and not just as an annoying requirement. Treat yourself and your time like you’re special and important. (Or mystical, if that’s your thing. It’s not mine, but hey! You do you.)
Speaking of mysticism, I’d also like to point out that ritual can shift mindset very effectively, which is why it’s so integral to religion. The right ritual can take you from stressed to calm, or put you in a more focused headspace. Whether a reliable habit forms around it or not, it can still encourage your brain to respond to triggers that help you get ready for work, or for creative thinking, or whatever it is that you want to do next.
It’s possible that when you take the pressure off your ADHD brain to build habits, and instead lean into the intentionality of your regular actions, you might be able to build habits after all. If not, then you’re still taking care of yourself, and you’re still getting what you need to do done, it’s just maybe happening in a way that acknowledges your natural inclinations a little better.
The other nice thing about rituals and routines is that it’s okay to change them. It’s okay to add new things, and remove parts that don’t work for you anymore, and to choose new routes with prettier scenery. Habits are usually meant to be static and reliable, but neither of those is a major characteristic of ADHD functioning, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. All those life-hacks for preserving mental energy by having a wardrobe of nothing but grey hoodies and jeans, so you never have to choose an outfit in the morning, aren’t gonna work for everyone. It’s okay to keep things fresh. What matters is what you get out of those repetitive actions, so if you don’t get what you need out of a routine, feel free to change the way you go about it.