I once had a manager at work who sat me down and told me that I needed to learn to advocate for myself as loudly as possible, because no one could do it for me better than me.
Even if we don’t want that to be the truth, often it’s our reality – that if we aren’t advocating for ourselves, our voices may not be heard.
My manager meant this pretty specifically in terms of asking for a promotion and a raise. But it’s a lesson I’ve taken to heart ever since, and now I’m using it to advocate for myself and for anyone with ADHD who’s tired of feeling bad about themselves all the time.
A lot of the shame and struggle that we experience is rooted in trying (and often failing) to live up to neurotypical standards that aren’t possible to achieve because of our unique ways of thinking and because of how our brains function.
But this doesn’t have to be the way we live our lives. Though we exist today in a neurotypical society, I believe that there’s always a way to make room for new rules. And by adhering to our own measurements of success, we can hopefully influence those around us to open their minds to divergent ways of living.
I’m working hard to let go of the neurotypical standards that I’ve thought I needed to live up to, and to redefine my own standards for productivity, success, and happiness.
What Even Are Neurotypical Standards?
The things about standards is that they aren’t standardized! People often have different perspectives on what’s standard, proper, acceptable, etc. But there are a few ideas about being a “real” adult that I believe we can agree are clearly neurotypical standards.
These may include:
- Keeping sustained attention, like sitting through a full movie and staying focused on it the entire time
- Practicing regular hobbies for many years
- Keeping regular routines all the time
- Staying in the same job for many years or even decades
- Keeping a neat and tidy home
- Being consistently responsive to phone calls and text messages
- Making small talk
- Always being put together with hair, makeup and clothes
- Remembering lists and facts, especially about others
- Being on time, always
- Being productive every day
- Consistency in all things
Why Neurotypical Standards Suck for Us
We live in a neurotypical world, where ADHD is considered the divergence from what’s “normal”. It’s irregular, weird, different, unique. ADHD brains are dysfunctional. We don’t think or behave the way a person is supposed to think or behave.
Because neurotypical is the standard, we stick out in ways that are seen as disruptive and inappropriate from grade school through our entire adulthood. We’re constantly told to be less of ourselves; to pay more attention, to behave better, to be quieter (or sometimes louder!), to stop fidgeting, to try harder. We’re told that we’re not right in so many ways.
For those who were unlucky enough to receive a late diagnosis, it may be the first step in healing years of feeling deficient and wrong. But even for those who are diagnosed early, that doesn’t magically make the world understand ADHD brains and want to let them work as intended.
So, neurotypical standards suck for us because we’ll never live up to them – and somehow that makes us think we’re in the wrong!
Which is why I believe it’s so important that as a community, we do what we can to create our own new neurodivergent standards and mold our lives to them in a way that suits us as individuals.
How I’ve Started to Let Go
These are just some of the standards I’ve been trying to let go of, and what I’m replacing them with that works for me instead. These might not be standards that you care about, and not all of my tactics are universal fixes for everyone with ADHD. But they are here as some kind of framework!
|I used to…||Now I…|
|Think I needed to cook every night||Cook what and when I can and don’t feel ashamed of ordering takeout|
|Believe naps were for kids and sick people||Nap every day if I can|
|Want to be productive all weekend||Rest when I’m tired and do things when I’m up for it|
|Stress about keeping up with the housework||Use a cleaning service|
|Try to organize my entire life with a bullet journal||Keep a running list of to dos that I’ll get to eventually, and only schedule things when they become urgent|
|Think I needed my nails and hair and makeup to always look perfect||Get done up when I’m in the mood and see it as a special thing|
|Worry about why I couldn’t remember things||Write it down, but also let it go when I inevitably forget something|
|Beat myself up for never being consistent||Appreciate that I have other qualities that make me unique and interesting|
|Feel bad about saying no||Only say yes to things I know I can handle|
Putting it into Practice
I don’t think there’s a particularly simple way to let go of some neurotypical standards, and it’ll be really different for everyone. But here are a few places where you can start to learn how you really want to live your life, and make that dream a reality.
Start Where You Struggle the Most
This may be obvious, but start with what bothers you most.
Get out a piece of paper and make a table with two columns. On the left, write the neurotypical standards you can’t deal with anymore. On the right, put the neurodivergent standard you’d prefer to live up to instead.
Then pick 3-5 new neurodivergent standards and brainstorm ways you can practice them. If you are having trouble coming up with new ideas, crowdsource them! Talk to your neurodiverse friends online and offline and ask what they would do in a perfect neurodiverse world.
Practice living to those standards wherever and whenever you can. Even if it’s just online or only with a certain group of people, it’s just a place to start. You can’t overhaul every aspect of your life at the same time (even if your ADHD occasionally wants you to do that!).
Start Where You Struggle the Least
A lot of smart people will tell you that if you have a list of things to do, start with what you hate so you can get it out of the way. Not a bad idea!
But I once had someone suggest to start with what you like because it may be easier to get through the rest if you’re starting positive.
I think starting with where you struggle the least is in the same vein. If it’s not such a big deal to you already, then making a change might not be so hard either. And if you can change something small, it may help you build up to changing something big down the road.
You can do the same exercise with the standards table, but instead brainstorm what bothers you least and pick new neurodivergent standards from that.
Work with an Accountability Buddy
Accountability buddies aren’t just good for productivity and helping us get things done on our to-do list. They can also be an excellent tool to help remind us to put things into practice that we want to change.
If you want to make changes in your life, talk to a friend, your spouse, or a trusted co-worker about your plans. Tell them what you’re trying to do and why, and ask them to help catch you in moments where you slip back into old patterns.
It’s important to be up front about the approach you want them to take. We all have a tendency to help others in the way we think is best and it might not match what they need.
So be really specific about how you want your buddy to hold you accountable – whether it’s with a weekly check-in for the first few weeks, by correcting you on the spot, by helping you brainstorm strategies for change, or by just being a supportive listener when it gets hard.
Design Your Dream Neurodivergent Day
If you had a full day of neurodivergent living, what would that look like? How late would you sleep? What projects or activities would you focus on? Would you even do anything at all, or just laze around and think deep thoughts?
I’m giving you full out permission to do that. Design a day, a perfect day, and then live it. Wear what you want. Eat what you want. Do what you want. Engage with people on your own terms (or not at all). Exercise, or don’t. Take two naps. Avoid all text messages, emails and phone calls. Answer honestly when people ask how you’re doing (good or bad!).
Just live your day how you want. Then, repeat as often as you can. Maybe it’s once a week, once a month or once a quarter. By living out a dream day where you live by your own rules for 24 hours, you may find that you have something to look forward to. It may help you craft ways to incorporate new neurodivergent standards into other days too.
Spend Time with the Neurodivergent Community
You might feel like you’re not ready to change your standards in your home or work life. That’s okay – it’s not an easy thing to do. We often feel the weight of others’ expectations in arenas where we have to interact with mostly neurotypical people.
You may have a neurotypical boss, parents, spouse, siblings, friends or romantic partner, and you might not be sure you can make them understand why you need to do things differently.
If you’re feeling trapped by your everyday life, try to make time every week to be with the neurodivergent community. If you don’t have neurodivergent friends or groups that you know in your offline life, then find some online!
Twitter is a great place to start and you can find people using the hashtags #askADHD, #askingAutistics, #NeurodiverseSquad and #ADHDlife. Facebook groups are full of neurodivergent folks ready to give advice or lend a listening ear. There are also a lot of online coaching and empowerment groups that can help you form neurodiverse friendships!
It All Comes Back to Self-Advocacy
I think when people hear the word “advocacy” it can bring out some unpleasant emotions because it feels like such an overwhelming concept. We tend to associate advocacy to big community initiatives that try to sway public opinion over really important topics.
In reality, advocacy is simply what we do when we speak up for our wants and needs to anyone, any day, about any topic.
It’s as small as telling a restaurant that you don’t like tomatoes, so you prefer your sandwich without them. It’s as big as telling your partner how you really feel about their bonehead friends, and that you prefer not to spend time with them.
It would be ideal if the world understood neurodivergent minds and wanted to accept us for who we are and let us live to standards that suit us. But the reality is that if we don’t advocate for what we need, the people around us will never be able to meet us on our level.
This can be really scary, especially if you don’t feel like your perspectives or opinions are being heard. Most people don’t want to hear that they’re wrong about anything, or that they’re being subconsciously dismissive of the people in their lives.
But I encourage you to never give up on advocating for yourself. Never stop believing that somebody out there is willing to listen to you and understand how your brain works.
It’s important to remember that if you never tell anyone what would help you succeed or be happy or find peace, then no one will ever be able to help you make that happen. We can’t do everything alone and sometimes we need to educate the important people in our lives so they can assist us in the most effective ways.
Ending here with a reminder that you’re allowed to take up space, and you’re allowed to mold that space to suit your optimal needs.