Lots of people with ADHD are also hypersensitive. Does that sound like you or someone you know?
Hypersensitivity can show up in relation to physical stimuli or emotional stimuli. Perhaps certain clothing is intolerable because it is too itchy or scratchy. Or a room has too much natural or artificial light making it seem too bright for reading or focusing. Sometimes the stimulus is sound, either a sound of a particularly grating type or a combination of too many sounds that creates a sensation like the proverbial fingernail on the chalkboard, leading to heightened irritability.
We can also have high sensitivity to emotions, our own or those we sense in other people. One thing I’ve noticed about my own hypersensitivity to the emotional tone that surrounds me is that I do more than name the emotions. I go a step further and attribute certain thoughts and judgments to the people around me, sometimes without any good evidence to justify that mindreading.
Mindreading is one of the ADHD Thinking Traps suggested by Coaches Barbara Luther and Madeline Cote. Thinking traps are habitual ways of thinking that seem valid when we experience them, but when we look at them objectively, or when we see them in someone else, it’s clear that there are a lot of false assumptions behind them.
When I’m sensing high emotions where no words have yet been spoken, I can be just as sure that I know what someone else is thinking as if I had heard that person speak. In that moment, what I believe they are thinking seems the only possible explanation for the emotional climate around me. This is especially true in situations where emotions are high and threatening.
In such moments of high sensitivity, I don’t have the metacognition to observe what is happening. I don’t ask myself, “Is what I am thinking about the other person really true?” Or “How can I know that my assumptions about what the other person is thinking are really true?”
You can imagine the difficulties that grow out of my mindreading! Miscommunication, hurt feelings, and negative repercussions are just a few of the possible consequences of assuming we know what other people are thinking.
So, what can we do?
As is almost always the first step, no matter what the situation that faces us, we can PAUSE. Take a breath. Allow ourselves the time to respond to what we are facing as opposed to reacting out of largely unconscious impulses.
When we pause, we give ourselves a moment of conscious thought in which we can become curious rather than reactive. We can ask ourselves, “What am I feeling right now? What thoughts led to that high emotion? How can I know that those thoughts are really true?”
That might seem like a lot of questions to ask. It might seem as if asking them would take a lot of time. But at their root is a simple change in perspective – from reactive to curious. It turns out that truly curious, nonjudgmental questions are often our best avenue to calm and clarity.
It takes a lot of practice to remember to pause, and then even more practice to become curious. I think the reward of knowing what is really happening as opposed to being in a possibly imaginary world constructed from mindreading will make that practice worth the effort!