It’s shocking to me that in all there is to read about ADHD no one, ever, talks about this one HUGELY important fact—by huge I mean huge like an iceberg huge.
Most of what people consider as willpower, as in the willpower to stay focused on a boring task or to finish a project, is provided, subconsciously by the pre frontal cortex in the neuro-typical brain. What people think of as willpower is just the intentional tip of the Executive Function iceberg. Below consciousness lies most of what the Executive Functions do to support getting on with the business of life and what is deficit in people with ADHD.
In other words, what’s happening in most people’s brain is like an automatic car with a full tank and an internal combustion engine compared to, for those of us with ADHD, a manual that we have to get out and crank up to go the next mile.
In Dr. Thomas Brown’s book, A New Understanding of ADHD in Children and Adults: Executive Function Impairments he explains how this works in his chapter on common myths about ADHD.
MYTH #3. If a person with ADHD really wants to focus and work effectively on a task they can make themselves do it. Using executive functions is just a matter of “willpower.”
Why this is a myth:
Because persons with ADHD can typically exercise their executive functions very well on specific activities or tasks that interest them or which cause them to fear some very unpleasant outcome quite soon if they do not accomplish that task, it is easy to assume that individuals with ADHD can exercise those same functions equally well in other situations which they or others consider important—if only they will exercise a presumed internal force called “willpower.” This new model of ADHD challenges that assumption on the grounds that most operations of executive functions are unconscious, not in the psychoanalytic sense of repression, but in the more modern sense of “automaticity.” From this view, most operations of these executive functions are not under conscious control any more than is erectile dysfunction. Research on motivational influences impacting decisions of “Will you do it and, if so, how and when?” has shown that such decisions result primarily from complex and dynamic interactions of memory-influenced emotions with inborn patterns of reactivity that operate instantaneously with relatively insignificant conscious input, despite our assumptions to the contrary (Chap. 2, pp. 33–37).
So it’s not that people with ADHD have no will power—in could be argued that they have more than most, it’s that the ADHD brain doesn’t provide much of the subconscious support for drive and persistence that the brains of people without ADHD do, unless there is a high level of interest.
MYTH #10. Emotions and motivation are not involved in executive functions associated with ADHD.
Why this is a myth:
Although earlier research and diagnostic criteria for ADHD gave little attention to the role of emotion and motivation in this disorder, more recent research has highlighted their critical importance. Some research has focused solely on the problems of many with ADHD in regulating expression of their emotions without sufficient inhibition or modulation. However, research has also demonstrated that a chronic deficit in emotions that comprise motivation is a critically important aspect of impairments for most individuals with ADHD. Studies have shown that this is related to measurable differences in the operation of the reward system within the brains of those with ADHD. Those with ADHD tend to have abnormalities in the anticipatory dopamine cell firing in the reward system; this makes it difficult for them to arouse and sustain motivation for activities that do not provide immediate and continuing reinforcement (Chap. 3, pp. 55–62).
This explains in part, the role of the Reward System. It has to do with, for example, remembering how good it felt to get a task done that was unpleasant at the start. Every time we experience this from the time we are little and working on, say, how to tie our shoes, this “difficult-now-payoff-later memory is banked. Those with ADHD are less likely to remember how good it felt to finally master a skill. If we can’t recall those memories (subconsciously) we have little to draw from when faced with doing something that is difficult or dull, and can’t recall how good it will feel once it’s done.
Next time you are tempted to beat yourself up for “lack of willpower” instead, give yourself credit for doing as well as you do and ask for help with the rest.