ADHD & self care: Why it comes first

Have you ever said to yourself: "When I catch up on the things I should be doing, then I'll think about self-care?"

In ADHD coaching, we of course regularly work on the obvious biggies - organisation, time management, distractibility, how to not flip your lid.

However, jumping straight into planners and timers and "hacks" is often putting the cart before the overworked, depleted horse.

It's very common for people with ADHD, especially high achievers, to be operating at an objectively high level at great expense to their physical and psychological needs.

You may be able to get by like this for a while, maybe even decades.

But at some point, the kind of big success that many passionate ADHD clients want is not possible until their more basic needs are first addressed.

What can ignoring your unmet needs look like in practice? 

  • Staying up all night to meet a deadline, at the expense of sleep (unmet physical needs)
  • Spending money on aesthetic goals without a solid system for managing money (unmet financial safety needs)
  • Relying on deadline urgency and hyper-focus at work just to keep your head above water, at the expense of time with family and friends (unmet human connection needs)
  • Dropping your own goals in favour of giving others' goals with your time and energy so so that people like you (unmet love and belonging needs)
  • Ignoring your body's warning signs and getting too close to unsafe people (unmet intimacy, self-esteem and safety needs)
  • Cutting out all fun and social activities to more tightly manage (or strangle) time

What is the Hierarchy of Needs and why does it matter?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs is a psychology theory made up of a hierarchical five-tier model of human needs.

The basic premise of this model is that the needs lower down in the pyramid - for example physiological and safety needs - need to be satisfied before you can truly set your mind to the needs further up the pyramid.

From the bottom up, the needs are:

  • physiological (food, water, sleep, shelter)
  • safety (physical safety, job security, financial security, housing stability)
  • love and belonging needs (friendship, family, intimacy, sense of connection)
  • self-esteem (confidence, respect of others, achievement, the need to be a unique individual)
  • self-actualisation (a feeling of deeper purpose, creativity, acceptance, finding meaning and inner potential)

It's not a perfect concept. Maslow later clarified that this was a simplified version of how humans meet their needs, and that it's possible to address higher needs before those lower ones have been fully addressed.

Hierarchy of Needs ADHD

The model is necessarily linear to fit into a pretty pyramid model, which doesn't actually reflect the complexities of human motivation.

But let's not get hung up on its imperfection. The theory behind Maslow's hierarchy is really helpful for most of us, and that is this: we are not in the best position to go after our higher needs until we sort out the stuff at the bottom first.

ADHD hierarchy of needs, motivation and learning

For people with ADHD - kids and adults - you are pushing poo uphill going after the higher order needs if you haven't taken care of the stuff at the bottom of the pyramid.

That's why when clients begin ADHD coaching, we'll always look to some degree at look at lifestyle and security factors before, or alongside, the pursuit of academic or professional success.

Parents, you know this to be true if you've attempted home schooling a tired or hungry kid. Parents of kids with ADHD also know from well-worn experience that sending an exhausted kid off to school is more likely to result in one of those phone calls.

And adults know that it's very difficult to access your creativity, purpose and motivation when you're stressed about money and kids, eating crappy food and getting by on scraps of sleep.

How to get self-care bits right first to succeed with ADHD

Start here: ADHD physical needs

This starts with gaining awareness of your ADHD brain and being curious about what your body needs so you can function at your best.

For people with ADHD, this isn't always easy. Thanks to issues with working memory, we may have to very deliberately record what works best for you. It's likely we'll have to carefully articulate the boundaries around your time and relationships you need to adopt self-care practices.

  • How does ADHD affect your daily functioning?
  • If you're taking medication, are you taking it regularly and how does it affect you?
  • How much sleep do you need and how can you create it?
  • What is your diet like?
  • Are you getting out in nature?

Safety and security needs

Safety for people with ADHD can mean physical safety - actually protecting ourselves from dangerous situations. Financial security is a common unmet ADHD need that can absorb significant bandwidth.

In ADHD households, there can also be significant stress and emotional volatility. How does this walking-on-eggshells affect kids and parents?

A feeling of safety in your own body is also worth considering. If you're constantly jumping from one high pressure situation to the next, how are you giving your body a chance to recover?

  • Do you have a conscious spending and saving plan?
  • What does job security mean to you?
  • How can you reduce the chaos in your home so that daily life is calmer?
  • How can you consciously carve out time for restorative relaxation?

Love and belonging needs

It's also important to take a look at the health of your relationships. We need and will seek out human connection if this is an unmet need.

  • Are you cultivating healthy and reciprocal friendships?
  • Are your needs for intimacy being met? (This doesn't have to be sex, by the way)
  • How important to you is a connection to community, and how can you carve this out?

Self-esteem needs

This is again a notoriously hard one for people with ADHD. In ADHD coaching, we deliberately work on your self-regard by identifying and amplifying your strengths and collecting evidence of success:

  • What are your unique character, performance and processing strengths?
  • How can you get things done?
  • How can you clock and celebrate completions and achievement?
  • What is important to you?

Self-actualisation needs

This is the higher purpose stuff. When our lower order needs are met (and that's not a one and done process, it's an ongoing practice), we can focus on how to be the best version of ourselves.

  • What do you want your mark on the world to be?
  • How can you achieve the career, academic and personal success of your dreams?
  • How can you maximise and harness your creativity and inspiration?

Life with ADHD doesn't have to be so hard.

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