For many people who struggle with what is considered basic life skills, they suffer from the stigma that comes with executive dysfunction. Today, I want to talk about overcoming that stigma.
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Executive Dysfunction is a neurological condition that affects a person’s ability to plan, prioritize, and execute tasks. It can also impact one’s ability to regulate emotions. It’s a condition that is greatly misunderstood by many people and therefore remains stigmatized. As you become more aware of the condition and how it presents, you can overcome the shame and stigma that comes with it.
Understanding the Stigma of Executive Dysfunction
Because a person with Executive Dysfunction struggles with time management, planning, and organizing, they are often accused of being lazy, disorganized, and unreliable. Those labels make the person ashamed because although they know they’re not lazy, and they really try to be reliable, they can’t argue with how it looks.
Then they beat themselves up when they promise to do better, but nothing seems to change. They begin to believe what others say and they feel like failures. The stigma and shame for those people can cause self-doubt and feelings of isolation. Those same feelings can prevent the person from seeking help or accessing support.
Shame can be a constant companion for the stigma of Executive Dysfunction. They feel guilty and embarrassed about the way they have performed (or not performed). They don’t seek help because they don’t want to reveal their failures to more people because it will only make them feel worse. They’re sure everyone will judge them harshly.
So their lives spin in a cycle of struggling with executive functions, failure, and shame. In order to overcome these feelings and change the patterns of your life, you need to understand how to cope with Executive Dysfunction and then implement strategies to overcome the stigma.
Coping with Executive Dysfunction
When you live your life driving the struggle bus of executive functioning, the simple answer is “improve your executive function skills.”
I know it’s not easy. I didn’t say easy—I said simple. These are skills you can improve. I find the biggest hurdle for most of my clients is mindset. They don’t believe there’s anything they can do to change. The think they’ve tried it all and failed. So the first step is believing you can get better at this.
The next step is learning tools and strategies to help you cope with the Executive Dysfunction. Here are some basic strategies to get you started:
Routines and Schedules
Since time management is something you struggle with, you need to create routines and schedules so that your life is more automated. You don’t have to think about all the things because you’ll do them on autopilot. Obviously, you can’t automate everything in your life, but when you have routines and schedules for the tasks that are repetitive, you have more brain space for the other stuff.
Most of us have our phones with us all the time. There’s pretty much an app for everything to help organize your life. From calendars to reminder apps to to-do lists, there are handy tools to help keep you on track. The hardest part is finding the ones that suit you. Seeing so many options can cause decision paralysis. So, do some research, take free trials and go with your gut to find the ones that appeal to you most.
This will take some practice, but it’s really important. Many people with Executive Dysfunction are busy all the time, but they don’t always work on the things they should be working on. Prioritizing helps you figure out what those “should be” things are. One way to help you learn to prioritize is to use an Eisenhower Matrix (sometimes called Covey Quadrants). When you prioritize your tasks, you learn to focus on the most important things first.
Break Tasks Down
Part of what makes people assume you are lazy or unmotivated when you have Executive Dysfunction is that you have a bunch of things started but left unfinished. Or you have projects that you’re supposed to start, but you’ve been procrastinating on. These things happen because you don’t have a clear road map of how to complete the entire project or task. Instead of looking at the whole thing, break it down into smaller, manageable steps. Then you have your road map—just follow the steps.
Most of the time, when we consider accommodations, we think about IEPs for students at school or assistive things for people with physical disabilities. However, if you have Executive Dysfunction, you might need some accommodations. Things like extended deadlines, audio/oral directions, extra breaks, or assistive technology are all forms of accommodations. The thing is, as adults, we usually have to create our own accommodations; no one is just going to make them happen for us.
Use Visual Cues
When trying to understand complex information, visual aids often work well for people with Executive Dysfunction. However, visual cues go deeper than that. Visual cues give you a reminder or prompt to do things when you see them. They can help you build new habits to strengthen your skills. For example, if you automatically brew a pot of coffee every morning, leaving a visual cue next to the coffee maker for another task or habit can help you remember to do the other thing.
Use Sensory Tools
If you have anxiety or ADHD, sensory tools can help you stay calm and focused. These can be stress balls, fidget toys, or weighted lap blankets. Noise-canceling headphones and/or background noise or music can help concentration.
Create a Support System
While I’m not a therapist, I urge people to find one to work with if possible. This is especially important if you received a later-in-life diagnosis for things like ADHD, anxiety, depression, etc. You need to be able to process what that means for you and how you live your life. But it’s equally important to find supportive friends and family. You need people around you who really get it.
A while ago, when I was talking with my daughter about her accommodations, my husband made a comment about how he deserved to have accommodations. I pointed out that I am his accommodations. I keep track of everything, remind him of upcoming jobs, organize the office end of his business. I’ve always done this because long before I understood executive functioning, I knew his ADHD would make it difficult for him to do those things.
You need people who will cheer you on and people who you can commiserate with. Learning to improve your executive function skills is hard and it takes time. Doing it alone while dealing with the shame you’ve been suffering with makes it harder.
As I mentioned, your journey of self-improvement is tough. You need to remember to take breaks to take care of yourself. A lot of people skip this out of shame. If they’ve been unsuccessful in accomplishing something, they feel guilty, so taking time for self-care is an indulgence they don’t think they deserve. But self-care is vital in maintaining balance in your life. If you keep pushing yourself too hard, you’ll burn out, and that won’t help you be more productive.
Overcoming the Stigma
Once you start managing your Executive Dysfunction, you can turn to overcoming the stigma and shame. You need to accept that making these improvements will take time and energy. There is no quick fix. You will mess up and have to start again.
And that’s okay.
In the meantime, you need some strategies for overcoming the shame you feel. It’s BS and you need to start reframing how you think. Here are some strategies to get you started:
You need to learn about and understand what Executive Dysfunction is and how it affects your life. As you develop a greater understanding, you need to share that with the people around you. You need to educate them so that they, too, can understand. And with any luck, that education will stop them from laying a guilt trip on you about things you can’t control.
Education is one key to removing the stigma. You are not stupid or lazy or incompetent. Understanding the condition will enable you to let go of the shame and embarrassment.
Advocate for Yourself
This one goes hand-in-hand with education. You need to be willing to ask for what you need. If your boss asks you to take on a project, you need to let them know what you need in order to be successful. Maybe you need help laying out the steps, or you need firm deadlines for parts of the project instead of one completion deadline. Once you understand how your Executive Dysfunction works, you can use that to get accommodations.
Finding a supportive community helps in overcoming the stigma and shame. Being around people who get it and have lived similar experiences can make you feel better. This type of community is also a great source of ideas because they understand where you’re coming from. Look for online or in-person groups—whichever suits you better. Once you start meeting other people, you’ll feel less alone on this journey and they can help keep you on track when you are down on yourself.
It doesn’t matter how small the task is, if you accomplish it, you can celebrate. We spend too much time minimizing our accomplishments. Next time you get something done, instead of thinking “It took longer than it should have,” or “I should’ve made more progress,” own that you did the thing. Old you might not have even gotten that much done. You need to experience allowing yourself to feel good about what you achieve.
Want to learn more about executive functioning? Take my FREE course.
Reframe Negative Self-Talk
I saved this one for last, even though it probably should’ve been first. This one is the MOST IMPORTANT part of overcoming the stigma and shame of Executive Dysfunction. It all starts in your head.
I hinted at it a bit when I talked about celebrating your successes. Downplaying your accomplishments is part of negative self-talk. But we all know we do much worse to ourselves.
The first step is to recognize the negative self-talk. Sometimes it’s as blatant as calling yourself names like lazy, stupid, or irresponsible. You think you’re a bad mother because you got your kid a Happy Meal instead of cooking or you sent store bought cookies for a birthday treat instead of baking them.
Other times, it’s more subtle, like the examples I gave above—thinking you should’ve been able to work faster or do more.
I’m not saying you need to be Susie Sunshine all the time, but you sure as heck don’t need to beat yourself up.
Reframing those thoughts is a difficult task because they happen so automatically. But consider this—if you heard your child talk about themselves that way, what would your response be? Would you say, “Yeah, you are lazy” or would you do everything you could to prove to them that they’re not?
I think we all know the answer there. **insert side-eye**
Treat yourself with the same love and compassion you give others.
By adopting these strategies, you can learn to cope with your Executive Dysfunction and overcome the stigma and shame you’ve been holding onto. It’s not easy, but it is simple. You need to find the right combination of tools and strategies that work for you to help you manage your life effectively. Developing your personalized toolkit can help you manage your condition and live a more fulfilling life.
You just have to be willing to put in the effort and time. And aren’t you worth it?