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The Beginners Guide to DBT with ADHD, Part 5d: Walking the Middle Path

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

Walking the Middle Path

Feet with left right and middle arrows.
Photo by Braden Young

This article is the end of Part 5 in a series. For the rest of the series, follow the links. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part5


For people with ADHD, it seems like life is lived at both ends of the spectrum. Either we are overly emotional (whether it’s positive or negative) or we shut down our emotions because of emotional overload and become overly logical and analytical to the point where we seem cold. DBT teaches us to "walk the middle path," which is to say, walk the path between the two extremes. We do this using three concepts.



Dialectics

Hey, finally we get to the first word in DBT! I guess it must be important if it’s in the title, huh? Dialectics shows us that everything is linked to each other and always changing. It leads to the middle path, which is how we balance the two extremes. It is a worldview as well as a method of resolving disagreements and seeking the truth. Dialectics has four main ideas.


First, the universe is full of opposing sides and opposing forces. From the smallest particle to the largest celestial body, everything is composed of contrasting elements that both keep things in place and drive change. Whether it's light and dark, up and down, or positive and negative charges, there is always an opposing force. Scientists who were looking for the building blocks of the universe found matter and then its opposite, antimatter. Every part of the universe is part of a bigger whole, and to really understand something, you have to know what its opposite is. When opposing forces, like gravity and electromagnetism, work together, they create a balance that makes it possible for the universe to exist and change. It shows us that two opposing ideas can both be right. When we think about what is missing from our own perspective (i.e., when we think about opposing opinions), we can find a middle ground between the two. This is how we can break free from a rut and create change.


Dialectics also helps us remember that we are all connected. Understanding how everything is connected helps us see how we affect other people and how they affect us. It gets easier to understand and accept ourselves and others.


Dialectics helps us radically accept the changes that are always happening. In turn, this makes us more able to change ourselves. This makes it easier for us to go with the flow, which makes it more likely that we'll have the best experiences we can. Both truth and meaning change over time. What was true for a person in the past might not be true now because both the person and the environment have changed over time. What was there yesterday, last year, or five years ago is not the same as it is now.


And finally, dialectics helps us understand that change is a two-way street and helps us figure out how our environment affects us and how we affect it. This helps us learn more about how we act and get along with other people. Dialectics helps us understand, not find fault.


Each person has an effect on the world around them, just as the world around them has an effect on the person. People in the environment have different effects on each person, and each person has different effects on those in the environment.


Emotional dysregulation is a good example of how change and learning happen in small steps. Emotions do two things: they make people act, and they send messages to others so they will act. When the environment discourages or blocks certain functions, emotions can escalate. This can make the environment try even harder to block the emotions. After a while, a vicious cycle ensues. Thinking and acting in a dialectical way can be hard for people with ADHD, but it can also help them learn more about themselves and solve problems more effectively. Dialectical thinking means looking at things from different points of view and being open to ideas that don't fit together.


Here are some ways to think and act logically when you have ADHD:


Practice mindfulness. Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and actions in the present moment can help you recognize and control impulsivity and reactivity, which can get in the way of dialectical thinking.


Reframe problems as opportunities: Instead of seeing problems as problems, try to see them as chances to learn and grow. This can help you keep an open mind and be flexible when different ideas come up.


Do some self-reflection. Take some time to think about your thoughts, feelings, and actions and how they are related. This can help you learn more about yourself and find patterns that might be stopping you from thinking in a dialectical way.


Look for different points of view. Try to find points of view that are different from your own. This can help you think about a problem or situation in a new way and find new ways to solve it.


Accept ambiguity: Be open to the idea that there may not be a single "right" answer to a problem. Accepting ambiguity can help you keep your mind open to new ideas and help you think more creatively.


Think about more than one solution. Instead of going with the first idea that comes to mind, take the time to think about other options. This can help you figure out the best way to solve a problem and keep you from making a quick decision that might not be the best one.


Even if you have ADHD, you can learn to think and act in a dialectical way by putting these tips to use. With practice, you can learn more about yourself and get better at dealing with difficult problems and situations.



Validation

Validation means finding the truth in someone else's point of view or situation. When we validate the feelings, thoughts, words, or actions of others, we are verifying the facts of the situation, or "checking the facts."


When we validate someone, we show that we understand their point of view. We know that every feeling, thought, and action has a reason, even if we don't know what that reason is.


Validation doesn't always mean liking or agreeing with what the other person is doing, saying, or feeling. It doesn't mean giving your approval to things you don't agree with. It means trying to see things from the other person's point of view.


Validation does not mean that you agree with or confirm something that isn't true.


Validation makes our relationships with other people better. It shows others that we are listening and getting what they are saying. We are not judging them. We can see what's really going on or what the truth is. It helps people get along better with each other. It gets rid of several things that get in the way of being effective: the pressure to prove who is right, negative reactions, and anger. It makes it possible to solve problems, get closer, and help each other. It also helps people listen to what we have to say.


In order to validate someone, we can follow a few simple steps. First, pay attention, watch, and listen. No multitasking. Look them in the eyes. Stay on track. Nod now and then. Respond using facial expressions (e.g., smile at happy statements; look concerned when hearing something painful). After they are done, say back to them what you heard to show them that you really “get” what they are thinking or feeling. Make sure you don’t use any judgmental words, tones, or facial expressions.


Try to make sure you pay attention to what is “not” being said by watching their facial expressions and body language both as they are talking and as you are repeating what they said back to them. Try to see the issue from the other person’s point of view based on their history, state of mind, or current events, even if you don’t agree with them. Let them know that you understand by saying something like, “It makes sense that (thoughts and behavior) because of (an event).”


Be sure to acknowledge what is valid in the situation and treat them as your equal.




Recovering from Invalidation

It can be just as important to recover from being invalidated as it is to validate others.

There are different ways to invalidate something. Some are good, but others are bad. This is extremely important for those of us with ADHD, especially if we weren’t diagnosed until later.


Helpful Invalidation


When your thoughts, beliefs, or actions are invalidated because they are based on false or inaccurate information, it can be a good thing. When done with respect, these interactions are usually not upsetting and may even be wanted. For example, giving and getting corrective feedback and getting into debates about opinions can be very important for intellectual stimulation and personal growth.


Corrective feedback is information that shows you that your facts are wrong, your beliefs don't make sense based on the facts, or your actions are not helping you reach your goals. When feedback is correct and given in a way that doesn't make you feel bad and is open to your point of view, you may agree, change your mind, feel fine, and move on.


When someone disagrees with your political, religious, philosophical, or other convictions, it might lead to a debate. They may passionately disagree with you. If the other person respects and listens to you even when you disagree, you may feel invalidated. However, after a lively but respectful debate, it's easy to go on.


Corrosive Invalidation

Invalidation is more painful when your viewpoint is ignored while others are accepted. Many of us have probably felt this throughout our lives when we have tried to explain to others why we struggle so much. How distressing this is depends on the person invalidating you and how important your position is to your self-respect and trust. Validation and destructive invalidation have equal levels. Some examples of corrosive invalidation are: being ignored, not being understood, being misread, being misinterpreted, having current facts ignored or denied, or receiving unequal treatment.



Traumatic Invalidation

Traumatic invalidation is the excessive or repetitive invalidation of crucial private experiences, traits, or emotions by oneself or the world. Traumatic invalidation can affect how people see themselves and their surroundings, how they feel, what they think and believe, what they want, and how they act. Often, the person's usual ideas about themselves and the world, as well as how they see themselves and their surroundings, are broken. This is what often leads to the onset of rejection sensitivity and imposter syndrome for those with ADHD.


Traumatic invalidation usually comes from an important person, group, or authority on whom a person depends for their own integrity and well-being. It can happen once, like when a mother doesn't believe her daughter's claim that her father sexually abused her or when a witness lies about a crime. When a powerful person, institution, or part or all of a family or other important group misses or misreads a person's feelings, motives, and actions over time, it can make the person feel like an outsider or make them feel like they are on the outside.


Extreme or constant invalidation puts a person's psychological integrity at risk and makes it hard for them to know what's true and reliable inside, which makes them feel uneasy all the time. Invalidation can lead to rejection sensitivity and even rejection sensitive dysphoria. This can cause unwanted thoughts and memories, reliving the invalidation, intense shame, confusion, anger, and defensiveness, increased interpersonal sensitivity to future invalidation, intense efforts to get validation from the invalidator and others, avoiding invalidators, and trouble trusting others.


How to Recover from Harmful Invalidation

There are many things you can do to recover from harmful invalidation.



  1. Check the facts” to see if your responses are valid or invalid. Check them out with someone you can trust to validate them.

  2. If your responses were wrong, acknowledge it. It’s okay to be wrong sometimes, we’re human. Try to change what you are thinking, saying, or doing. Also, don’t play the blame game, it never helps.

  3. Stop judging yourself. You are not "dumb" or to blame for making a mistake or believing something that is not true. Remember that bad behavior often has good motives.

  4. Remember that every behavior, including your responses, is caused. Remember that you've always done your best given your circumstances and history. Admit that it is hard to be invalidated by others even if they are right.

  5. You may need to keep it together when you are around the person invalidating you, but when you are alone, you have every reason to be kind and comfort yourself. It hurts to be invalidated.

  6. Recognize when your reactions to a situation make sense and are right.

  7. Remember that being invalidated, even when your answer is correct, is usually not the end of the world.

  8. Talk about your experiences and behaviors in a supportive environment.

  9. Validate yourself in the same way you would validate another person.



Strategies for Changing Behavior

There are very effective methods for both increasing desired behaviors in ourselves or others (reinforcement, shaping) and for decreasing undesirable behaviors (extinction, satiating, punishment). Learning and implementing these tactics is the key to successfully changing behavior.


Increasing Desired Behavior

Positive Reinforcement: Consequences that a person wants, likes, or is willing to work for tend to enhance behavior in that person.


Negative Reinforcement: Removing an unwanted consequence can also help to increase behavior.


Shaping: Shaping is about putting more emphasis on small steps that lead to a bigger goal. Each step toward a larger goal needs to be reinforced until the new behavior is stable. This makes it more likely that the goal will be reached.



Timing is important: Reinforce right after the desired behavior. If you wait too long, the reinforcer won’t be connected with the behavior. This is especially important for ADHD brains, as we need to associate dopamine with action.



Decreasing Undesired Behavior

Extinction: Extinction is when a behavior stops happening because there is no longer any reinforcement for it. For example, if someone is normally given attention for unwanted behavior, you would ignore it. Beware of behavioral burst: When a behavior has been rewarded and then the reward is taken away, the behavior will get worse at first. This is called a "behavioral burst." If the reward is taken away and not given back, the behavior will decrease over time.


Punishment: Punishment reduces behavior. The consequence can be adding something undesirable (e.g., child timeout, traffic citations, verbal criticism) or taking away something nice (but not previously a reward of the behavior). Punishment, unlike extinction, removes something unrelated to reinforcement. Note: Punishment is one of the least effective ways to change behavior over the long term.



Closing

Phew! We're finally at the end. And I see that you are still reading! Awesome! Hopefully that means you read through and maybe even learned a few things. Either that or you just skipped to the end to see how the book ended (not gonna lie, I've done it too.) Either way, I know it's a lot of information I've covered, and believe me, it was not easy to write all of it, much less condense it down into a digestable form (yes, this was the condensed version.) Either way, I really hope that this information goes a long way to show that DBT can be really good therapy for those of us with ADHD. The skills learned here are perfect for helping us overcome many of our executive function struggles.


Ultimately, it's a journey just as all things are. These skills will need to be practiced and honed. But I know they have helped me in a lot of ways, and I also know I still have a long way to go, hopefully some of you will join me on this journey. Until next time! Stay mindful and stay healthy!



 


If you find this article interesting and want to learn more or have a comment, feel free to leave a comment below. Or better yet, come talk to us about it on ourDiscord server! We have a lot of great people who love to talk about ADHD, neurodivergence, nerdy stuff, and all the other things. We've also got a lot of links to resources for further reading and personal growth.

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