The Myth of Trying Harder

If you’ve never personally been through it, then you’ll have to take my word for it – finding out as an adult that you’ve had an undiagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder messing with you your entire life is a lot to swallow.

My first reaction was disbelief – I didn’t believe something like this could go undetected for so long, and so naturally, I didn’t believe it had. That didn’t last long though, because ADHD has a real habit of leaving clues, and in the three years since my diagnosis, I am still unearthing new and ever more telling ones from the recesses of my memory.

As I look back, I see that the “negatives” were there all along – I was always leaving jackets behind, I was constantly late to stuff even though I’d left enough time, I would be so afraid of rejection that I’d avoid asking the simplest questions of people, I developed an extreme fondness for alcohol, I was forever falling “in love” with someone new and exciting and then moving on without a thought to their feelings once the chase was over…

But what muddied the waters, I suppose, were all the positives – I could read and spell ridiculously early, I could make people laugh easily, I could become a natural on a musical instrument with hardly any time or practice, I could remember the slightest detail about anything so long as it interested me…

So until I was 26, I diagnosed myself – I was weird. I figured that, like everyone else, I had some strengths and some weaknesses, and maybe I was just more at the extremes than average. But I didn’t believe there was anything medical wrong with – I’d even been mocked out of a doctor’s appointment once for floating the question and that had put me off getting a second opinion.

During those years, I sustained myself on adrenaline, and a firm belief – practically a religious code – that all I needed to do to be okay was “try my hardest all the time.” If I could just make sure I never let my guard down, I could stay one step ahead of my weaknesses, and lead a “normal” life. Nobody would need to know the truth about how messed up I felt all the time.

Then, when I was 26, a chance conversation with Emma’s mum, a whole lot of reading online, and a few sessions to a psychiatrist, led to a formal diagnosis of ADHD. I felt all kinds of things. Confusion. Relief. A sudden “Oh, that explains a few hundred things…” On the whole, I felt better. But one thing refused to die.

The myth of trying harder

I accepted my diagnosis. I felt special. I felt validated. I felt like for the first time in my life I understood myself. When you’ve misunderstood yourself your whole life, that counts for a lot. And yet there was this one thing inside me that I could not shake, and though it’s almost gone, I’m still battling with it every day – the myth that “trying harder” is ever the right answer. To anything.

I liken the belief in this popular myth to sitting in your car, and placing your foot a few inches to the right of the accelerator pedal, and then pushing down with all your might to try and make your car go.

Obviously, it wouldn’t matter how hard you pushed down on the imaginary pedal – you could press so hard that your foot went through the floor – the car would not budge an inch. Worse, you’d end up injuring yourself. Even worse, you’ll feel depressed for not being able to make the car go. But even worse, you’ll walk away from that car still believing that the problem was you not pushing down hard enough.

And yet if were you to move your foot just a few inches back to the left, to a point directly above the accelerator pedal, you would find that not only would the pedal respond to your touch instantly and make the car move, you wouldn’t even need to apply that much pressure – certainly far less than you were applying when your foot was over to the right.

That’s the difference between trying harder and trying wiser. Between more effort and the right effort.

Assume you are already trying your hardest

That’s what I’ve been doing lately, and it has offered me a lot of relief.

Because think about it: If you’re already trying your hardest, then trying harder is not an option. How could it be? With that option removed, you are forced to be creative, to think around the problem somehow, to find a way that uses cunning rather than brute force.

So ask yourself: “If trying harder wasn’t an option, what could I do instead?”

Perhaps you need to bow out of a commitment or obligation, no matter how much you technically do have the time to keep up with it. Perhaps you need to take some time off work – whether you think you “deserve” a break or not. Perhaps you need to cut out some of the “quite good” parts of your life – people, hobbies, possessions – to make space for exceptionally meaningful.

I don’t know. It’s up to you.

All I can do is speak from my own, incredibly biased, subjective experience. And that is that in my almost 30 years on this planet trying harder has literally never worked for me once. It has, however, caused me pain, misery, anger, depression, self-loathing… to name but a few.

With that in mind, I don’t want to do it any more.

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