Moxie, good chaos, and unusual connections: How to respect ADHD differences and use IFS in a neurodiversity-affirming way
One of the many brilliant features of the IFS model is its inherent invitation toward a healing process rooted in compassion, understanding, and connection. Rather than judging our experience, or shaming our Parts, we welcome what is present and allow it to exist as it is, without the pressure of change, or label of being wrong. “All Parts are welcome” is not only an attractive catchphrase, but it is the foundation of the model, a principle that ushers in the embodied experience of radical love and transformation.
As both an IFS practitioner and IFS therapist, I have discovered profound healing in the model, both within my own system and bearing witness to other systems positively impacted by this holistic, non-pathologizing approach. Embodying these two positions of therapist and client have given me insight into experiences of resonance and experiences of difference across lived identity. This is especially true when I consider my identity as a neurodivergent person living with ADHD. Practicing and training in the model has showed me how Parts organize around neurodivergence, a term that refers to “individuals whose minds or functioning diverges from dominant societal norms,” according to lived experience educator Sonny James. Parts aren’t autistic (or neurodivergent), but are shaped around the autistic (or neurodivergent) experience, according to Sarah Bergenfield.
ADHD is defined by the DSM as a neurodevelopmental disorder. ADHD itself is a spectrum, but according to psychiatrist and fellow ADHDer, Dr. Hallowell, in its essence ADHD is not an attention deficit, but a condition marked by an “abundance of attention.” This abundance of attention can manifest as relentless creativity, insatiable imagination, and “intellectual effervescence,” according to Dr. Hallowell, to name a few of our traits using a strengths-based framework.
From my own personal experience and clinical practice, I have learned that facilitating the IFS model with an ADHD brain looks different from working with a neurotypical brain. Using IFS with a neuro-diversity affirming lens for ADHDers, is supported by these three guiding principles: first, we must respect attention regulation differences as a process, not see them as a Part; second, we must embody the model from a nonlinear, recursive framework; third, we must tap into the ADHDer’s natural strengths of creativity and curiosity.
Guiding Principle #1: Respect attention regulation differences as a process, not see them as a Part.
People with ADHD have natural differences in filtering sensory data. We tend to perceive everything all at once, which manifests as eagerness and excitability, as well as struggles employing executive function skills that help us to evaluate, begin, and complete tasks. We don’t always know what’s most important when everything catches our attention. For me, this manifests as trying to fit a weekly itinerary into a day’s time. I dream, ideate, and attempt to hold all aspects of an experience (initiation, action, and completion) in a burst of hyper-focus. This process of regulating attention is a neurological process, however, and not a Part. Attention regulation differences are not distracting firefighters or overly emotional exiles requiring the resource of Self-energy. They are the dazzling fabric of the field of awareness in which we experience our multiverse, Parts and Self included. Understanding how attention regulation struggles and gifts manifest for people with ADHD helps us respect this process from a non-pathologizing stance.
Guiding Principle #2: Embody the Model from a recursive, nonlinear framework.
The attention regulation differences associated with ADHD often impact the way that Parts experience Self and how Parts relate to other Parts. Parts often move in vibrant constellations and spirited sub-systems. Personally, I have found immense healing and dimensions for accessing Self in exploring relationships between my Parts and sub-systems, rather than focusing on just one “target Part” to flesh out and to eventually unburden. The linear practice of getting to know a Part which, in the IFS Level 1 Training Manual is represented by six linear steps, often requires openness, flexibility, and even revision into a nonlinear, recursive framework for ADHDers. Because ADHD is marked by an “abundance of attention,” Parts can show up in abundance, with robust webs of connection that need to be fully experienced in their complexity. I notice that I, for example, naturally move between systems and Parts in a way which enriches the experience of the “target Part” that I’m focusing on for exploration. Having lots of Parts present may feel like being blended or overwhelmed to a neurotypical person, but to a person with ADHD this may feel like an alive, authentic way to experience their system. Furthermore, Parts may benefit from a circular rhythm of contact, in which Self-energy nurtures the Self to Part relationship and the Part to Part relationship simultaneously. Understanding that an abundance of attention can generously hold an abundance of Parts is another way to respect and not pathologize ADHD differences.
Guiding Principle #3: Tap into the client’s natural abode of creativity and curiosity.
Creativity and curiosity are natural strengths of the ADHD mind, in addition to being two of the 8 C’s that Richard Schwartz outlines. According to Hoogman et al. (2020), people with ADHD have more flexible association networks, which means that they can activate different ideas, memories, or sensory data and form associations between them with ease. Attention regulation differences can also translate to flexible thinking strategies and creative performances (Hoogman et al., 2020). These qualities can be harnessed and emphasized to help the person with ADHD experience Self when other Self-based qualities, such as calm or connectedness, wax and wane. Checking for Self-energy, the fourth step of the getting to know a Part practice, should honor the ways that Self-energy is channeled for the person with ADHD. Self-energy may not manifest as a still body or attitude of equanimity for the ADHDer; it may manifest as moxie and good chaos and exploring unusual connections inside.
Welcoming all Parts means that we must also adopt a neurodiversity-affirming lens which respects differences in how the ADHD brain regulates attention, influences Parts in the inner world, and shapes manifestations of Self energy.