Immunity to Change in ADHD Coaching

By: Michel Fitos Coaching

As ADHD coaches, we have the best clients in the world. They're certainly creative, resourceful, and whole - AND they have a unique set of very real challenges. How can we best help them imagine and step into their best self? When our clients first come to us, they're often looking for quick solutions. How can I increase my toolbox of coping strategies, they ask us? How can I get through these next five things that are already on fire, and move on to the next thing? Once those initial fires are put out, our clients start to realize that they're living from disaster to disaster. In order to stop living on the brink, they need to change something deep and huge. They've known this for a long time, and they've most likely been trying to climb this mountain for years. How can we help them make the changes they so desperately want, but haven't been able to reach? The Immunity to Change process, of uncovering competing commitments, has been developed by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey over a period of decades.

It's a simple, supportive way to uncover the ways that people keep themselves from changing. How does this work? Let's start with an example. Our client comes to us with a desire to change.

First, let's ask them to do an imaginary 360, and imagine that a few of their close and trusted friends and colleagues have told them how they can be just a little bit better. This person has thought of some good ones. You could be a little better at finding the common ground in conflict. How about more patience with someone's slower rate of change? I'd like to see you be more fearlessly authentic. Now, they take a look at the things on their imaginary 360, and comes up with a goal that really resonates for them.

On a scale of 1 to 10, it should be at least a 9. Here it is: "I'm committed to interdependence in my relationships." They rate this a 10. Now, what are they doing and not doing to keep themselves from this goal? Quite a lot of things, it turns out. Automatically defending themselves in arguments, talking through silences, not asking curious questions in conflict, deflecting interest in uncomfortable lines of conversation, hiding when things are difficult, and completely avoiding potentially controversial topics in conversation.

Immunity to Change in ADHD Coaching

We would ordinarily imagine that to change, we need to do the opposite - in this case, just bringing up all the hard things at once! But no, let's take a different direction. The process is called immunity to change because we're imagining our clients' psychological defenses as an immune system that keeps them safe - and that's exactly what it is. Our defenses keep us safe from unmanageable anxiety - and when we try to get rid of them all at once, it kicks right back in to keep us safe. So, let's honor the immune system for how it helps us, and work with it gently. First, let's uncover their hidden commitments - the commitments that are keeping THEM.

Let's take the doing and not doing list, and imagine: what worries and fears, uncertainties, or anxieties come up if we imagine doing the opposite? This person fears being seen as weak or spineless. They fear being unsupported, disconnected, unheard, and incomprehensible. No wonder they don't talk about deep topics! Now, what commitments do those imply? This person is deeply committed to not being seek as weak or indecisive, not being ignored, not being abandoned. Now, what are the big assumptions behind the hidden commitments? These are going to be very uncomfortable revelations, and they should cover the three Ps: they should be permanent, personal, and pervasive.

What does this person fear will happen if they actually try to be interdependent in their relationships? They fear that admitting difficulty will cause people to step away because they are too much work. They fear that their personality or identity is too much, causing people to step away. Those are huge fears! Here is our client, trying hard to be interdependent, and yet, they also need to be heard! They have one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas. How can we get them to let up on the brake and reclaim all that energy in the service of forward motion? By testing their big assumptions, one tiny piece at a time. Hi everyone.

I'm Sherri Cannon, an ADHD coach and workshop facilitator. I firtst came across this idea of competing commitments, Robert Kegan's work, back in my corporate days. I loved it when I saw the title of the article in the Harvard Business Review. It simply said "the real reason why people don't change." So, I really like this for its power - for ADDers and for us as coaches, to help us help our clients make lasting breakthroughs - actually do something trransformational. I mean, seriously - take the average neurotypical person who sets a goal, a New Year's resolution. They can stay optimistic, but for how long? Because even for a normal brain, quote-unquote, not succeeding quickly - failure, then - is tough, and repeated failure is depressing. And, it saps motivation.

But, as we all know, for the ADDer, that kind of failure can be lethal. It can kill our dreams. Add some rumination - and oh, are we good at that - and suddenly, I may tend to hide or try to fix myself behind closed doors where nobody can see. I'm hiding! Soon, we're making up our own story, and it is NOT creative, resourceful, and whole.

The story we're making up isn't accurate. It feels accurate! But, it's not. It's negative, and it's the result of this: I am realizing that I am not accomplishing something that matters deeply to me. And, I'm not accomplishing this again and again and again. These failed attempts can then become embedded grooves in my experience. Each time it's harder for our clients to have a different positive experience.

And, by not succeeding, the ADDer can conclude: 1) he isn't smart enough and cannot actually accomplish the size of goals that he sees others achieve. The belief might be - I don't succeed like other people. I'm not capable. Or 2) It's quickly become apparent that people love a winner, and a winning story. The ADDer who wants more than anything to change careers or learn to stand up for herself but keeps hitting walls as she tries - she might simply stop talking about this, stop sharing that heart's desire of hers. You probably know this - have you ever told friends or family that you're aiming at something big? Kind of as a personal challenge, you told everybody? For me, this has been writing. I decided not to tell that story anymore a long time ago. The first time I said it, I had lots of encouragement.

The second time, when I saw the same folks again and they inquired - I hadn't done it yet. They said "Well, you will, keep trying!" But after a few more meetings where I was stuck, most people stopped inquiring about it, and then it became Dangerous Mind Time in my head, all alone in a very dicey neighborhood, where rumination rules and where the inner impostor grows stronger, and in my case, kinda cocky. I'm not sure what your inner impostor says, but mine says happy things like "Hmm, Sherri, looks like you bit off more than you can chew." That's all the power that the failing over and over again has. Bottom line here, the price here is really high. By not contributing their strengths, the ADDer is robbed of actionable self-awareness and robbed from experiencing true success.

And, while that's sad enough, this might be worse: an entire world doesn't get to benefit from this person's genuine gifts. I bet a lot of you, as coaches, know the latest strengths research. It indicates that you and I are happiest, and that we perform our best, when we get to spend 70% of our time in activities that make us feel strong. This is true for all brains, not just for our beloved ADDers. Me? If I'm going strong 70% of the time, I can handle that 30% that isn't my strong suit, no problem, but that's because the 30% doesn't dominate - and therefore, it cannot define me. But flip those percentages? 30% of the time feeling strong, and the rest feeling weak? Well - that's pretty hard for anyone to positively think their way out of. For ADDers, who care passionately, who are probably working relentlessly, and continuing to come up empty? Then whatever trophies or awards there are - these are few and they're battered, just like our clients' sense of self. But what if our ADDer was coached, and helped to detect his deeper commitments? That, though unacknowledged and unseen, these commitments are often running the show and preventing a pattern of success from emerging.

So, what if our ADD client could see that? When I uncovered my own stubborn competing commitments, I started naming goals again - MY goals! Until then, I had pretty much shot a lot of arrows and run quickly to draw targets around them. That was exhausting and really no fun. We all know organic goals and real success - that's what rocks! And, this is the beauty of the competing commitments idea. It's my pleasure to now introduce ADHD coach, Michel Fitos, who will discuss how we as coaches can help our clients uncover their competing commitments. Michel? Hi, it's Michel, and let me tell you about my experience with the Immunity to Change process. My language is a little bit different than Sherri's - she talks about competing commitments because of the Harvard Business Review article that she saw several years ago. And I call it Immunity to Change, because the way I heard about this process was by showing up to a conference last fall and signing up for a positivie psychology track.

And, I ended up in an overcoming the immunity to change workshop led by Bob Kegan. I showed up interested and ready to be surprised, and I WAS! When I listened to him talk, I was immediately, immediately fascinated by his talk about the difference between skillsets and mindsets. He said: if it were a matter of people just increasing their skills, everybody would be changed already. Because - it's really easy to learn how to write a to-do list. Many of our clients know how to write a to-do list - they just can't follow it.

He said what people need help with is changing their mindset. I mean - and this is what we, as coaches, do. We do our best work with our clients when we are able to help them figure out how it is that they view the world, and how is that not working for them? What beliefs do they have that don't - that are holding them back? Another thing I really like about this process is that it really - even starting from the very beginning, where people are more or less doing their own 360 to figure out "now, what is the thing I really want to change?" It's so respectful, and it really honors the client's view of themself.

It asks them - I mean, we don't even come up with the questions! We ask the clients to question themselves. We're asking them - what do YOU want to change? How are YOU keeping yourself from achieving the things that you want? And, what does it mean to YOU that these are the things that you're doing and not doing that are working against you? And, YOU tell ME what are the competing commitments? And, YOU tell ME what is the big assumptiong? And then, client, again - YOU tell ME how we can test this worldview and expand the area in which you can act. It really honors that our clients ARE creative, resourceful, and whole. It is so incredibly fun to do this with a client who is really into the process. It is incredibly playful to listen to them talk about the things that they're doing and not doing, and humor can really lighten up this really serious process and these really intense realizations that clients are having while we work it out. It is absolutely awesome to be with a client when they're going through this, and the ultimate goal of it, I think, is to help our clients end up inhabiting this middle ground between the absolute safety of following their limited worldview - which they couldn't even see - and the absolute terror of ignoring that their limited worldview was actually a defense.

And, just trying to leap past it and how terrifying that is. But, there's so much middle ground where you can sort of expand the way you look at things in order to take more actions and be more effective, and that is why I love the immunity to change process.

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