Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Is Impulsivity Wrecking Your Social Life?

One of the first things a client I’ll call James said to me was, “If I could only keep my big mouth shut.” He painted a picture of a life beset by inappropriate behavior and mired in paradox. Young and independent, he was also handsome, athletic, and outgoing, a Wall Street trader on the fast track. He already owned a condo, a vacation club share in the Rockies, and a new sports car that he’d purchased for cash.

What James couldn’t get was why he said things that people found uncouth and offensive; why a former fraternity president and popular super jock couldn’t keep a girlfriend for more than a few months while most of his old friends were settling down with spouses and children; why someone who’d already made “so much money it’s obscene” kept losing too much of it in casinos; why somebody who could make quick, lucrative trades on the floor of the stock market couldn’t manage his own credit cards or save more than a few thousand dollars.

“What’s up?” he wanted to know. “In the last two weeks, I lost my job, I got another notice from the condo association for parking in somebody else’s spot, I sprained my ankle skiing, and my girlfriend broke up with me. And oh yeah, I forgot my mom’s birthday on top of everything else, and now she’s all hurt and mad at me.”


By his own admission, James was displaying some of the classic characteristics of ADHD, specifically, an inability to control his impulsivity. “What’s with people?” he asked, speaking about his social life. “What do they want anyway? I see myself with a couple of kids someday, maybe a house at the beach, but hey, I’m not ready to settle down yet. Women—they want you to check in every day, they want to know what you’ll be doing six weeks from now, six years from now, and why don’t you come meet their mother in Minnesota after you’ve only just met them. All these women in the city are so boring, they’re all the same. Nobody just wants to do something without a million plans first, and it’s like they want you to try out for some Mr. Perfect prize. Nobody knows how to have fun anymore.”

Clearly, James was unable to understand that the frat boy behavior that had made him so popular in high school and college had worn thin. Old friends still included him when the Knicks or Jets or Mets were in town, but unable to predict what he might do or say next, especially after several drinks, few accompanied him on the ski vacations or fishing trips he often took, and no one invited him to gatherings including their wives and children. They weren’t willing to take a chance on James when their families were concerned.

Turned off by his excessive spending or rude remarks, newer acquaintances, especially women, were even less likely to last. At first he might seem charming and energetic and charismatic, but relationships usually ended abruptly when he was “loud, overbearing, and obnoxious, always the center of attention,” a description his girlfriend had recently invoked in ending their relationship. Other times, he simply got bored. The thrill of the hunt invigorated him, not the day-to-day commitment and empathy that invited intimacy.

Much of what James said in that initial interview troubled me, because I knew that if coaching were to make a difference for him, he would have to start assuming responsibility for his actions. At that point, everything was somebody else’s fault. Probably the most important issue for him was acknowledging the reality that his problems would not go away by themselves and that it was going to take hard work on his part to change things.

Impulsivity was wreaking havoc with his life, and he needed to face up to the fact that he’d been deceiving himself. His quick wit had helped him succeed thus far, but he’d been equally dependent on adrenaline, a formula that couldn’t last. He’d gotten as far as he could without a clearly identified long-term goal and a plan to achieve it. Now it was time to learn how ADHD was affecting his functioning, including his social life, and to take action to address it.

Unless he began to understand what was causing his behavior, and until he created strategies to compensate for his impulsivity, James would continue to jeopardize any chance of acquiring new, long-term relationships of any kind. While he could recognize, after the fact, that he’d said or done something untoward or indecent or downright rude, he never had a lesson learned from the past to apply to the future. And because he had never learned to inhibit his impulses, no matter how many promises he made to himself or to others, he always forgot. A prisoner of impulsivity, he was truly a prisoner of the present, and a lonely one at that. The number of acquaintances he had used to be enough, he admitted. The quality of relationships was finally beginning to matter, and he wanted to acquire a few strong ones.

You can read more about how coaching helped James and his difficult, but ultimately successful efforts to manage his impulsivity and improve his social life in my book, The Disorganized Mind. For now, in this blog, I’ll discuss the importance of adhering to basic social rules and some strategies that can help adults with ADHD improve their social lives.


Many people consider etiquette a quaint art of the past, but while no one can dispute that we seem to be living in an “anything goes” society, there is a breaking point. “Enough!” we eventually hear when someone has brazenly, or even inadvertently, crossed a certain line. “I don’t have to listen to this, I don’t have to accept this anymore.”

Constructing a healthy social life requires people to adhere to social rules and to maintain personal boundaries—skills with which my client, and most people with ADHD, generally struggle. Talking too much and interrupting others, for example, or being too “honest,” without regard to anyone’s feelings are not acceptable. My client would have to face the fact that, even if talk show hosts and television personalities shout each other down with barbed insults and coarse language, ordinary people have a very limited threshold for absorbing such insults on a personal level.

Most won’t abide unreliability for too long, either. Repeatedly canceling appointments, showing up late, and forgetting important dates like anniversaries or birthdays test even a parent’s infinite patience, and it’s a rare individual—hardly a superficial acquaintance—who will put up with a pattern of it.


In order to have a life outside of work, you have to have the ability to construct a social life. This means making and keeping a variety of friends, getting along with others in group situations as well as one-on-one, reading and adhering to social rules, and maintaining personal boundaries—skills with which people with ADHD generally struggle. Other issues can include talking too much and interrupting others, being too “honest,” and being repeatedly unreliable with friends: canceling appointments, showing up late, forgetting important dates like anniversaries or birthdays. These symptoms often make you come across as arrogant, selfish, aggressive, or not honoring personal boundaries.

Know the steps.

The first step in knowing how to make and keep friends is knowing yourself. What are your interests? What type of things do you like to do? Once you can identify what your interests are, you can then increase the opportunities of meeting like-minded people. That means locating clubs or activities that focus on those same interests. Next is carving out the time to be involved and showing up to meetings and activities so you can increase your possibilities of meeting people. Lastly, if you get nervous in new situations, you must have a dialogue rehearsed to break the ice and introduce yourself to others.

Make soft commitments.

Keep friends by keeping the lines of communication open. If you are the type of person who often backs out of plans due to over-commitments or who gets overwhelmed at the last minute, simply let people know that you’re making a “soft commitment” and not a “hard one.” Tell them, for example, that you’d like to go to the show and are tentatively saying yes, but that you might have a conflict and be unable to make it at the last minute. That way you will avoid disappointing people if you don’t show up. Do, however, have the courtesy to at least let the person know you’re backing out as much in advance as possible!

Plan! Plan! Plan!

If you don’t make the time and space for meeting up with friends and having a social life, it won’t happen. Learn to plan to see your friends and to have fun! Be sure to look at your calendar weekly and actually block out social time. Make a commitment and keep to it. Make it a regular and re-occurring activity so it becomes a ritual, like a movie on Sunday evening or a bike ride on Saturday afternoon.

Keep organized!

If you don’t have or can’t find your friends’ e-mail addresses or telephone numbers, how can you keep in touch with them! Create a system to track these details. Put numbers in your palm pilot, in Outlook, or type out a list and post them over your phone. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’ll find that post-it when the time comes and you really need it! Make creating and maintaining an organizational system for these details a priority!

The small things count.

People with ADHD often let small things slide, like remembering a birthday, returning a call, or responding to e-mail. These small details can go a long, long way in helping to build relationships. Set reminders; write birthdays in your calendar or PDF and make plans around the special events. If you don’t have time to chat on the phone, at least acknowledge that you received the call and are busy, but don’t just let things hang and expect people to understand. Making and keeping friends is a two-way street, and communication is a large part of it.

Get feedback.

Some people with ADHD are very adept at social skills, while others are not. If you have challenges starting small talk or reading nonverbal social cues, for example, or if you simply want to improve your general social skills, ask a trusted observer for candid feedback on how you present yourself. This feedback can be invaluable in helping to know how you come across. It can help you learn to better self-observe, to fine-tune things like eye contact and table manners, and to avoid talking too much or too loudly.

Don’t let yourself get trapped.

If you know you get bored quickly at parties, or get tired and want to leave but are dependent on others for a ride, plan an escape route! Drive separately, or take money for a cab. Tell your friends ahead of time that you might leave early so they’re not surprised. Don’t allow yourself to be in any open-ended situations if they cause you problems. It is essential that everything be as planned and structured as possible.

IF YOU'RE TRYING TO CONTROL YOUR IMPULSIVITY AND IMPROVE YOUR SOCIAL LIFE, the key to success is to select a strategy, work through it, and judge its effectiveness. If you’ve given a strategy sufficient time and it’s really not working, try something else. Use your creativity to design strategies of your own and share what works for you. And you can learn more about social skills on the Adults with ADHD and Relationships page of CHADD’s website.