In her book, How to Keep House While Drowning, KC Davis introduces the concept of “struggle care”. It’s a philosophy built around caring for your needs when things are hard. It promotes the idea that daily chores, work duties, and other daily tasks are morally neutral and have no bearing on personal worth. When you’re struggling, whatever you can do to keep yourself functioning is enough.
Connecting struggle care with ADHD makes sense because many of the messages it works to undo are the same messages that people with ADHD have dealt with all their lives. Many have been told that being lazy or disorganized is bad and makes them a bad person. They’ve received implicit and explicit messages that there are right ways to do things and, if you do them differently, you are wrong. Societal ableism becomes internalized ableism. Then people start running their lives based on shame and guilt. But struggle care fights against this narrative and pushes people to trust their needs and to embrace themselves and the ways they need to function. This post lays out five of the six pillars of this philosophy and connects struggle care with ADHD.
1. Care tasks are morally neutral
Many adults with ADHD talk about growing up feeling like bad people– not because they did bad things but because they couldn’t keep things clean and organized. It was hard to clean their rooms, wash their dishes, or clean their houses. And, because of this, they felt like bad children, parents, or community members. They use words like “failure”, “disaster”, or “garbage” because they couldn’t do things and keep up with daily tasks the way others expected them to.
But one of the central concepts of struggle care is that care tasks do not equal morality. Vacuuming doesn’t make you a good person, and not vacuuming doesn’t make you a bad person. ADHD comes along with significant executive functioning challenges that make it hard to accomplish care tasks because they are overwhelming and overload a person’s ability to cope. Not being able to do all those things does not make someone a bad person. Davis frequently emphasizes that these things are just care tasks. You clean your room because it makes it easier to find things or move around. But your worth is not defined by your chore list. With ADHD, it’s easy to internalize the ableism surrounding your cleaning habits, and eventually those start to define how you conceptualize yourself. But your quality as a person is not defined by your productivity or cleanliness.
2. Shame is the enemy of functioning
So many of the struggles we associate with ADHD don’t actually come from ADHD. They come from people trying, and often failing, to live the way others think they should live. For many, growing up was a constant refrain of being told they should be better, cleaner, more on time, more responsible, less loud, less emotional, or less disorganized. They needed to be more or less, but they were never enough because they weren’t trying hard enough. Most people with ADHD have a strong inner critic, and people have been feeding it these lines of shame since they were children. Eventually that shame becomes part of the brain pattern. People use it to motivate themselves so they can avoid the internal shame spiral that waits for them if they fail.
But shame doesn’t get your homework or the dishes done consistently or continually. Shame produces a one-time event with a massive after-cost. The only thing shame makes happen is more shame. Davis says that doing a task with shame as the motivator “gives you a day-long reprieve from the guilt, until it’s time to do it again. In this mode, doing a care task only takes you from distress to neutral and sets up a cycle of constantly running from distressing thoughts.”
She focuses on choosing self-compassion instead of shame. In one of her examples, she says that, instead of looking at the dishes and telling yourself you are a failure and a piece of garbage, you should be proud of yourself that you fed the people you care about. And, if you still need to do those dishes, Davis advises that the next thought should be that, if you clean a few of the dishes, then future-you can feed those people again later. Then you go and wash the minimum number of dishes that you need for the next meal. At no point in Davis’ suggested self-dialogue are you insulting or criticizing yourself. Calling yourself garbage and praising yourself for feeding your family might both get the dishes done that night. However, one of them contributes to a vicious cycle of reproach and guilt, and the other empowers and motivates you to try again.
3. Rest is a right, not a reward
Executive functioning challenges make it hard to accomplish tasks. Most people with ADHD have never-ending to-do lists that they could work on until the end of time but still never finish. And because our society has internalized the idea of only rewarding productivity and completion, rest is never allowed. People learn that it must be earned. And, unfortunately, the ADHD neurotype makes it difficult to qualify, even if they are the only judge.
Davis insists that rest is not only a right but also a responsibility. It gives us energy and lets us recharge. She defines it as a time to slow down, connect, and to focus on being, instead of being productive. She’s firm about holding rest as sacred. In one TikTok video, she talks about fixing her to-do list. There was a task on it that consistently wasn’t getting done. So instead of forbidding herself to rest because she hadn’t “earned it”, she took it off the list. The task wasn’t getting done and, this way, she was able to take the rest she needed. Eventually the task did get done… it was just on her timeline and when she had the energy. She focused on creating a system that works for her so she could get what she needed.
Davis also includes recreation as a way to rest. This is particularly important for people with ADHD because topics of hyperfocus so often get dismissed as trivial. But, for many, their special interests are what help them regulate their emotions and recharge their batteries. You do not have to earn the privilege to engage in your passions. You have the right to do what makes you happy no matter how much work you’ve done!
4. You deserve kindness regardless of your level of functioning
Have you experienced someone being cruel to you because you couldn’t get something done? Did your caregiver yell at you for having a messy house? Perhaps your teachers treat you poorly because you couldn’t keep up on your work. People think this is motivating. Others believe you’re doing something wrong and, therefore, deserve to be mistreated. Sadly, many ADHD-ers and other neurodivergent people have learned that they should accept this treatment. But you don’t deserve this, and you have a right to ask for better.
This includes asking for better from yourself. If your inner critic’s internalized ableism starts speaking up when you start struggling, you have the right to choose self-compassion. According to Davis, the self-destructive criticism is another form of an abusive relationship, and people must step in on their own behalf. Even though you might have learned that your needs are wrong and your functioning levels are tied to your self-worth, it’s critical that you work on unlearning that by using self-compassion, ideally with the help of a therapist or other support system.
5. Good enough is perfect
Davis makes this point incredibly eloquently. She says, “you should be aiming for good enough. The extra energy to move from good enough to #instagramgoals could be better spent on something that really matters. That is why we don’t say ‘good enough is good enough’ but instead ‘good enough is perfect.’ ”
Caregivers, teachers, coaches, and a host of well-meaning people send the message that “good enough” is only “good enough”… for now. But, ultimately, perfection should always be the goal. However, this is actually an impossible goal because no one can agree on what perfect is. So the target will always be elusive. And, usually “perfect” is an unattainable level of performance. So, instead, focus on the “perfection” of getting something done versus how “well” you’re doing it.
Struggle care emphasizes that tasks are done to make your life livable and easier. If you achieve this in a way that most people would call ‘good enough’, you achieved perfection for you. Not picking up every toy in the living room but creating a walkable path to the spots you use is an accomplishment. If the only thing you washed this week was underwear, but that means you can get through the rest of your work week, you did it! ‘Good enough’ is what gets you through in the most compassionate way possible.
Support Your Struggle Care Journey
The essence, at the heart of all these pillars, is that it’s okay to do things in whatever way works. Your worth is not tied to how well you live up to societal expectations of functioning. If there’s an unconventional way that works for you, then that’s the right way. If your life doesn’t look like an Instagram post, that’s okay. You are constantly hacking your life and your brain to make things work. However you make that happen is your version of perfect.
Focus on care tasks that make it easier for you to function, not on fulfilling some abstract of perfection that other people designed for you. The internalized ableism from a lifetime of being told you’re doing it wrong may say otherwise, but struggle care wants you to live authentically according to yourself and your needs.
If you’re finding that you’re struggling to let go of idea that you “should” be doing things a certain way, our adult ADHD specialists can support you. We’ll help you push back on ableist views of productivity while also supporting you in figuring out your version of perfect.