Wall of Awful

What Is the Wall of Awful and How To Climb It

thestudypro Executive Function Skills

Since over 6.1 million American children have ADHD, it’s important to understand how overcoming ADHD-related obstacles works and what barriers those with this disability face.

The Wall of Awful is a metaphore for the obstacle that all humans face when they are facing a non-preferred activity.  This may be homework, making an uncomfortable call, attempting something challenging for the first time, or even doing household chores.  The Wall of Awful is our emotional barrier to starting. Individuals with ADHD experience this Wall of Awful on an even greater level. Read on to understand more about what it is and how to overcome it.

What Makes Up the Wall of Awful?

As mentioned, the Wall of Awful isn’t a physical barrier but rather an emotional one.  This emotional barrier makes accomplishing tasks just as difficult as if there were a solid brick wall between you and getting started.  

How Does The Wall Get Built?

Every time a person fails at a task, in their mind the wall gets a (metaphorical) failure brick. Unfortunately, this isn’t a singular brick.  With the “failure brick” also comes one or more “disappointment bricks” with it for each individual that has been disappointed by that person’s failure.  Think of parents when the studnet doesn’t do their homework.  For every missed assignment or email home, the studnet’s Wall of Awful is building by their sense of failure and how they have disappointmented mom, dad, and even their teachers.

This while a “failure brick” represents my failure alone, it is common for someone to get dozens of “disappointment bricks” along side that.

And with every person that we worry about disappointing, we also get a “worry brick.” This doubles the number of bricks that came from disappointment. If the disappointment results in rejection, we also accumulate “rejection bricks.

Eventually, all of these different bricks accumulate to become a significant emotional barrier: a very tall and truly overwhelming Wall of Awful.

Defining the “Wall of Awful”

If your child has accumulated a tall, thick Wall of Awful, this can greatly impact their ability to start on a task that may seem to you to be “simply” or seemingly easy. The barrier also prevents people from engaging in activities that they have failed at before. This is because the Wall is present as an obstacle in the person’s mind when they attempt to complete a similar task in the future.  Don’t failures act as “walls” preventing any of us from reattempting things?

If you believe that your child is the only one struggling with the Wall of Awful, this is not the case. In fact, adults also struggle with the Wall of Awful. Brendan Mahan, who originally defined the “wall” metaphor, gives a real-life adult example for the Wall of Awful: doing taxes.

Many people wait until the last minute to file taxes because they find the forms tedious. This problem is made worse because they already have erected a Wall of Awful based on previous years of tax-related pain as well as other similar projects that felt difficult to start (and push through!). The tax forms remind them of these past failures, which serve as a barrier to prevent them from completing the task.

That’s the Wall of Awful.

Children experience the Wall of Awful in the exact same way that adults do. They may procrastinate on (or outright refuse to complete) school assignments because of the many failure and disappoint bricks that they accumulated on past similar assignments.

The Wall of Awful and ADHD

While we all have a Wall of Awful, Mahan originally conceptualized it with those with ADHD in mind. It serves as a way of understanding executive dysfunction.

Executive dysfunction takes place when the brain struggles with skills of organization, time management, attention, and flexible thinking. When someone with ADHD experiences executive dysfunction, it can feel impossible to achieve even certain simple tasks. This causes functional impairment to the person’s life since they cannot focus on even tasks that they want or intend to complete.

If someone has ADHD, they have executive dysfunction as well. If someone has ADHD, they therefore have a more solid Wall of Awful than many neurotypical people. Those with ADHD have additional bricks that their neurotypical counterparts do not accumulate.

Your child isn’t leaving tasks incomplete out of negligence or apathy. They simply need to contend with the emotional barriers that have accumulated to form the Wall of Awful. This may sound like a challenge, but there are several ways to cope with this barrier.

Coping With the Wall of Awful

There are 5 core ways that people cope with the Wall of Awful:

  1. Staring at the wall, not engaging with it, and therefore never getting to the other side
  2. Trying to go around the wall, but failing because it is too big and infinitely wide
  3. Getting angry and trying to Hulk-smash the wall internally, but the anger coming from this attempt is unhealthy and may cause snapping at others, yelling, or other rage-fueled behaviors in other areas of their life
  4. Getting angry and trying to Hulk-smash the wall internally, but ultimately self-flagellating and damaging their self-esteem

These are the least-skilled approaches that both children and adults engage in. They are stress responses. Respectively, these responses fall into freeze (1), flight (2), and fight (3 & 4).

However, there is also a 5th response- climbing the wall.

How to Climb the Wall of Awful

Climbing the Wall of Awful is the first step towards overcoming executive dysfunction and achieving success.

Initially, climbing the wall looks like staring at it. Often, when we are climbing our walls, we sit with dread while telling ourselves repeatedly that it is possible to overcome the obstacle. However, this makes tasks slower than they would be for a person who did not have such a large Wall of Awful.

Imagine a child that takes 20 minutes to take their binder out of their bag. This is the process of the child climbing the wall.

The climb was a slow, difficult, and arduous climb without any other external factors. This is why the process of taking out the binder took so long. If the parent or authority figure were to yell at them to hurry up, this would add more bricks and make the climb even longer.

It’s important that children know that they are climbing their walls when they take “too long” to complete a task. This reconceptualizes what they are doing so they do not perceive themselves as failing (and therefore adding more bricks to their pile). When children understand the wall and are able to climb over it, they pave the way towards executive function.

Overcome Executive Dysfunction Today

Now that you know all about the Wall of Awful, it’s time to look into the use of the tools available to help you overcome that wall and accomplish that activity. 

We’re committed to providing strategies for students grades 4th through college to help them overcome the Wall of Awful. Contact our experts to learn more about how we can help your child overcoming that Wall of Awful by building study skills and achieve consistent executive function.