Hacking Your Executive Function: What the Heck is Inhibition?


Welcome to part two of Hacking Your Executive Function! This week we’re going to be talking about something that’s relatively new to me: inhibition! I’m so excited to jump in and explore. Similar to Emotion Regulation, we’re going to start with an overview of what this is, why we might want to practice it, how it’s related to executive function, and what the skill does for us.

At its most basic, inhibition is the ability to decide what you do and don’t want to do. It means controlling your automatic or impulsive behaviors and creating behaviors that you want through attention and reasoning. That can be a lot of things: the ability to focus your thoughts and attention on specific things and ignore distractions; or motor control that keeps you from bouncing your leg when bored and anxious; or on a behavioral level choosing not to yell when you’re frustrated. Inhibition is also closely related to building and breaking habits. It’s what allows us to break habits we don’t like and helps us build the habits we do want. It is resisting temptations and ignoring distractions.

Inhibition is one of the very basic forms of executive function. It involves noticing the behaviors and thoughts that you’re having, connecting them to your values and long term goals, and then making plans and initiating the course of action that you do want. There’s a lot contained there, so part of these posts will be breaking down inhibition into different components and finding ways to notice where you’re struggling.

One thing that I want to make super clear is that the type of inhibition that I’m talking about here is an internal skill that someone chooses to engage in. Especially when it comes to autism, ADHD, or other neurodivergences, it is incredibly common for parents, caregivers, teachers, and other authority figures to demand that an individual change or give up certain behaviors. That is NOT what I am promoting here. Instead, what I would like to focus on is skills that will help an individual achieve their own goals, diminish the stress of feeling distracted or out of control, and give an individual the option to choose behaviors that they want.

So we are NOT talking about stamping out your stims but we ARE talking about learning how to better ignore that annoying buzz from the radiator. Sometimes this does mean not doing something that is super fun and choosing to do something less fun, but it’s always to reach the goal that you want to achieve.

I like to think of inhibitory control as your inner parent. This is the part of your brain that helps you balance what you want with what you need, and gives you rules and schedules to keep you on track. It’s the part of you that says “yeah, ice cream for dinner might feel nice now but when you get sick to your stomach in two hours it won’t be so great.” Sometimes it can help to imagine or visualize this part of yourself so that you can have a specific voice or face that acts as the parent. I also like to visualize the more childlike parts of myself so that I can understand what I WANT as well as what I should be doing.

So for example I imagine my child self. This is the part of me that wants to explore, have fun, try new things, be colorful, be loud, and act impulsively. There are elements of this that are very important, and that child self can give me important information when I feel as if I need to be taken care of.

I also imagine that I’ve got a more teenaged self. This is someone who is driven and wants to accomplish, be recognized, be perfect, and fit in. This version of me has a great deal of anxiety and is often too hard on myself, convinced that any rest is bad.

My parent self is the one who balances those two and adds in my long term values, pays attention to emotions, notices what other people are feeling and what they need, and tries to find solutions that will balance all of this. It’s the one that can tell my child self “we’ll do that later but right now we need to take care of work”. It’s also the part of me that can break down any act of inhibition to notice where I’m struggling.

The final section of this blog post will give you an outline of the steps it takes to inhibit a behavior and thus the different places that it can go wrong.

The first step of inhibition is noticing a behavior or thought that you don’t want. Sometimes you’ll notice later that you did something you didn’t want to do (like if you reacted with extreme anger to someone and later feel remorse about it) whereas other times you’ll know in the moment (when you look at the chocolate cake and think “hey, I’m trying not to eat so much sugar” and then you eat it anyway). In both cases it can be beneficial to try to give yourself some time in the moment to not just be aware of the behavior or thought but to take time to consider your options.

The next step would be to gather data. What are your long term goals and what action in the moment will help you achieve them (your shoulds). What do you want to do (your wants). What would be the impact of doing what you want vs. what you should? Will other people be impacted? Will it have negative consequences for you down the line?

Then you can brainstorm solutions. That might be finding a course of action that satisfies should and want. It might be giving yourself a time to fulfill your wants later but doing the shoulds right now. Or maybe you decide that you’ve been doing a lot of should and right now want will be better for you.

Finally you can go ahead and do the thing!

In the next few days I’ll be talking through how you can get better at each of these steps, whether that’s identifying problems, making a decision in the moment, or finding the motivation to do the should when you’d rather do the want. Join me!