When helping my clients figure out how to work with their ADHD and create a life that works for them the topic of shame inevitably arises at some point. In fact, shame is common for ADHD adults. I can’t think of another emotion that is as ubiquitous as shame.
And, while everybody feels shame, many ADHD adults don’t acknowledge or address it. And, if this is true for you, it is unfortunate. Because it may be holding you back from reaching your goals. While, try as you might, you can’t prevent it from arising on occasion.
However, you can become more shame resilient. Ready to learn how to manage it and minimize its negative impact?
The Difference Between Shame and Guilt
First, it is important to distinguish between shame and guilt.
When we are feeling shame we are afraid we are inherently flawed and, as a result, are unlovable and don’t belong because of something we’ve experienced, done or failed to do.
We just don’t feel worthy of connection with other people.
That is, when we feel shame, we feel we are just not good enough even though we may not have done anything wrong.
But, when we feel guilty, we feel bad about something we’ve done that is counter to our values — something wrong. Because we can choose to try to remedy the situation, if we want, a little guilt is not such a bad thing. You know?
On the other hand, shaming, whether self inflicted or from other people, is never useful in helping us change. In fact, shaming is always counterproductive, as you will see below.
How Your ADHD Can Lead To Shame
It is not possible to learn how to work with your ADHD without addressing the shame you may feel about your history with ADHD and how your ADHD symptoms currently manifest themselves.
At least that has been my experience in working with Adults with ADHD over the years.
Do you experience shame — the feeling of I’m not good enough — when you:
- speak too much or not enough in certain settings?
- process information slowly?
- are quick to become emotional, either angry or sad?
- can’t organize your thoughts on the spot to respond clearly and coherently?
- forget what people say as soon as they say it?
- are late for meetings?
- miss deadlines?
- have difficulty participating in the give and take of a conversation among a group of people?
- allow people see your messy home or office?
If you have had these and other experiences related to your ADHD, then you get it. You know how your ADHD can lead to feelings of shame.
Sure, if you want, you can learn more about the impact of your ADHD and how to manage it better so it does not get in your way.
But you don’t need to be fixed!
Yet, you may feel shame, though there is nothing inherently wrong with you. It is just the way you are wired.
If you are with me on this, and want work on addressing your shame, keep on reading.
How You Develop Shame
For everyone the origin of their shame is going to be different.
But, if you have shame around your ADHD symptoms, it is likely you internalized the shame in part from the way you were treated at a young age by your family and teachers for being disorganized, talking too much, being late etc.
And, perhaps, as you grew into adulthood, other people in your life — colleagues, friends, your partner — shamed you for these same issues.
So over time you may have come to accept these criticisms as truths about who you are as person, and your thinking became, “Yep, I’m a screw-up. I just can’t do anything right.”
Wherever your shame came from it may be getting in your way.
How Shame Can Come Out Sideways
We all want to feel connected, accepted, loved — like we belong. Of course, we don’t want to feel shame.
So, in efforts to hide feelings of shame connected with their ADHD and maintain some semblance of self esteem, ADHD Adults may behave in dysfunctional ways, such as:
- being excessively critical and finding fault in others in order to feel ok about themselves, thinking in the moment, “At least I’m not like them!”
- getting angry and blaming others for their own mistakes as another means of feeling ok, accompanied by thoughts such as, “If you didn’t have the meetings so early in the morning, I wouldn’t be late, again!
- becoming angry, rather than feeling shame, and maybe directing the anger at someone — a partner, their kids, a friend — who had nothing to do with the shaming incident. Then they may feel even more shame about taking out their anger on someone.
- display bravado to convince others of their worthiness.
- trying to please others in order to gain approval and mitigate their feelings of shame.
- using humor and possibly being excessively self-deprecating to hide their shame.
- numbing their shame feelings with alcohol, drugs or food.
- avoiding their feelings by working excessively.
- keeping clear of situations or people that might engender shame.
Have you ever experienced any of the above?
If you have, you get how shame can come out sideways You still feel your shame. And, in addition, as result of your unintended behavior, you may have fractured relationships as well as lost opportunities.
Time to turn this around?
How Shame Can Get In The Way of Effectively Managing Your ADHD
Not only does shame come out sideways, but for some people it can also prevent them from using strategies that might help them work effectively with their ADHD.
Have you ever said something such as:
- “If I checked in with someone (accountability) in order to get my work done, I would feel like a five year old.”
- “I shouldn’t have to write every single thing down. I should be able to remember it. I’m not stupid!!”
- “I’m a ‘&%mk adult,’ after all. I should be able to do _________ (fill in the blank) by myself. ”
If you’ve uttered statements like these, it is probably shame speaking.
And, if you want to work effectively with your ADHD, instead of fighting what is, breaking the shame cycle is part of the process.
The Four Steps You Can Take To Break The Cycle of ADHD Shame
The good news is you can prevent shame from holding you back from being the person you want to be and creating the life you want.
While you may want to work with a therapist or coach, you can start do some work on your own using the three steps below in order to acknowledge and move through your shame.
Step #1 Recognize when you are feeling shame.
You can be aware of how and when you are triggered by your shame by knowing:
- where you feel it in your body.
- the message and expectations that cause the shame. If you are not sure, refer back to the list above. Is it processing information slowly, talking too much, etc.
Of course, you will have other shame triggers you will want to explore that are unrelated to your ADHD.
Step #2 Reality check the messages and expectations causing your shame.
For example, is it realistic for you to operate exactly like your colleagues? Moreover, is that how you want to operate?
In the case of your memory challenges, is it reasonable to expect yourself to keep you to-do list in your head?
Ask yourself questions to figure out whether the expectations driving your shame are realistic.
Step # 3 Reach out and connect with others.
Reach out to someone you trust to be empathetic. As I’m sure you know, not everyone can help you in this way.
But, if you can find someone, ask them just to listen to you. Shame can dissipate when you feel heard
If you can’t find a family member or friend to listen, seek out a therapist, coach or support group to hear your story.
Step #4 Speak Shame
Tell your story. Shame grows exponentially when it is a secret and you remain silent.
Yes, Shame Is Common for ADHD Adults. Ready to Change That?
The less you talk about your shame, the more shame you will have.
So, start talking. Because it is time to draw back the curtain on ADHD shame. Don’t you think?
If you are interested in learning more about shame, check out the work of Brene Brown.