No one wants to feel like they’re doing something wrong, but for people with ADHD, frequent reminders can snowball into feelings of shame.
For people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it can be a challenge to remember important information and stay focused on certain tasks.
Despite your best efforts, it can be hard to meet other people’s expectations, and you might often feel like you’re letting someone down. This can lead to a lot of internalized shame.
However, having ADHD is nothing to be ashamed of. When you better understand the symptoms of ADHD and work on developing coping strategies, you can start to feel better and more confident in yourself as a person with ADHD.
The American Psychological Association defines shame as an uncomfortable, self-conscious emotion that comes from the belief that your actions or circumstances are seen as dishonest, embarrassing, or immodest by other people.
Shame comes from the concern that your appearance or actions in a given moment are socially unacceptable or breaking with a social norm.
When you have ADHD, your actions in a given situation may break from social expectations — like interrupting a conversation because your brain had something it wanted to contribute right away — and the reactions of your peers can cause you to feel ashamed in that moment.
However, it’s important to differentiate between shame and guilt — they’re not the same.
Shame is rooted in the negative beliefs that you have about yourself. If you react a certain way because of your ADHD, you may feel shame about your reaction, even if what you did was outside of your control.
On the other hand, guilt arises when you feel responsible for having wronged someone.
Feeling guilty after an uncomfortable situation can be a helpful motivator for correcting your actions and keeping you from feeling guilty in the future.
However, if you’re frequently feeling shame about your ADHD, it’s due to strong, negative beliefs about yourself. By changing or combating negative thoughts about yourself and your ADHD, you can limit how often you feel shame for it.
If you experience the symptoms of ADHD — like missing appointments or being impatient — you may receive negative feedback from those around you. And this cycle of having ADHD symptoms and subsequently being criticized, if unaddressed, can reinforce your negative beliefs about yourself, which leads to more feelings of shame.
If people around you don’t understand ADHD or how the symptoms affect your personal life — or if your colleagues, managers, or friends don’t offer accommodations or empathy — you can feel isolated and overwhelmed.
These negative responses can cause you to form more negative beliefs about yourself, which can lead to additional feelings of shame.
Another source of shame you might experience comes from the stigmatization associated with ADHD. That can have an impact on your emotional state too because you’re being singled out for something you cannot change.
In fact, a recent study shows that people who have ADHD have significantly less self-compassion than those without ADHD. Part of this is because of the higher levels of negative comments they receive.
If you view your ADHD negatively, naturally you will feel shame when people notice it. However, if you view your ADHD in a positive way and take pride in the person that you are, you will be less likely to feel ashamed of having ADHD.
But here’s the thing: Feeling shame is a common, valid response to repeated criticism. It’s a feeling that everyone — including other people with ADHD — will very likely feel throughout their life.
“Anecdotally, and personally, I can tell you that this is something that almost everyone with ADHD has felt, or will feel, at some point,” says Dr. Sasha Hamdani, a psychiatrist and ADHD specialist based in Kansas City, Missouri.
“As a patient, it’s often difficult to articulate. And sometimes it’s difficult to even pinpoint why you feel shame. As a practitioner, it’s difficult to address because you don’t want to make assumptions or further marginalize anyone.”
However, just because shame is a common response among those who have ADHD doesn’t mean you deserve to be viewing yourself through your own negative lens.
You may be receiving criticism for behaviors associated with ADHD, but that isn’t a complete reflection of your skills and character.
While depression and shame are separate things — one is a diagnosed disorder and the other is a temporary feeling — it becomes clear how if left unaddressed, negative viewpoints on ADHD can impact your overall mental health. When adding all these complicated factors into the mix, it can be hard to recognize shame for what it is, which ultimately makes it even harder to address.
Shame can feel overwhelming at times. But there are ways to help you manage feelings of shame:
Find someone to confide in
If you’ve been experiencing shame, you might feel uneasy about sharing that fact with the people in your life.
You may even believe that doing so would only deepen your shame if they don’t validate how you’re feeling. But, if you can open up to someone you trust about your experiences, it can provide you with a very valuable outlet.
So, if there’s someone in your life who has proven to be compassionate and trustworthy, you may benefit from reaching out. Talking to them may also address any feelings of isolation that you may be experiencing too.
Look into an ADHD support group
Seeking out people who’ve had similar experiences can also help combat shame and isolation. You can find ADHD support groups through organizations like Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD).
Another option is ADHD coaching, which can help you manage your symptoms as well as address the negative feelings they have caused, like shame.
Remember to have self-compassion
Shame can make you feel like you are less worthy as a person. But the fact is, ADHD is a scientifically accepted disorder. And while ADHD symptoms can fall outside of what’s considered “acceptable” behavior, that doesn’t mean that you’re inherently bad or “unacceptable.”
Realizing this distinction, and developing self-compassion around your symptoms, can go a long way in combating shame.
Try challenging yourself to recognize your own negative beliefs around ADHD and ask yourself which beliefs are causing you to feel shame. When you are able to better understand why you are feeling the way you do, you can more easily target those perceptions.
Identify your triggers
If you’re finding that a certain person, experience, or location is becoming a source of shame or causing you to feel bad about yourself, it’s important to identify it as a possible trigger.
Even if you’re at a point where you’re feeling shame on a regular basis, it’s important to recognize possible triggers that spike that feeling.
Knowing those triggers can help you address why they cause you to feel ashamed. For example, if you feel shame when you interrupt someone in the middle of a conversation, you can focus on active listening and waiting for an appropriate time to join the conversation.
Once you’ve identified a trigger, you might be able to take steps to relieve the pressure that comes with it. For instance, you may be able to request accommodations at work or remind a friend that you have trouble with time-keeping because of your ADHD symptoms.
It may also help to spend time with loved ones who understand your experiences and around whom you don’t experience shame.
Take note of the positives
Remembering positive feedback is an important part of getting past shame because it offers a counterpoint to the criticisms you may have faced.
Positive feedback can remind you that you’re making improvements, that it’s OK to feel good about yourself, and that you are worthy of praise and respect.
You can even keep a running list of your achievements (no matter how small) as a way to track your progress and revisit if you receive any negative feedback in the future.
If you’ve been experiencing ADHD-related shame, it’s a good idea to talk to a therapist about your experiences.
A trained mental health professional can support you as you navigate life with ADHD and help you find new strategies for approaching challenging situations.
A therapist who specializes in ADHD can also give you tailored steps to start addressing your shame — and working toward minimizing it.
If your symptoms have become too overwhelming, you may also want to consider ADHD medication. You can talk to a therapist about what medications are available, and they can work with you to find the one that works best for you.
“Sometimes, alleviating some of those symptoms helps level the playing field,” says Hamdani. “So you feel less impaired.”
Shame with ADHD is a very common experience, but there are ways to address it and to start feeling better about yourself. Having ADHD means that you may struggle to do things that come easier to others, but this isn’t something that you should be ashamed of.
Working to improve your interpersonal relationships should be a source of personal pride and something to be applauded.
Remember that having ADHD doesn’t impact your value as a person, and accepting yourself as a person with ADHD can be a critical part of that journey toward self-compassion.