Many adults with ADHD feel shame. A bottomless, all-encompassing shame. They feel shame for having ADHD in the first place. They feel shame for procrastinating or not being as productive as they think they “should” be. They feel shame for forgetting things too quickly. They feel shame for missing deadlines or important appointments. They feel shame for not finishing tasks or following through. They feel shame for being disorganized or impulsive. They feel shame for not paying the bills on time or keeping up with other household tasks.
Shame is “probably one of the most painful symptoms of ADHD and one of the hardest challenges to overcome,” said Nikki Kinzer, PCC, an ADHD coach, author and co-host of “Taking Control: The ADHD Podcast.” Some adults with ADHD live with shame every day, she said.
Unlike guilt, where we feel bad about our behavior, shame means we feel bad about who we are. Shame is “the painful, distressing, humiliating or self-conscious feeling about oneself as a person,” said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD. When you experience shame, you see yourself as inherently worthless and unlovable, as shame corrodes your entire sense of self, he said.
“Much shame is carried from [your] childhood years of being told outright that [you] were ‘lazy,’ ‘unmotivated’ or ‘unintelligent,’” he said. One of Kinzer’s clients described it as an old tape recorder playing in his head. Even though he knew it wasn’t true, he still had to be vigilant about not falling down the rabbit hole of negativity.
Shame can lead to a sinking self-esteem, which can lead to depression, anxiety and high levels of stress, Kinzer said. Which can lead to harmful behaviors, such as self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
Many of Kinzer’s clients see themselves as impostors. “[E]ven with the right experience and qualifications, they still feel less than and a fraud and fear that someone is going to call them out on it… They live with a constant disappointment in themselves.”
While you might not be able to eliminate shame, you can reduce it. These five tips may help.
“It is so important to first educate yourself about ADHD and understand that there are neurobiological and genetic underpinnings to the traits and behaviors that come along with ADHD,” Olivardia said. Because ADHD is not some moral failing. It is not a character flaw. It is not a lack of desire or direction. It is not laziness. It is not your fault.
ADHD is a real condition with real symptoms that affect every area of your life.
Build a support system.
Kinzer suggested turning to your doctor, therapist or ADHD coach for support. If you aren’t working with anyone right now, it’s important to start. Find a practitioner who specializes in working with adults with ADHD, who understands how ADHD manifests and can help you find individual and effective solutions and systems.
Kinzer also recommended joining a support group. “Connecting with others who have the same issues reminds you [that you] are not alone and can offer you some great ideas to try.” For local support groups, check out CHADD. Ask therapists in your area about groups. For online support, try the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, which offers virtual support groups and webinars with ADHD experts.
Separate action from intention.
“It is one thing to say ‘I am impulsive, forgetful, loud, hypersensitive, etc.,’” Olivardia said. “It is another thing to say ‘I am bad because of those things.’” If your intentions are good, he said, then the behavior is simply a behavior. He suggested accepting your ADHD and “holding on to the notion that your intentions are always good, even if they are not always executed properly.”
Accepting your ADHD means that you work through your challenges, but you do so without assassinating your sense of self, he said.
Shift your mindset.
Pay attention to how you talk about yourself and your abilities. If you notice your mindset is clouded with “I can’t,” consider what’s possible instead.
For instance, according to Kinzer, this is a limiting belief: “Every time I try to get organized, I fail. I’m never going to get organized.” A more helpful belief is: “I know organizing is difficult. But it is possible. I know I can do this. I’m not giving up on finding a strategy that works for me.”
When you shift your mindset, it doesn’t mean you pretend the problem doesn’t exist. Rather, you open yourself up to the idea that there is a strategy that works for you. This kind of thinking actually supports you (instead of derailing you—like limiting beliefs tend to do.)
Another important shift involves trying something new. Kinzer stressed the importance of practice versus judging yourself and being tied to a particular result. It’s OK if it doesn’t work. It’s OK if you need to make changes.
Journal your successes—big and small.
There’s no doubt that you accomplish tasks and meet goals all the time. You simply might lose track, which is where journaling can help. Kinzer’s clients have included these successes in their journals: washing and folding laundry; planning meals for the week; acing an exam; completing a task they’ve been avoiding; getting to work on time; and having a great conversation with their spouse.
Shame can make you believe all sorts of lies. It might make you think you’re inadequate and defective. It might make you think you’re dumb, incompetent and powerless.
It can be hard to erase years of shame—a deep shame that stems from your past. But you can slowly chip away at it. Remember that ADHD is a condition with specific symptoms that affect all areas of your life. That doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It means that you need to find strategies that work for you. This may not be easy. But it’s absolutely possible.