Emotions & Shame

Crying, Screaming, and Hiding: All the Ways I Deal with ADHD Shame

I just want to be who I am and not worry about what people think. But when shame rears its ugly head, I don’t always deal with it in a healthy way.

A yellow emoji face dealing with shame caused by ADHD
Very sad emoji face yellow

I am in my hotel room, hiding because I screwed up and was embarrassed in front of a crowd of people I care about. It’s a childish way to deal with shame and I know it. But I’m hiding anyway.

The butterflies in my stomach took flight the moment we entered the room where we were to speak. My colleagues reported on their entrepreneurial accomplishments, revenue projections, social media stats, all garnering applause. Then it was my turn. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of faking it — talking around my comparative lack of achievement. The woman in charge asked me a pointed question that filleted me with surgical precision. My façade fell apart. Despite wearing my dress-for-success outfit and careful makeup, I cried. Before an audience.

I Am Not Fragile, but I Am Tender

I could scream. I had tried to do my best (but apparently didn’t), and someone called me on it. I couldn’t pull myself together enough to sit there and support other people’s presentations. Instead, I fled to the bathroom, curled up on the floor of the handicapped stall (thank goodness no one else needed it), and sobbed like a little girl. Then I escaped to my hotel room to avoid the looks of pity. That’s the last thing I want — those condescending, sideways glances that say, “Don’t treat her too harshly, she’s fragile.”

I am not fragile, but I am tender. My sensitive side gets put on the shelf most of the time. Who can survive being bruised again and again by careless comments and cruel jokes that aren’t funny? Most of the time, I wear a thick layer of good humor and self-confidence (which, by the way, has become surprisingly authentic). But even when wearing my armor, I can be blindsided by shame.

I knew, even as I sat there in a puddle of tears, that I would regret fleeing the scene. I had overreacted, and soon my overreaction would rise to the level of the shame that caused it. Eventually, I would have to go back into that room.

[Life Is Too Short for Shame]

I wish I could be funny about this. I’d love to have some quick tips to pull myself out of the muck. So I went online to find out what the experts say about dealing with shame:

  1. Learn to find peace within yourself
  2. Be deliberate in your actions
  3. Starve anxiety by dealing with it
  4. Practice self-control

The list goes on, but I have to wonder: What the devil are they talking about? If I could do all those things, I wouldn’t be feeling this way in the first place!

I have always thought that adversity strengthened us by its challenge. But where is my self-control now? Now that the tears are dry, my face is swollen, and my eyes are red, I accept that peace of mind would have helped in this circumstance. But it didn’t come until later, much later than needed.

It’s been a bad day. I wish I had some solace, but I can’t stand the thought of chirpy little sentiments like “brighter days are ahead.” I get tired of trying to make nice with the world, twisting my ADHD self into a socially acceptable façade. I just want to be who I am and not worry about what people think. But, dammit, I do.

[Free Resource: Rein In Intense ADHD Emotions]

Am I a Fraud Who Has Been Outed?

My heart breaks when I screw up like this. I want to fall through the floor and disappear forever. I could quit and go home, put this behind me and feel justified that it was their fault. But it wasn’t about them. It was about me.

My fear is that I am really not a woman who makes good on her promises, to herself or to others. Perhaps I am not up to the challenge. Perhaps all my deep secrets are facts: that I am a fraud, a poser, a pretender who has been “outed.” Or not.

Maybe I did exactly what I needed to do: wail and beat pillows with my fists and scream (quietly, so as not to bother other guests, of course). I am calmer now. I lost it for an instant; a split second of agony pushed me past the point of sanity and now I’m back.

These emotions that swamp my rational mind need time to wash through me. I give myself permission to have my little (or big) breakdown; the sooner the better, so the aftershocks are blips, not another tsunami. I recognize the false but potent voices of fear. And I survive, to re-engage once again.

I should go back downstairs in a few minutes and collect my stuff. I’ll paste on a smile; it’s the make-nice-with-the-world thing to do. I can keep it together for a little while, as long as no one else challenges me today. Please, please don’t let me do anything else that will shame me. Not today.

[“I Struggled. I Cried. I Failed. Then, I Was Diagnosed – and Reborn”]

16 Related Links

  1. Yes, I understand the article because I’ve been there. When I read an article like this, it all sounds so easy. But, it is not. It is one thing to live it.

  2. So brave delivering a public presentation …clearly a capable person….taking on such big challenges yet someone else chooses to publicly humiliate her ..
    Surely an expert could offer some help specific to this kind of ‘breakdown….the author explains the meltdown process with such clarity…hope some experts reading this would come forward to offer their help /advice

    1. Don’t need help or advice. I KNOW all the right things to do, say, be. But when shame creeps in (or better, slams me like a two by four) I am at its mercy. And hate it. Wanted you all to know that it happens even to those of us experts who are highly successful in so many areas of our lives. And yet, it hurts just as much. When have YOU been shamed unexpectedly?

  3. All the advice is always about fixing yourself – and like you said, if you could do that, you wouldn’t need advice in the first place.

    You’re not broken so you don’t need fixing. What you do need is better preparation for events so that you’re more prepared for challenging and even negative remarks. Before you even accept an offer to speak, just ask yourself three questions.

    So that you don’t forget to do it, or even what they are, make a .pptx or .docx and name the file 3 Questions and put it on your computer desktop. If you think I’m kidding, you don’t have ADD 🙂 That’s why there’s only 3 questions.

    Three Questions:

    1. Why are you doing this? If you’re doing it to challenge yourself, be ready to have a horrible experience – that’s what challenging yourself means, risking the possibility that things won’t be what you expect. Think about why you would do it, what you would learn, how you would feel if it doesn’t go as expected. Look at all the feelings you could have and what you would gain from feeling that.

    2. What’s the worst that could happen? What if you fart while someone else is speaking? Really loudly. That is total embarrassment, and it’s not impossible. Think about all of the awful things that COULD happen, like someone asking a question you’re not ready to answer. Make a response, and practice it. Over and over and over until it’s second nature. Take a deep breath. Appear to ponder the magnitude of the query, all the while gathering your wits. “Huh. Beats me!”

    3. What will I feel if I blow it? Even if you think you’re prepared, you could still blow it. Anyone could, not just you. We can all get caught by surprise. But thinking about how you would feel helps to prepare you for how you DO feel if it happens. It also helps to scale the feeling so you don’t over-react.

    It’s going to make me feel lousy, take away my authenticity, make me ashamed if people laugh at me. And then think, how can I help myself feel better more quickly? Remind yourself of a time you didn’t make a mistake or lose your place, think about family, pets, stories, famous people you admire – all these things bring good feelings back to you and help you get over bad ones.

    You’ll notice these 3 questions are all about being prepared. Because sometimes we process things a little more slowly and deeply than other people, we can be blind-sided by the unexpected and be slow to react appropriately. That makes us embarrassed and ashamed.

    Nothing works all the time for everyone, but by knowing why you want to do things and then thinking – when you have the time – about what might happen and how you would feel, you can help prevent those feelings of shame from taking root in your mind.

    Just in case you think I’m just saying this – here’s my story. A couple of weeks ago I went to a cousin’s memorial. Our family was very divided and did not communicate or see each other much over the last decade.

    1) So why was I going? Because she was important to me when I was growing up and I owed it to her to pay my respects.

    2) What’s the worst that could happen? Polarized family and friends could snub me or even question my right to be there. My response: This isn’t about me, it’s about respect for someone’s memory. And in fact, several old friends did snub me, very unexpectedly, and I was caught off guard.

    3) What will I feel? Because I did expect people to be rude or rejecting, I didn’t go off the rails. I made some small talk, and then excused myself by saying I didn’t want to take up anymore of their time. Other family and friends were surprisingly glad to see me, so I spent extra time with them – asking about their lives and families to give myself positive things to consider outside myself.

    Try it, it might help! And, it can’t hurt, right? Because even if you try it and it doesn’t work, you’ll be prepared for that, too.

    1. Thanks for all your comments. But there was no way to prepare for this assault on my dignity, thus I responded from a child like place. My adult certainly was not on board and my reaction was less than attractive. I had MANY misgivings about publishing this tale — my perfectionism is yelling at me to retract it!! LOL. But I shared it only because as an ADHD professional, even I can be sidelined by my own history, my own soft spots that haven’t yet quite healed.

      Every time I out myself like this, I feel that I have opened myself up for advice. And that’s not what is going on here. It is simply an acknowledgment that no matter how educated , how informed, how “therapized” you are (and I am all those things), shame can cut you down in an unexpected instant.

      So, am I a sniveling softie all the time. Nope. Not even some of the time. Just once in a blue moon, but I wanted you to know that my soft underbelly is still soft. And that I survived…again.

      1. I know this is almost a year after you wrote this, but it was featured in one of the emails I recently received from ADDitude, so to me it’s fresh. The thing is, by writing a piece like this, and putting it out there, as you say, you have done your part. The part where you have control over what we do with it, is now past. Because once it’s out there, then it’s our turn to read it, reflect on it or ignore it, and to respond if we wish, and how we wish. Many respondents shared they have experienced the same or similar situation — so the (unsolicited? I don’t really think so…) anyway – the advice offered by other respondents may serve to help other people who have experienced public shame, even if it doesn’t help you. And that’s a good and helpful outcome.

        Sharing in a forum such as this one, with people who are as reflective as we are, it’s a risk. But know that when people respond to us as writers, they respond with love and a sincere desire to HELP. Rick Green said something last summer that resonated with me, such that I was in tears about it. I was truly overwhelmed and exhausted by the ADHD Telesummit — I mean, really?, 5 webinars every day for a week? For someone with ADD? Who can take all that in??? Rick said that (paraphrase alert) having all this information is not helpful if we are unable or unwilling to use the information to actually take action with it. He was absolutely correct. So being extremely knowledgeable isn’t necessarily helpful either, if we can’t listen to and “hear” others when the tables are turned on us. And I say this with love, because I’ve been there, too.

        Best of luck with the 2018 ADHD Telesummit — ( and this year, I will pick and choose what I listen to….)

  4. Yes, I quite understand the shame. No matter how accomplished, well educated, even brilliant some with ADHD may be, shame can bring us to our knees. In my case, perfectionism is one of my coping mechanisms. A mask to hide my ADHD from a critical world. Unfortunately perfectionism makes us susceptible to agonizing bouts of shame for our perceived failure to meet our own high standards or those of others. When we are outted as imperfect it strikes to the core. Shame is the immediate and uncontrollable emotion experienced. We go straight to the the fight or flight mode, bypassing our executive functioning part of the brain. It is instantaneous. No time for our prefrontal cortex to analyse and mediate an appropriate response. No time for impulse control and organization of emotional reactions. Double whammy. We are ashamed of being outted, then ashamed of our reactions to the shame. Not enough emphasis is put on understanding the extreme emotional sensitivity of ADHDers. Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria. I am hopeful though. Recent studies involving the epigenetics of ADHD point to the impact of our environment on gene expression. Perhaps even at the age of 62 I can change, suppress or eliminate those genetic markers that have wreaked havoc in my life to date.

  5. I only loved this post because it hit me so close to home. It hit me in the heart its candor, its honesty and because of the many times, over and over, I felt this way. Every little book report throughout school resulted in almost panic attack overwhelm. The fear of being laughed at and therefore rejected was almost too much to bear. I never passed out or anything, but the heart pounding, face reddening, ear ringing despe ration for it to be over every single time was exhausting. Thank you for sharing your yourself so personally.

  6. I only loved this post because it hit me so close to home. It hit me in the heart its candor, its honesty and because of the many times, over and over, I felt this way. Every little book report throughout school resulted in almost panic attack overwhelm. The fear of being laughed at and therefore rejected was almost too much to bear. I never passed out or anything, but the heart pounding, face reddening, ear ringing desperation for it to be over every single time was exhausting. Thank you for sharing your yourself so personally.

  7. Dear God I have been there. At least once a week I have the same thought, “Why can’t I just be ME?” instead of some socially acceptable facsimile of a person.

    My heart goes out to you. I certainly can’t think of a different way to deal with it. Most of the time I’m lucky if I manage to hide first before melting down. I’m not prone to acting out, but like you said… sometimes you just get so blindsided by intense agony, fear, and anxiety that you simply lose it and then have to struggle to get back from the edge of the abyss.

  8. This hit so close to home – getting up, brushing myself off, and moving forward is all that seems left- wishing it could be different but finally figured out its going to last lifetime

    1. Thank you for sharing. I have been there from time to time. The solution would be to do nothing adventurous, but what kind of life would that be. I consider hitting the bottom as part of the ADD lifestyle.

  9. I have such extreme social anxiety that I don’t even process comments people say to me (at social events, the playground etc) because I am so self conscious the entire time they are talking – my inner dialogue just drowns them out )until later – on the way home, when I am in the bathroom at said event – when I am alone. It has gotten so bad and I’m so used to doing this that I don’t even realize now if they have actually asked me a question! When I was younger this confused me so (didn’t get diagnosed until early 30’s) but knowing now that it’s because of my ADHD and even being finally properly medicated – doesn’t help with the lifetime of this habit of “comment gathering”. For instance my meds allow me to follow conversations now/be present and hear the whole thing but only around those I know and deal with every day and feel comfortable with. With strangers or acquaintances the lifetime pile up of inappropriate comments and reactions kicks in and puts me on auto. I guess it’s self-preservation but it’s disheartening because like you said; I know intellectually what’s going on but it’s like there’s the “smart” me and the “real” me which is the adhd/hyper emotional/fraud/fake that’s gonna get found out.

  10. Oh the brighter day comments. I loathe them with all my heart, and I always want to punch someone in the face when they do a Dorothy. It sucks, everything you described sucks. You just go to pieces like a jigsaw puzzle and the only one left behind is a whimpering mess supposed to be in control. I won’t say I’m sorry for your predicament. You didn’t create it. You didn’t pick this brain out of a catalogue. Why should you be Sorry, or anyone sorry for you? Here’s a hug though for that brain.

    I’ve been trying mindfulness lately to help with the shame, guilt, and panic attacks (also for the fraud part, oh the fraud part!). It seems to be helping me gather myself before I’m out there facing the demons. It takes time to set in though. Even a 5 minute practice is enough is what i hear. I do 15 minutes a day. On most days it’s annoying brain chatter but I’ve lately been able to find a few moments of peace here and there. Give it a shot maybe.

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