Emotions & Shame

Your Regret Won’t Change the Past. These Tips May Save Your Future.

We can’t change the past, but we can learn how to accept, forgive, pivot, and change our responses to past mistakes or missed opportunities that spark massive ADHD regret and shame. Here’s how.

how to deal with regret, shame, emotional pain
Yellow background woman's feet breaking free from chains

Regret is tough to pinpoint. It may feel like sadness, remorse, or disappointment. It may emerge following a missed professional opportunity, oversharing at a cocktail party or yelling at our child for spilling their orange juice.  All humans feel regret, but people with ADHD may feel regret more often and more strongly due to struggles with impulse control, emotional regulation, and other executive functioning skills. We regret both the things we did — and the ones wish we had done.

For example, I regret how dysregulated I was going through menopause. There were times when I absolutely did not handle myself well. Once, I lost my temper because my daughter wasn’t wearing a warm enough coat before going to First Night festivities on a frigid New Year’s Eve. Another time, I stormed off when my son asked me for help studying for a history test and then repeatedly criticized the questions I asked him. Honestly, it’s hard to remember these moments and practice self-compassion and forgiveness. I just want to shake my younger self and shriek “What were you thinking?” I dearly wish I’d made other choices.

But, here’s the truth: No matter how much we want to, we can’t go back in time and change our past. But we can learn how to accept, forgive, pivot, and change ourselves to create better times in our present and our future lives.

How Regret Gives Rise to ADHD Shame

There is a fine line separating the things we’ve done, the regret, and the shame related to the persistent trauma of living as a neurodivergent person in a neurotypical world. For some people, living with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can feel like 1,000 tiny paper cuts — an emotional slice felt each time we missed things, made mistakes, and received unfair or unkind treatment. This is especially true for people who grew up with parents with untreated ADHD or who lived in a family that wasn’t built for their kind of neurological wiring.

There’s a sensitivity to how so many people with ADHD are wired that is too often dismissed or diminished. Plus, it’s much harder for anybody to learn how to self-regulate when there is no model for it. If there was trauma in your family, whether from yelling, conflict, neglect, poverty, racism, homophobia, drinking or abuse, it will be tougher for you to self-regulate because you may not have had a healthy model for managing stress or learned effective tools for dealing with disappointment or embarrassment. In addition, constant criticism, negativity, bullying or social exclusion related to living with ADHD create these thousands of tiny paper cuts that program how your brain responds to particular triggers and situations. Your personal family history combined with experiences related to being neurodivergent, increase both your sensitivity and reactivity.

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This type of repeated, often complex trauma paves the way for certain pathways in our brain. When thinking about shame and regret, it’s worth examining the coping skills you adopted as a child or teen with ADHD (even if it wasn’t diagnosed) to survive in your family, schools, neighborhoods, etc. Frequently, these reactions bred humiliation and shame. We don’t just feel bad about something we did; we judge ourselves harshly, even with hatred, because of it. Instead of feeling guilt and reflecting “I wish I could have done better”, this toxic shame makes us think, “I’m a bad person because I did those things.”

Shame spirals us down into a deep hole filled with regret about all of our “bad” decisions and mistakes. With the black and white thinking so common for folks with ADHD, it becomes nearly impossible to contextualize our choices and behaviors and consider outside factors that likely also contributed to what was going on.

We can all learn to regret choices, actions, or words without shame. It’s okay to feel sadness or disappointment in ourselves or others without summoning anger or blame. Being able to hold onto discomfort or guilt doesn’t mean we have to slide down the slippery slope of shame into self-loathing. Instead, address the regret and emotional pain that follows with my 4 Rs approach:

How to Defeat Emotional Pain Using the 4 Rs

1. Radical Awareness

Think about your thwarted dreams or shameful actions — and name them. Still stumped? What do you regret? What causes you to feel remorse or disappointment? What dreams do you wish you had pursued? Name those and be honest with yourself. Radical awareness gives us permission to say, “Yep, I did that,” “I wish I hadn’t done that,” or “I have some regrets about this thing.” We own what happened as part of natural human mistakes that everybody makes at one time or another. Then, we can work on changing these patterns, one at a time.

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2. Recognize

Recognize what went on in your life psychologically, socially, in school, at work, at home, and with your family. How was the environment? Who were the players? What happened financially? Were there any experiences of racism, sexism, homophobia, or anything like that?

We don’t live in a petri dish. We live in connection with other people. When things go down the drain, we’re part of that, but we’re not the only reason for it. Place yourself within a given context while still being accountable for your role. Use everything for your personal advancement rather than diminishment.

3. Repair

There is a wonderful quote from Disney’s The Lion King, where Pumbaa the warthog says, “You gotta put your behind in the past,” instead of “you gotta put your past behind you.” I think that is so hilarious and so true. That’s what we do. We plant ourselves in the past, but we really benefit when we plant ourselves in the present and focus on repairing our misdeeds and making key changes. Listen to feedback non-defensively and take the space you need to decide what rings true and what doesn’t. Circle back, own what is yours and consider the next right steps to take. How can you make amends through words and actions? What type of healing has to take place? How can your relationship with this person grow from this experience?

4.Reconfigure

Reconfiguring means pivoting and changing your responses to things, shifting your attitude, and reducing your reactivity. This can take a lifetime of practice — I know that is true for me.

When you work to reconfigure, the doors of vulnerability open. You need to be vulnerable in order to honestly ask questions like these: “What would help me reconfigure a regret?” “Is there a repair that I need to make or say to someone?” “Is there a particular part of my behavior that I want to work on?” “How can I get proper support?” Learning how to deal with regret and shifting our relationship to shame takes time, practice and patience. It’s often a few steps forward, a mess-up that takes us back a bit and then forward motion again. Most importantly, we can’t expect this process to be perfect because nobody is perfect.

How to Begin Reconfiguring Regret

“I’m efforting” is one of my favorite phrases. I used it in my book What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew to describe an integrated brain and body process that supercedes trying. Trying is a casual attempt at something: efforting encompasses your brain, your body, and your psychology. It reflects the labor, the cognition and the emotional component of an endeavor. It speaks to the energy required of neurodivergent folks to take on challenging tasks. Reconfiguring regret relies on efforting and acceptance. When we develop different responses and accept ourselves as fallible humans like everybody else, we create new neural pathways. How do we do that?

First, you need to acknowledge what causes you to struggle and when it happens. This depends on metacognition – the ability for self-evaluation. What things trigger your regret? What happens in your body when you are triggered? Are there signals that you are activated? How do you respond? Answering these questions will help you understand how your regret works and its effect on your thinking and your feelings. What solutions for making different choices could you devise to apply in the future?

Consider color-coding your activation levels. The baseline could be a beautiful blue. “Disturbance in the field” could be purple. Activation could be pink, the level before a code-red alert. Visualizing these levels may help you learn how to intervene when your emotional dysregulation hits purple or pink, because by the time you reach red it’s too late.

Recognizing dysregulation and taking a pause is sometimes the hardest thing to do for people with ADHD. I’m not always very good at it. But slowing down is important. We buy important time when we learn to say, “I need a minute to think about it,” “I’ll get back to you,” or “I’m going to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.” Sometimes, a 30-minute walk or errand can make all the difference.

How to Practice Self-Compassion

Release your shame and welcome more self-compassion by forgiving others and forgiving yourself. The goal in doing this is to shift away from proving yourself, judging yourself as less than, or seeing yourself as someone who messed up.

Give yourself permission to accept that you did the best you could in a given moment with the available resources. Those resources may have been limited. That doesn’t mean you are a bad person or flawed. When the emotional flood is threatening to drown you, give yourself the benefit of the doubt and call in the support of a caring friend, partner or relative  to keep your head above water. Create a few comforting statements to say when you feel yourself struggling with remorse. Set phone reminders, leave sticky notes around the house, or run a banner across the computer that says, “People make mistakes. That’s what makes them human.”

Regret can pile up into a general sense of disappointment and negativity about life, so pay attention to what is going well. Before you close your eyes at night, grab a journal or create a note on your phone to record three things that went well that day. These can be small or big. Anything that is positive will strengthen your resilience.

Practice the power of ‘yet’ when it comes to reducing remorse and reshaping shame. Maybe you haven’t mastered this response or attitude shift yet… but you are “efforting” toward it. This fundamental shift toward a growth mindset is an important step on the road to greater self-acceptance and less regret.

More Treatments for ADHD-Related Regret and Shame

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented form of psychotherapy that aims to change negative thinking patterns.
  • Emotional freedom technique (EFT) tapping aims to reduce negative emotions and increase positive emotions by finger tapping across key points of the body.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a psychotherapy treatment that reprograms neural pathways to help us heal from emotional distress.
  • Meditation Apps. Check out Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer to start with this mindfulness activity. Search for self-forgiving meditations.
  • The Ho Oponopono technique is a traditional Hawaiian spiritual practice involving self-forgiveness by accepting “total responsibilities” for everything surrounding us.
  • A thought tracker may prevent specific triggers. After an incident, write down what happened in a journal or phone. Ask yourself: Where were you? What did it remind you of? Was this a pattern from your past? How did your body respond or react? How can you do better next time?

How to Deal with Regret, Shame, and the Emotional Pain of ADHD: Next Steps


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