Emotions & Shame

ADHD Is Not My Fault — But It Still Makes Me Feel Like a Failure

“I’m so stupid, I’m so dumb,” I tell myself far too often. When I feel like an idiot because of an ADHD screw-up, it’s important to remind myself to knock off the negative self-talk.

A dunce cap in a classroom represents the shame many children with ADHD feel over being called stupid.
A dunce cap in a classroom represents the shame many children with ADHD feel over being called stupid.

I left my brand-new ATM card in the machine while I was activating it. It just happened. I didn’t realize it until I told my husband I activated the card. Then I morphed into total freakout mode, ransacked my purse, ransacked the car, and burst into tears at what an idiot I was.

“It’s just a mistake,” he said. “The ATM will eat the card.” I cried for a half hour, and, based on my ranting, my seven-year-old drew me a card that read: “Mama, your are not an idiot.”

The next morning, while stopped at a red light, I found my ATM card turned upside down under three pairs of sunglasses on the center console of my car. I’d looked there at least twice. I would have cried again if I weren’t so grateful.

ADHD and Emotions

They’re upsetting, incidents like these. No matter how often people remind you that attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) is a disorder, that it’s not your fault, ADHD affects every aspect of your life — and every one of your emotions. You lose things, you forget things, and you feel guilty. If you can’t read contempt on other people’s faces, you imagine it. You are the “wifty” one, the flighty one, the one who can’t be trusted to arrive on time. Your impulsivity and awkwardness make it difficult to interact with others, and your social skills are like those of a middle-schooler. It’s hard. Yet this is the reality we women with ADHD live with every day, especially those of us with the inattentive variety of the disorder.

I felt guilty again this week, when I forgot an important appointment. I want to adopt, and to do that, I need a physical. To get a physical, I need a TB test. I felt so proud: I got to the doc’s on time; I remembered my paperwork. All that remained: Return in 48-72 hours to have a nurse look at my arm. But days passed, the TB test drifted out of my mind, and I had other things to do. I woke bolt-upright from a nap at 6 p.m., weeping, because I couldn’t manage the basic skills of “adulting.”

[Free Download: 15 Ways to Disarm (and Understand) Explosive ADHD Emotions]

Dissing Myself

The spiral of negative self-talk began, the kind that had my seven-year-old drawing me pictures. This is usual with women with ADHD, especially those diagnosed late. We’ve spent a lifetime being berated: about our disorganization, our lack of common sense, our in-and-out memory. We’ve been berated so often, in fact, that we’ve internalized it. We don’t need a parent or teacher to tell us any more; their words have become our own. I’m so stupid, I thought. I’m so dumb. Why can’t I be more organized? Why can’t I remember things like everyone else? The knowledge that I suffer from a neurological condition doesn’t help. Society has expectations for adult women, and often, I don’t fulfill them.

Those expectations extend into the social realm as well. People expect adult women to act a certain way. When you say you’re going to a friend’s poetry reading, they expect you to be there. But you have an anxiety attack, because you can’t figure out how to fit it into your day, and you stay home. You are missed, and no one understands why you didn’t make it. You’re a flake. Your word can’t be trusted. You know your friends are thinking this, and yet you couldn’t get to that reading. The negative self-talk starts again.

I’m Not Rude — Really!

ADHD also creates trouble with face-to-face interaction. I often seem rude, because I play on my phone while another person talks. I’m listening, but I look like a rude Millennial. Sometimes I get so excited about something that I have to voice it, no matter what’s going on in the conversation, or whose turn it is to talk. I seem rude again — as if I’m not paying attention to the other person’s contribution, as if I don’t care what they have to say. I do. I just have to talk about what I have to talk about, and I have to do it now. Right. Freaking. Now. Later, I realize what I’ve done; I feel rude and stupid. I worry that the other person won’t want to be friends with me. Sadly, sometimes I’m right.

It’s difficult to be an adult woman whose brain, by its very nature, doesn’t want to “adult.” Of course, medication helps. But when you can’t meet the basic expectations of adulthood, it’s hard to respect yourself, let alone earn respect from others. The best we can do is to stop the negative self-talk, realize that we have a neurological condition, and forgive ourselves for its manifestations. After all, none of this is our fault.

[Step Up to the Plate: Finding Success With ADHD]

Updated on December 12, 2019

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  1. Thank you for sharing- it feels relieving to know that I am not the only one with this struggle…
    I am blessed that my Husband gets it. Others don’t get it – ADHD.
    Keep your head up and remember that you are you for a purpose.

  2. You couldn’t of explained it any better! The blurting out right in the middle of someone else talking, looking at my phone but I’m still totally listening, the spiral of negative thoughts starting with the “I’m so stupid” thoughts, and not being able to read peoples faces ( a big problem for me). Thanks for making me feel like I’m not alone.

  3. This SO resonated with me, even as a 50-yr old male. While there certainly must be nuanced manifestations for both men and women, I think the general tone of this impacts most of us with ADHD. And BTW – I beat myself up (again!) just before posting, as I had 4 failed logins before I remembered my password here! 🙂

  4. D@mned good writing, Lady!! You PERFECTLY captured & disseminated the very essence & (mal)functions of my life since I could remember being cut down & berated for my ADHD mistakes or screw-ups as a small child, even tho back then such children were “Special”, “Troubled/Problemed Child”, “Hyperactive” or just plain lazy & disobedient & unwanted in social circles (didn’t learn what that was until I was in my 30’s…sadly) AS a Male, when we do things like that, we’re considered less than “Real Men”. Yeah, Thx American Society! WHile it’s good to know that I’m not alone in this, in my family life growing up, in my marriage, School & work, I AM ALONE! If another ADHD, Male of Female is around me, they seem to be too busy to connect (and I certainly can’t do that with Females; not good for marriage I found out..) So, it does my heart good to read how others cope or have loving support… Guess I can dream & hope..

  5. OMG, this is so true. My mask has helped me immensely to hide my ADD. Unfortunately, it has become such a part of me that I don’t really know the true me. And I’m now in my mid-50s, recently diagnosed. What a wasted life of being a fraud.

    1. Oh, Monty, not a fraud! Late bloomer? Yes, me, too. I’m 57, and just starting, barely peeking around the corner of who I really am. I figured something out a couple of weeks ago. Since I don’t really know who I am now, I can start fresh, and chose who I want to be. “Fraudness” doesn’t fit into my new definition of me. I’ve done the best I could with what I’ve had, and now that I know more about me and my brain, I can do and become even more. (At least, on my good days!)
      Another thing I figured out a very long time ago is that with 6 billion people on thee planet, I cannot possibly please them all. Life got so much easier after that. Not a fraud. Real. Repeat after me, “I am real and valid, and what I think matters.”

    2. I am now taking ritalin and it has helped me focus better and not be so down. I am 59 years old and have been told my entire life that I am different, make no sense, stupid, don’t understand anything and often see things no one else catches, and I don’t mean hallucinations. This has literally been going on my entire life. I just plug along and get nowhere really. ADHD has caught up with me recently because of so many things happening in my life, that I really have no life. My career has nosedived and I have lost a lot of jobs for being different and non-conforming to all of the bs we all face daily. Hopefully joining this group will help me.

  6. This piece so resonated with me. It’s very difficult to control, to stop, the negative self-talk. It just comes. In my family of likely-ADHDers, I was the one who supposedly “escaped”… Hah! Not!! But it gets better, if we also remember to laugh at ourselves along the way.

  7. I’ve resorted to telling people I’m not very reliable when they ask for a favor or just saying no to any invites because I know I’m going to let them down. I used to be social. I miss that part of me. I dont get invited anymore, I guess not showing up so many times made my friends give up. Now I dont have friends, except for the few who get me and dont expect much from me. But even that makes me feel like a taker, never contributing to my relationships. It takes every once of self discipline I have to keep my house clean, and on the days it eludes me, I’m left with an overwhelming disaster on my hands. I always want to do something fun with my kids, but as the hours pass by and I javent even done my dishes I get overcome with mom guilt and the feeling of worthlessness. Somedays I tell myself it’s my ADHD, other days I’m convinced that I am the laziest person on the planet. But then I open my email and see an article like this from ADDitude and I feel better for a while. Thanks to everyone who shared their experiences, it truly does make me feel better.

  8. You wrote what I’ve been going through my whole life except I’m a guy snd I have the attentive part I’m add rather than adhd .. and I’m tired of it all the social awkwardness from keeping to myself after years of being put down for things I did because of add by family and bossess people I worked with to feeling stupid and knowing something is wrong with me but unable to explain it ..nice to know others go through it too

  9. Just diagnosed at 63. Jad been tested 20 years ago and told I didnt have it. I realize the cycles in my marriage of isolation and that my narcissistic ( ex) refused to help me so many times and howcthat has made it worse. I am alone and thete are no coackes with in a 3 hour drive.i will get help online. Just overwhelmed.

  10. I get called stupid, slow, and dumb all the time! And people think I don’t care because I’m a boy and boys are dumb apparently, but it hurts. I can’t find things that are in plain sight, I mix up simple information, I forget what someone told a literal second ago (and they think I’m just not paying attention), and sometimes when I try to read things my brain just completely fails to register it. feel so dumb all the time, and it doesn’t help when all I get is “Don’t use ADD as an excuse!” I use to be gifted and now I feel like a failure.

  11. I just happened to see your post while dealing with stimulant induced insomnia and desperately seeking comfort from this community. I am at my wit’s end trying to cope with these godawful symptoms and the inability to live even somewhat normally. Being in a constant vortex of information and racing thoughts is so incredibly exhausting and it is invisible to everyone else. I have given up on trying to advocate for myself because it just sounds ridiculous to most of the world and I have grown more withdrawn in an attempt to avoid the shame. I don’t knowhow old you are but today is my birthday and though I feel grateful for being diagnosed in my 20s I see a pretty bleak future-one that I definitely don’t feel like should include kids. I can hry seem to keep up with my own life and can’t imagine being solely in charge of someone else’s. But there isn’t much we can do aside from reach out to those in the same tribe for support. I sympathize with you

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