Emotions & Shame

6 Steps to Dismantling Internalized Shame

When you believe that you’re broken because of ADHD, you focus on your weaknesses and become blind to your strengths. Here, learn how to feel whole, positive, and confident – and overcome internalized shame.

Visual metaphor for escaping negative thinking and mental health issues, including a horse rider escaping from the clutches of a monster made of negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Internalized shame plagues many of us with ADHD, especially those diagnosed later in life. Pervasive and chronic shame is incredibly damaging because it causes us to question and second-guess ourselves at every turn. How can you be so good at some very difficult things, but so bad at basic tasks like opening mail, paying bills and showing up for appointments on time? It doesn’t make sense.

Shame damages our sense of self and can lead us down many dark paths — poor self-esteem, unhealthy coping strategies, strained relationships, and problems in practically all areas of life.

When you believe that you’re broken, you focus on your weaknesses, become blind to your strengths, and don’t know what it means to live to your potential. But what if you adopted these strategies to shatter internalized shame? Could you flip the script on your life?

Internalized Shame: How to Flip It

1. Discover Your Strengths

An ADHD diagnosis presents challenges. Ask my family how many times we drove past the neighbors’ houses on our way to the airport one day. I went back for my iPad, sunglasses, and makeup in that order. I could have used words like disorganized, scattered, and mindless to describe myself. Instead, I laughed and pointed out how bored my family would be without me. And, because I laughed, they did too.

Consistently focusing on your mistakes and what you are bad at does nothing but feed the shame monster. And, trust me, that beast is always hungry. When you focus on your strengths, you confirm that for every weakness there is an opposing strength. Are you hyperactive or energetic? Distractible or curious? Scattered or just entertaining?

[Get This Free Download: 9 Truths About ADHD and Intense Emotions]

For starters, take the VIA Character Strengths Survey to discover your strengths. We all have some!

2. Find ADHD Role Models

The stereotype of ADHD — that noisy, hyperactive, always-in-trouble little boy — doesn’t paint an aspirational picture. For most of us, it’s also not representative of who we are. People with ADHD are out winning Olympic medals (Michael Phelps, Simone Biles), writing best-selling books (Seth Godin, Mel Robbins, Rick Riordan), building multi-million and -billion dollar businesses (Richard Branson, David Neeleman, Mary-Kate Olsen), creating Grammy award-winning music (Audra McDonald, Will.I.AM), and living successfully as doctors, lawyers, firefighters, and entrepreneurs.

Figure out what holds your ADHD brain’s interest, whether it’s portraiture, politics, or the stock market. Then create a list of people with the same interests who share your non-linear, creative brain. Do some research on their strengths and weaknesses by talking to them personally. If you don’t know them, read and watch biographies to get more information. Even a Google search tells you a lot about a person.

3. List Your Accomplishments

Before you roll your eyes and say that you have achieved nothing, pause, breathe, and think. If you take the time to list your accomplishments, big and small, you will surprise yourself.

[Read: Your Strengths Inventory: Repairing Self-Esteem After an ADHD Diagnosis]

Because our accomplishments are not linear, they can seem erratic and disconnected. However, when we discover who we are and what we’re meant to do, all those disconnected experiences make more sense.

For those of us who struggle with working memory, we often forget the things we have accomplished, or we discount them because we don’t see them as anything special. It’s funny — when you write it all down it becomes a lot harder to ignore.

Now it’s your turn. Pull out a sheet of paper and, starting with childhood, list all the moments in your life that you remember feeling happy, joyful, and proud of yourself. In those moments you knew that you were in the right place doing exactly what you should be doing. You were proud of something you had accomplished. Now look for what those experiences/accomplishments had in common. Were you doing something creative, out in nature, or with children or animals? Were you helping others? Do more of that.

4. Stop Trying to Fit In

So much shame comes from spending your life trying to fit in. So, stop it! You don’t fit in and never will because you are meant to stand out! You can’t do things their way because you’re meant to do things your way, and that’s exactly what makes you brilliant and unique. Don’t follow the herd. Instead, lead it!

Hint: Make sure it’s in an area that interests you. The ADHD brain is a brain of interest. When we’re interested, we can pop into hyper-focus and learn very quickly.

What surprised me most about working with ADHD adults is how important it is for them to be in a community with other people with ADHD. It is, bar none, the fastest way to reduce shame. Have you noticed that you can regularly hear from others how smart, accomplished, and kind you are and still not believe it, but the minute you’re in a community with other ADHD brains that are like yours, you realize how many people with ADHD are resourceful and bright?

5. Stoke Positive Emotion

Have you ever noticed flashes of brilliance in your life? Maybe it happened with an amazing teacher, the right boss, or a special relationship. The ADHD brain thrives when acknowledged and appreciated. It withers when criticized and devalued.

We all have an internal rudder that generates positive emotion when our life aligns with our strengths and values. When we’re moving in the wrong direction and not honoring who we are, we feel negative emotion. If we listen to what everyone tells us we should do, we stop trusting ourselves. Pay attention to your internal rudder. What makes you feel positive emotion? And, equally important, who makes you feel positive emotion?

One of my students, Meghan, noticed that she felt confident and happy around everyone but her mother. No matter what she did, if Meghan was true to herself she would disappoint her mother. Understanding that Meghan and her mother had different values allowed Meghan to embrace who she was, build confidence, and cultivate positive emotion. Over time, Meghan’s mother came to appreciate her daughter’s newfound confidence.

6. Don’t Go It Alone

Neurotypicals are constantly advising us to work on our weaknesses. Practice makes perfect, try harder, do a little bit every day. Screw that!

Instead, get help! Maybe that means getting copies of the teacher’s notes or hiring a house cleaner or a virtual assistant. It also means asking for help around the house, be it from your spouse, kids, or others. Take some time and figure out the bottleneck in what you want to accomplish and get help to move forward.

Internalized Shame and ADHD: Next Steps

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