Emotions & Shame

You Are Worthy of Self-Compassion: How to Break the Habit of Internalized Criticism

“Self-compassion allows you to be good enough as you are, with your warts, with your foibles, sometimes off-balanced, sometimes more reactive than you’d like, sometimes disorganized, but fundamentally perfectly imperfect as a human being, just like everyone else.”

self-compassion concept: woman sitting on a bench looking at the horizon

As you move through life with ADHD, criticism — from others and yourself — accumulates and is internalized into beliefs about your self-worth. Many adolescents and adults end up feeling less-than or unworthy compared to neurotypical peers who look like they don’t struggle or make as many mistakes. It can be the recipe for a real mental-health crisis.

The secret to eradicating negative thought patterns and harsh self-judgments is simple but not easy: it’s self-compassion. Start by asking: What do you wish for yourself? What facet or result of self-acceptance or forgiveness would you most like to see for yourself? Maybe it’s forgiving those moments where you forgot an appointment or learning how to laugh at the times you said the ‘wrong’ thing in social situations. Being human means making mistakes – regardless of your neurodivergence.

What is Self-Compassion?

Dr. Kristin Neff says that self-compassion is treating yourself with care and understanding instead of harsh judgment. Compassion considers a common humanity; you are part of a larger whole. All suffering is not the same, but all humans experience pain and suffering in some way that’s worthy of empathy.

Neff explains that compassion requires mindfulness — that is, the ability to sit with things as they are and not deny or minimize them. Self-compassion means asking yourself, “What can I do to help?” instead of, “What’s wrong with me?” It allows you to stop fighting with yourself and start embracing yourself instead.

How to Practice Self-Compassion with ADHD

If you’re unsure how to pivot from negative thought patterns to compassionate ones, follow these steps.

[Get This Free Download: Make Mindfulness Work for You]

Self-Compassion Step #1: Normalize

Self-compassion begins by normalizing your experiences and recognizing that you’re not alone. Maybe you’re part of a community of people who have ADHD, or a religious or professional community. Everyone is wired uniquely. What does ‘normal’ even mean? We all struggle with demons, judgments, and doubts.

Remember that people are supposed to get things wrong, to learn, to pivot, and keep growing. This is what a growth mindset is all about: you focus on the lessons not just the outcome.

Self-Compassion Step #2: Understand the What and How

Ask yourself what has happened in your life that’s led you to this place of negative thinking or low self-worth. What are your strong feelings communicating to you? When you react to a situation with anxiety or anger, consider the insecurities and fears that might actually be the source of those emotions. Pause and ask yourself what you could do differently. Could you ask for support from someone else?

Observe what’s happening and be curious about it rather than condemning. Say, “Okay, this is what’s going on,” instead of, “Ugh, why am I like this?”

[Read: “Your Thoughts Don’t Always Tell The Truth.”]

Self-Compassion Step #3: Identify “Stinking Thinking”

You are not your negative thoughts, but you are the one who can choose to believe them. When you experience “stinking thinking,” try to picture yourself at age 10. What do you look like? What would you most like to say to your 10-year-old self? Let’s say that your 10-year-old falls and skins their knee. How would you comfort that 10-year-old inside of you?

When you’re mean to yourself, you’re actually punishing that 10-year-old with a skinned knee. You’re not offering a Band-Aid, not offering a hug, nor some soap and water to clean it up. You’re pouring vinegar on that wound. Is that what you want to do for yourself?

Looking sideways at what other people are doing — giving in to “compare and despair” — will bring you neither contentment nor self-esteem. It will, however, take you nowhere worthwhile. Focus instead on where you’ve come from, what you do that works and where you want to go.

Self-Compassion Step #4: Give Shame a Name

“Stinking thinking” and “compare and despair” often lead to excessive self-criticism and unrealistic expectations. When you make a mistake or face disappointment, you may find yourself sliding down a shame spiral to a waste dump of self-loathing. You blame and criticize yourself in ways that you’ve internalized since childhood — repeating the criticisms you received from a parent, from a teacher, from peers. Could you take your shame and give it a name? Imagine what it looks like – is it a cartoon character? Or the face of someone from your past who was cruel? Or maybe it’s just a color. When you name your shame and learn how to talk back to negative thinking, it will be easier to accept yourself.

Combatting shame is tough, especially after a lifetime of hearing or feeling that you’re not good enough or what you do is wrong, thoughtless or lazy. But when you blame and criticize yourself, you worsen the shame. What we want to do is to externalize the shame — make it something that has its own name and that you can talk back to.

“I don’t deserve good things,” is a thought that plagues the ADHD brain, especially for women. It’s a manifestation of the belief that you’re not good enough: perhaps you look tired, you don’t have much energy, you have a grating voice. These negative statements are not who you are; they’re beliefs and old coping mechanisms that developed in response to how you have been treated. When shame and doubt rise to the surface, tell yourself, “That’s unhelpful language I used to listen to in order to adapt to whatever problematic, challenging or dysfunctional situation I was in.”

We do have another voice, another part of ourselves that’s stronger and louder than shame. It comes from the parts of ourselves we really like. What are you proud of? Maybe you’re a loyal friend, or a talented artist, or dedicated parent. Write down several of the qualities you admire about yourself and leave them on Post-It notes around the house. We want to increase the volume of this voice while turning down the more critical, negative one.

Self-compassion allows you to be good enough as you are — with your warts and your foibles. Sometimes you may be off-balanced, sometimes more reactive than you’d like, sometimes disorganized, but, fundamentally, you are perfectly imperfect as a human being, just like everyone else.

Self-Compassion with ADHD: Next Steps

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