Do you feel perpetually unworthy? Defective? Sorry? Shame haunts many adults with ADHD who feel held down by a lifetime of self-blame. Learn about where it comes from, why it’s harmful, and how to improve your emotional health.
Living with ADHD can feel like a constant stream of apologies: we’re sorry we’re late, sorry we lost our keys, sorry we can’t keep the house neat — no matter how hard we try. If you have ADHD — especially if you were diagnosed late in your life — these endless apologies and self-blame may have added up to a crippling sense of shame. If you won’t even look in your purse anymore because you’re tortured by how disorganized it is, you may have a problem controlling your shame.
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What Is Shame?
Shame is characterized by a constant sense of inadequacy and agonizing feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. You may even feel like you’re developing a secret life — you’re so ashamed of who you are or what you've done that you're certain you'll never pass for “normal.” Shame is arguably the most painful of all the symptoms associated with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). We carry it like a heavy anvil around our neck, telling ourselves, “I’m bad. I’m stupid. I’m just a loser.”
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Consequences of Shame
Shame can lead to mood disorders, crippling anxiety, and in some cases, self-medication with drugs or alcohol — all of which can make it more difficult to solve problems and get out of the negative cycle. Shame can make you defensive, which can come across as anger — if you lash out at the people closest to you, you may push them away just when you need them most.
Unfortunately, pockets of society still view ADHD as a moral deficiency, and individuals with ADHD as nothing more than lazy slackers. If you’ve heard the judgmental whispers all your life, it’s likely you’ve internalized them. When you look at your chaotic purse, you think, “My problem is that I lack discipline.” When you’re late to yet another meeting, you turn on yourself: “I’m a mess. I’m lazy. I’ll never get ahead.”
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Getting Started: Break the Moral Diagnosis
In order to fully conquer shame, you simply can’t view it through this moral framework. Instead, start looking at your ADHD from a neurological perspective. ADHD is supported by real science — like MRIs and genetic studies — so don’t view it as a personal fault. Acknowledge that yes, the condition exists, but it doesn't have to be a weakness; it’s simply a matter of brain chemistry. It’s your challenge to overcome, and it’s up to you to decide how to face it.
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Adopt a Strength-Based Approach
Embrace the positives that go with your ADHD, not just the negatives. Whenever you feel shame raise its ugly head, take a second to take stock of your talents and strengths. ADHD is characterized by creativity, initiative, persistence, originality, and more. Learn to recognize these traits in yourself, even at moments when it seems impossible. If you do the work to draw them out and strengthen them, you’ll better defend yourself against feelings of shame.
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People who are buried by shame sometimes let others walk all over them. You may be afraid to disagree with your boss, for example, out of fear that you’ll blurt out something stupid. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy — if you don’t expect respect, people are unlikely to give it. When you learn to recognize your own strengths, instead of being held back by shame, you can set healthy limits to how people can treat you.
Don’t be afraid to enlist help, whether it’s from a therapist, a friend, or your spouse. Having people on your team who "get it" and are looking out for you can work wonders. To find a coach or a therapist, begin by looking in the ADDitude directory. Don’t let your location hold you back! Many therapists conduct Skype or phone sessions, and online support groups can give you a sense of community wherever you go.
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Come Up with Anti-Shame Systems
Tackle your shame head on, directly targeting the issues that cause it. For example, if you feel ashamed because you're always losing your car keys, come up with a specific system to keep track of them. Try taking a small basket and putting it on a table by the front door, and train yourself to put your car keys in the basket every day when you come in. As your track record slowly improves, your shame will turn into pride and higher self-esteem.
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Don’t Make Excuses
You can’t say to the IRS, “Look, I have ADHD, so I didn't remember to pay my taxes.” Don’t become so consumed by your shame that you excuse yourself from inappropriate behaviors. Instead, acknowledge your ADHD as an underlying cause, and do the necessary work to overcome it, even when it’s challenging.
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Don’t Give Up!
People with ADHD are unbelievably tenacious. They keep trying, even when it’s hard — it’s part of what makes them special. Once you identify your positive traits, build your support system, and find out where you thrive, you can work towards putting your shame behind you.