Why people with ADHD struggle with feelings of shame and how they can overcome them.
by William Dodson, M.D.
Shame Is Not Guilt
Shame is one of the oldest known English words that originally meant to “hide or cover up.” As such, shame is the hardest thing to deal with since it tends to be hidden and never addressed. Feeling shame is different than feeling guilt. Guilt focuses on what one has done. Shame focuses on who one is.
Feeling Separate and Unequal
For ADHDers, shame arises from the repeated failure to meet expectations from parents, teachers, friends, bosses, and the world. It is estimated that those with ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages by age 12 than those without the condition. They view themselves as fundamentally different and flawed. They are not like other people.
Feeling Bad About Oneself
It is especially painful when well-meaning people in an ADHD person’s life point out that he has failed or fallen short. ADHDers are accused, directly or through implication, of being lazy or willfully disobedient—as if they set out to fail. It’s hard not to feel bad about yourself. In fact, one expert believes that “low self-esteem” should be one of the criteria for diagnosing ADHD in adults.
Anger for Those Who Criticize
Those with ADHD who feel shame withdraw into themselves—or hide behind a rage at the perceived source of the negativity. This may explain why people with ADHD fear letting others get to know them intimately or to see how they live. The ADDer harbors two horrible secrets: Their future is uncontrolled and uncontrollable and life can inflict wounding shame just as easily as it engenders success.
Problems with Trying to Be Perfect
Shame causes many ADHDers to try to be perfect. A person thinks: “If I look and do everything perfectly, I can avoid shame.” An ADHDer who holds this belief is constantly evaluating everyone in their lives—friends, family, children—to see what they approve of and value, and gives it back to them. The person with ADHD forgets what he genuinely wants from his own life.
Just Giving Up
Many ADHDers who feel shame stop trying to do things—at work and at home—unless they are assured in advance of quick, complete, and easy success. They do not have the ability to sustain effort for long if they are not succeeding completely. This is often misinterpreted as laziness, leading the person to feel more shame and more misunderstood. This is one reason video games are so popular. If you fail, only you know. You reboot and move on, as if nothing happened.
Shying Away from Help
Shame gets in the way of ADHD adults and kids asking for help. For many people with ADHD, telling a doctor about their failures and asking to receive medication to help them succeed is unthinkable. They have tried everything, and it hasn’t worked. Many children would rather flunk than ask the teacher for help. This is why many parents feel blindsided when they discover how badly their child is doing in school. Their child didn’t tell them because it was so shameful to admit it.
Many with ADHD equate blaming someone else for their failures with fixing the problem that caused them to feel shame. Once they have found someone to blame, they wash their hands of responsibility and accountability for correcting the mistake. The goal of breaking the cycle of shame is to adopt financier George Soros’ view: “There is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes.”
Laugh the Shame Away
For the ADHDer, humor is one of the best weapons against shame. Laughing at a situation that has gone wrong or a mistake you have made brings more self-acceptance and softens the often-harsh attitudes he developed about himself in childhood. Humor takes away shame’s power over us.
Accept Yourself—Warts and All
Although people who feel ashamed are intensely focused on how the outside world sees them, the first step in combatting it is self-acceptance. Unless a person with ADHD is able to accept and value herself, even though she is not perfect, she can’t really believe that others can love her just as she is.
Find a Cheerleader
Having someone—a friend, neighbor, coach, or grandparent—who accepts and loves a child or adult with ADHD, despite his faults and shortcomings, is vital in overcoming shame. This is the opposite of perfectionism, in which approval is contingent on what the person has done lately. The accepting person acts as a vessel that holds the memory of you as a good and valuable person, even when things go wrong.
Strength in Numbers
An ADHD support group can be a welcome island in an ADHDer’s world. Finally, the person is understood. The other people in the group have been in his shoes and know the shame of failure and being different. The group sees the person as he is and corrects the distortions that result from hiding in an inner world of shame. What’s more, self-help groups set ADHD-specific goals that are more realistic and loving.
Uncover the Truth
A doctor and therapist need to be vigilant for signs of shame because most ADHDers hide it from the world. It is key to proper diagnosis and successful therapy that therapist and patient are aware of the emotional intensity that is part of the patient’s life. A lot of patients attempt to hide this emotional component, fearful of being wounded further if the truth were known.
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Read Why ADHDers Act the Way We Do: Understanding ADHD Behavior.
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