ADHD and Shame: The Who, What and Why
Shame and ADHD? What do we know and what can be done about it?
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If you had asked me 8 years ago, as I was man-handling my 4 year old how I felt about myself, I would’ve lied and said “I think I’m pretty great.”
The truth is I was holding onto so much shame about who I was that I never told anyone. The reason I couldn’t tell anyone about it, was because as an ADHDer, I thought I was just innately character flawed.
Everyone could get to work on time, except me. I was just a late person I guess. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how many timers I set, no matter. I was just “the late girl.” Even when my friends tried to make light of it, I couldn’t embrace it. It felt rude, and selfish to always be late. On more than one occasion on-time friends of mine would express how they felt I was being inconsiderate. Time-blindness is not a fun symptom of ADHD. In truth I wasn’t thinking only of myself when I was running late, I simply cannot feel time passing at all.
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Most children will behave themselves in public. Not mine. Mine would have no problems throwing himself on the ground, kicking and screaming over something as silly as a pencil I refused to purchase. Or a chocolate milk I wouldn’t buy him. I know the Karens of the world would say: That’s all kids. All kids have tantrums. Yes, Karen most do. But all the time? Every grocery store trip? Every park? At least once every time? Clearly if most kids can manage some simple trips, then it must be me and my parenting.
As an ADHD person, until we are diagnosed, we get shamed for all of our symptoms. Because of what they look like. They look like carelessness, laziness, inconsideration and the like. But they aren’t. And in fact, the shame we are given from our peers and outside influences is the exact thing that sometimes keeps us from searching out a diagnosis.
It’s why when women come to me and tell me their child is struggling in school, cannot sit still, or never seems to be listening; the first thing I bring up is ADHD. I encourage them strongly to talk to their pediatrician or seek a neuropsychologist.
Why? Because the sooner the child can get an answer and possible diagnosis, the less shame they can feel throughout their lifetime.
So Who is really feeling Shame? ADHD Kids and adults who don’t have an answer to why their daily life struggles are so much more than their neurotypical counterparts.
As an adult woman who wasn’t diagnosed until 28 years old, I have to rewrite so much shame off my brain and heart. I have to reiterate to myself that just because someone holds me accountable doesn’t mean they think I’m lazy. That I only need to apologize once for being a few minutes late and not let it ruin the entire experience I am trying to share. That my children’s behavior is sometimes even out of their control, and therefore no amount of yelling, grounding, or punishment in the moment is going to help. I have to wait for their brain to switch from fighting mode to functioning, and even then, I don’t want to make them feel shame because guess what? They already do.
Just before I was diagnosed, I lost my keys.
Not for the first time, not for the last time. But that day, it was roughly the 4th time I had lost them. I started crying. My mom said “Why are you crying?” My dramatic adhd self said “I just want a different brain!” I wasn’t lying, sometimes it’s down right exhausting being this way. I didn’t have the energy or the time to find my keys again that day, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
What do you do with your shame as an ADHD person?
It begins by acknowledging that it’s not a fact but just a feeling. Don’t stuff it down, instead acknowledge it and then rewrite it.
When you are late: “So sorry I am late. I try really hard to be on time.” If the person is your friend, or loved one they likely will understand. If they make a joke like “What?! You’re always late. I’m just used to it.” Say “Yes, I know it’s always been my pattern of behavior but it makes me feel like a bad person. So I’d appreciate it if you could not qualify me as ‘always anything’ anymore. I’m trying hard to change my habits. Shame doesn’t help.”
By acknowledging how you are truly feeling about it to yourself and others, you can treat it as it is. The problem is not you, the problem is the wiring in your brain that doesn’t let you feel time. Acknowledge the shame, but don’t allow it to weigh down your success. And reiterate to yourself that you will eventually be an on time person, because you are making progress.
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When the shame is brought on by others…
My dad loves me, wholeheartedly, but sometimes even the best parents can make someone feel less than about their ADHD faux pas. During my high school days he would point out my grades and say “How come you can get an A in french class, but not in Algebra?”
My teenage answer: “I don’t know.”
His answer: “I think it’s because you only like French, and don’t like algebra.” He was sort of stating a fact, but my brain saw it as something I needed to defend.
“How dare you say that?! Like I’m not trying in both classes! I am trying!” But my grades never reflected that.
The truth is, I loved French. So my good friend Hyperfocus would come around to rescue me in that class and I could think and absorb. Algebra during the second hour? Not so much. Again, I felt ashamed. “Why am I like this?” I thought. “What is wrong with me?” or my favorite “Everyone else can, why can’t I? Am I just stupid?” No, I wasn’t. But as Dr. Barkley explains in this video, ADHD kids and adults have the information they need, their brain just has trouble accessing it.
We know what we need to do, it’s the doing it that we can’t seem to manage without the right meds and treatment.
A better response to my dad at that time, may have been: “You know, I really am trying even though my grades don’t show that. Do you think we can talk to someone about why that is? It feels like I am constantly trying and can’t seem to get where I need to be.”
If I had known about my ADHD then I would’ve said “You make me feel like something is wrong with me when you point out my struggling grades. I am trying, and no amount of shame from you is going to change that D to an A.”
We as ADHD people have to realize: We are NOT our disorder.
We are just people with hardwiring made for things like hard labor, creativity, and extreme pressure. Day to day life doesn’t usually encompass all those things and therefore it’s that much more difficult for us to manage without medication intervention in mainstream schooling and working.
As a female ADHDer, I flew under the radar. I was quiet, I tried to listen, I watched the teacher, I tried not to disrupt class. I wasn’t acting out or being a class clown or drawing attention to myself like so many male ADHDers might do to cope with the shame. I was just internalizing all of it.
In turn, that shame sat inside me and eroded at the core of my self esteem. Depression and anxiety became the coping mechanisms for it, and without my strong moral upbringing I could’ve easily landed in dangerous territory had I sought out things like drugs and alcohol.