Stepping into the shame zone with ADHD

Posted by on Aug 8, 2017 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Stepping into the shame zone with ADHD

“I don’t fit in.”

It is a common experience for people with ADHD to feel misunderstood, like something unexplainable is wrong with them. And the feeling that goes with that – which is often barely recognized – is shame.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. What a mouthful! Over the last ten years, our understanding of ADHD has changed quite a bit, and if it were to be named today, it might not even be called a deficit or a disorder. It used to be considered a childhood problem, but now it is acknowledged that it affects adults. Like shame, ADHD has many faces, but they all seem to stem from one constant – an impairment of executive functioning. Executive functioning is the ability to track and manage sensory and mental input, making moment by moment decisions. It relies on short term memory– you can think of executive functioning as the air traffic controller of the mind. When executive functioning is impaired, the person has trouble getting things done, that “normal” people seem to accomplish without great effort. Shame can arise from feeling “I should be able to do this”. The person feels something is wrong with them. They feel different from others and often frustrated with themself. Not knowing how to address the problem can also lead to a feeling of powerlessness.

What is shame? At its core, shame is the sense that something is fundamentally wrong with me (contrasted with the belief that I have problems to work on but that I am fundamentally okay). Shame is an emotion that blends with other emotions, such as sadness and anger, and almost any behavior. Shame is a real chameleon – and to complicate the picture, not all shame is bad. But the shame we are talking about here is painful and debilitating.

Factors that may further complicate the picture (keeping in mind that ADHD is both under and over diagnosed, and that many people feel “everyone has ADHD”):

  • The ADHD person may not be diagnosed. Without a diagnosis it is difficult to address the practical and relational issues. Remember, in a shame state, the person thinks it’s their fundamental identity that’s flawed, not what they do.
  • The ADHD person may be diagnosed, but may feel stigmatized, or may feel that it is an “excuse” diagnosis. This indicates that in the past they have not gotten proper treatment, and support. This can happen when people are medicated as children but haven’t received therapy, coaching or social support to deal with the negative self image that can result from ADHD.
  • ADHD often co-occurs with other conditions, such as trauma, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, learning differences and sensory processing disorders.

All of the above can lead to feeling – and being – misunderstood.

While hyperactivity is part of the name of ADHD, there is also an inattentive type. Because they tend not to attract attention to themselves, people with the inattentive type often do not get help. In school these students are often told that they do not perform up to their abilities. (Noticing that others are disappointed in you leads to shame). Both types hate being bored, and you could interpret both the daydreaming and the hyperactivity as an avoidance of boredom. People with the inattentive type may be shamed by labels such as “bad at following instructions”, unmotivated, disrespectful, or even rebellious.

People with ADHD receive repeated negative messages about their ability or willingness to perform according to expectations, as Dr. William Dodson explains. This usually starts in school and often continues into the workplace. Many people with ADHD have difficulty holding on to a job, and/or job dissatisfaction. This, despite the fact that many of them are hard working, and enthusiastic – some of the most inventive and intelligent people you meet. Difficulties at school or the workplace can be the source of a great deal of shame.

ADHD is an invisible disability with social implications. Most people with ADHD have been told many times that they should just try harder, without any recognition of how hard they are already trying. What appears to others as problematic behaviors, such as ” being disorganized”, frequently late, not listening, etc, may be perceived internally by the person with ADHD as just more reasons why they really are fundamentally flawed. The person with ADHD may be upset with themselves over their inability to “keep it together”. The process of explaining this difficulty to someone, a boss or even an acquaintance, who sees “disorganization” as an excuse for laziness or incompetence could easily be a shaming experience..

What to do about it. Find your tribe, get some therapy and or coaching

ADHD is not a lifelong sentence to disappointment! It is a very treatable condition, and can be the source of great joy.

Personality traits that often go with ADHD are enthusiasm, creativity and resilience.   People with ADHD are often very hard workers. A strength based approach is like a breath of fresh air to a person who’s been shamed.

In therapy, we work on counter-shaming, going back to the root experiences that somehow got turned into a negative self image. Building on strengths and coming up with strategies to deal with communication problems, organization.


We are so fortunate today to have a plenitude of resources for dealing with ADHD. Here are a few:

Magazine Additude magazine
Podcast ADHD Rewired with Eric Tivers
Website Totally ADD
Youtube How To ADHD


The Disorganized Mind, by Nancy Ratey

You Mean I’m not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy?, by Kate Kelly and Peggy Ramund0

Organization CHADD (Children and Adults with ADD)