Motivational and inspirational writer, Bryan Hutchinson is the author of several books about life with ADHD including the highly acclaimed, best selling "One Boy′s Struggle: A Memoir" and the author of the hilarious eBook that went viral "10 Things I Hate about ADHD"

The Shame Factor and ADHD

The first rule of shame is not to talk about shame. I think a lot of us believe this unspoken rule. We may also believe that shame is weak, shame is admitting to being lesser than others and shame isn’t acceptable. Shame is something to be kept hidden in the dark. I think shame relates well to ADHD, because a common approach to shame is to state to someone ‘to pull it together’ or ‘quit feeling sorry for yourself’, and those of you familiar with ADHD know full well that neither of those two statements are effective, much less realistic.

I speak from experience here, so please take what I am about to write from someone who’s been there and done that, nothing more. Please read this with caution, or if you are highly susceptible to triggers, please consider if this is the right time to read about this topic.

The interesting thing is that shame is extremely powerful and I believe has consequences far beyond those of ADHD, but life with ADHD, especially undiagnosed ADHD can bring about feelings of shame, partly because shame can be self-punishing. Normal people may feel guilty for their actions that may have been wrong, but people with ADHD may tend to feel shame because they can’t simply correct their actions once they feel guilty about them. Make sense? In other words normal people can typically correct their actions via willpower or some external motivator and then maintain, but people with ADHD have difficulty correcting their actions via willpower alone, much less maintaining said corrections if they do somehow initially compel themselves, or are compelled.

So, not only do many of us who have grown up with undiagnosed or, even diagnosed ADHD feel guilty, but we may also feel, deep inside, that we are flawed and this can lead to shame. From this perspective, you can probably see, or have experienced, the snow ball effect symptoms of ADHD can have on our feelings of self-worth.
Growing up with undiagnosed ADD I felt like an unworthy son to my parents, I also felt unworthy as a student and, I felt unworthy as a brother and a friend. I felt as if I were a ‘bad’ person. If you recall in my book One Boy’s Struggle: A Memoir, I wrote a personal letter to my childhood friend, he passed away just as I was ending the book. He once told me I was his best friend and I failed to tell him the same thing. He was my best friend and because I felt unworthy and ashamed of myself as a person, I didn’t believe his words. I didn’t believe I could have a best friend, internally I believed I wasn’t acceptable. That’s the power of shame. It’s the saddest thing I have ever written about because it is the saddest experience I have ever had. I’ll never live it down, ever, but at the very least, I know now why.

The same type of shame that I experienced with my best friend is the same type of shame I experienced later trying to hold together romantic relationships. No real romantic relationship can last through such shame in my opinion, love is powerful, but it too has its limits. Shame made me believe that I could not maintain a relationship, that I wasn’t worthy of true love and that eventually the person I was with would find someone else. And that’s typically what happened. You can call it a self-fulfilling prophecy and I agree, but when you don’t know that the underlying factors to one’s self-made doom is undiagnosed ADD, along with a deep sense of shame, guilt, anger and resentment, what’s there to do? Eventually the answer was to seek help.

It was in therapy that I discovered I was living a life controlled by my inner feelings of unworthiness and shame. Growing up I had been severely punished in different ways for my ADD behaviors, some were physical, some were psychological and others, perhaps most, actually, were self inflicted. See, I still hold onto a bit of self-blame, even though I know it wasn’t my fault, it was no one’s fault. It’s natural to feel this way, I have been told. But although I still feel this way a little, I don’t allow it to control me or to drag me into turmoil and confusion again. After all, I see things overall so differently now and it is the way I see myself today that allows me to flourish with ADHD (ADD in my case) and my life experiences. Shame blinded me to my natural gifts, or seeing anything positive about myself at all. Life of shame is a miserable existence, but it can be defined, lessened and eventually conquered.  

Shame can only be overcome when we understand why we feel it, why it is there and how it got there in the first place. Shame leads us to be angry at ourselves and others; it controls what we say and what we do. Shame can be all consuming and yet so many of us might not even realize that it is shame in control. It was in therapy where I talked out my experiences and explained why I thought the way I did, what I believed about myself and life in general. It’s amazing the things we can convince ourselves of and then how those beliefs can direct our lives. I was incredibly astonished at some of the things my therapist drew out of me.

Most importantly, I was open to therapy because inside I knew I could not go on the way I was. Therapy seemed to be my last chance. I was conflicted inside; to the point I was living a double life. Part of me became a facade that I displayed to others and the other part was how I truly felt inside. The thing I didn’t realize though is that those feelings of shame came through in so many of my daily actions.

If you can relate to any of this, please know that shame can be overcome, it really can be. Shame does not have to continue in anyone’s life unchecked. The first step, I believe, is to open one’s self up to help, either via one on one therapy or a support group. Many support groups, such as for ADHD, PTSD or Depression are open to discussing issues dealing with shame, because, believe it or not, feelings of shame are not uncommon. Know that you are not alone.

We may feel alone and we may feel ashamed, but life has so much to offer that it is so worth it to seek help. Please, know that shame is something so many of us suffer from and it isn’t because you are, or anyone else is ‘wrong’ as a person, we are not ‘bad’ people. Shame is a natural phenomenon, especially for those of us who have grown up with undiagnosed disorders, particularly in the LD category or lived through some sort of turmoil. Feeling shame is nothing to feel ashamed about, believe me. You may be surprised how many people live their lives trying to naturally counter feelings of shame and yet, with help, those feelings cannot only be clarified, but also overcome to a point they no longer control us. That’s what I believe, that’s my experience.

Here are a few things that have helped me overcome shame, they all took work and time with professional therapy:

  • Realizing I am not inherently a bad person. My behavior and repercussions of living with undiagnosed ADD for so long made me believe I was.
  • Learning and understanding what fault truly means. Realizing my inexplicable behavior due to undiagnosed ADD was not my fault, it wasn’t anyone’s fault. I was used to blaming myself for so many things. In therapy I learned how to accept responsibility in a healthy manner, and remove the unhealthy self-shaming blame.
  • Recounting my memories, especially the most painful, and discussing them openly with my therapist. This part was probably the most difficult. He would ask what I thought of those memories and what I believed about myself in view of those memories. This is where much of the work was done; it’s still a work in progress. I recommend a highly trained therapist that one feels comfortable talking with. Some beliefs are rooted so deep that they need time and wise counsel to be understood and reframed. I was amazed at how vague some memories were, but they still held powerful sway over me. Many memories confused me and over the years I had come up with different explanations subconsciously, but I had never truly evaluated them until therapy.
  • Distancing myself from those who unwittingly enabled my shame. This is a confusing part, but one of the things I learned about myself is that I attracted people that were either like minded or used my shame to their benefit, to feel better about themselves. That’s a wide-open statement, but let me just say I had to examine the people I surrounded myself with and discover who was enabling my feelings of shame, blame and guilt. That’s not to say anyone did that on purpose, but I had to move on in order to get away from those who had certain expectations in my behavior and attitude. Change is difficult not only for the person trying to change, but those closest to us. It’s a complicated phenomenon, but some of us who have suffered mistreatment in one form or another, we may tend to be drawn to people, or they are drawn to us, that are similar in nature who may also mistreat us. That’s been my experience and it is worth considering. Bullies also have a tendency to seek out those who are battling shame, they might not understand what you are going through, but they are drawn to those who are susceptible and not quite open to defending themselves. Bullies are much easier to recognize because there are tell-tale signs, they deliberately belittle us with name calling and sarcasm, tell us our changes are silly and basically build upon our feelings of shame in any way they think they can. Ultimately, they want us to be more like them, or remain in their circle so they can dominate. The problem with bullies is that they impose themselves and are not as easy to get away from. Again, help may be necessary here for some.
  • Changing negative views to healthier, positive views. One of the things I believed above anything else was that I was cursed, flawed. My inexplicable, confusing and ultimately, seemingly flawed behavior led me to believe I was cursed, I believed this with every fiber of my being. I also defined certain parts of myself as cursed. The thing I learned is that all parts of me make the whole me and cursing any part was ultimately cursing the whole. I can separate parts of myself with labels all day long, that’s easy, but cursing any one of those labels ultimately led back to home. This was extremely damaging and overcoming this was a serious challenge, but by the time I got this far, thanks to realizing I wasn’t a bad person, I didn’t need to continue blaming myself, and understanding myself enough to have self-acceptance I was well able to leave the detrimental cursing behind. It was unnecessary and unhelpful, contaminating anything I touched and those around me as well. This view did so much damage to me and others. When I eventually stopped cursing things, anything, the world opened up before me, and let me tell you, I didn’t realize how dark the world had become prior to opening up and finally, finally holding the sun in my hand. In the darkness anger and resentment rule and enables shame to grow. Therapy brought me out of the darkness and I am so very thankful for such a gift as a second chance.
  • I found good role models, mentors and generally people with positive, healthy mental attitudes to surround myself with. This is so very important. Feelings, beliefs and even our thoughts can be contagious and by being around people that see life as a gift, as some kind of wonderful, filled with opportunities, those things rubbed off on me. One way I did this was by joining a pool league. I had been a solo player for a long, long time, but joining the league surrounded me with people that wanted to win and wanted their teammates to win too, this camaraderie helped my mental attitude and feelings of worth. Playing solo pitted me against everyone. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy good competition, but it’s so much more pleasing with a group of individuals who build you up to be your best as well, and I likewise tried to do the same for them. That’s why I love our ADDer World Social Network so much.

These are my experiences and I share them as life lessons, please only take them that way. If you believe shame is a part of your life and you want to work on it, by all means, please do seek the proper help. The world is challenging enough without shame overshadowing it, but once we understand and deal with our inner thoughts and beliefs that lead to shame, the world opens up and I believe, whole heartedly, that you will hold the sun in your hands too. Life is so worth it, this world is filled with beauty and precious gifts to explore and cherish. Being open to see them is the key, shame can block out the sunlight that we need in order to see. There is always hope for a better future, beyond shame.   

Wishing you the very best,

(This post was inspired from a recent interview question about my book One Boy’s Struggle: A Memoir, thank you J…)