Living Well With ADHD Logo

Shame: What’s the deal, and how do we deal with it?

As ADHDers, we often have patterns of mistakes that haunt us. For some, it’s ghosting someone we want to be talking to. For others, it’s showing up late or missing meetings. Whatever it is, a single incident can catapult us into a spiral of despair and bad behaviors. The culprit? The shame-monster.

The shame-monster is my name for the spiral of embarrassment, guilt, avoidance/defensiveness/aggression that follows a mistake… especially a mistake that is witnessed by others.

There are two things you need to know about the shame-monster. 

  1. The shame-monster is trying to keep you alive.
  2. The shame-monster is very bad at helping you.

Guilt vs. Shame

Guilt is the feeling we get when we believe we have wronged someone or have failed to live up to our own standards. Guilt as an emotion has a function: it leads us to repair damaged relationships.

Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling we get when we are confronted with our weaknesses and we come to the conclusion that we are bad people, defective people, or fundamentally not-good-enough people. Ouch!

So how on earth could such hurtful beliefs keep us alive? 

Shame is emotional pain that is supposed to teach us a lesson. Touch a hot stove, burn your hand – don’t touch a hot stove again. The more an action goes against social norms or is witnessed by others, the more likely it is to bring on shame. To the primal parts of our brain, any action that could get us cast out from our society is a threat to our lives. Let’s face it –  one-on-one, early humans didn’t stand a chance against a mammoth or a lion. Our social group was our key to survival; risking social expulsion was a threat against our very lives.

Shame Is Often Maladaptive

Think about the last time you felt shame. Did it make you want to apologize? To take responsibility for your actions and improve your life? Or did it make you want to deflect blame, avoid the issue (or the people involved), or lash out? People experiencing shame are driven to take action to avoid more shame, but we’re inclined to do it in unhelpful ways like aggression or avoidance.

Much like pain, the best function that shame can perform is to inform us of a problem. Our shame monsters are good at saying, “This isn’t what I want to have done.” However, that’s where their message needs to stop because the solutions proposed by shame monsters are, simply put, bad.

How to Move Away from Shame

Shame-monsters thrive in the shadows. They want us to hide our flaws and avoid conflict or to defend ourselves angrily. And the more we feed them with these behaviors, the stronger they get. So to keep your shame monsters under control, try the CHAT method of dealing with a shameful situation:

  • Compassion: Recognize that your shame monster is trying to help, and try to practice compassion for everyone involved in the situation – including yourself.
  • Honesty: Honestly examine the situation that led to the shame. What were some things you could have done differently? Likewise, what were some things you did well?
  • Action: What’s one step you can take to prevent the situation from happening again?
    • If you struggle to communicate, can you pre-draft an email to inform people that you’re going to need extra time?
    • If you missed an appointment, can you find one step to make yourself more likely to be aware of upcoming commitments?
    • If you lashed out at someone who didn’t deserve it, what’s one way you can practice better emotional regulation?
  • Transparency: Discuss what happened with honesty and sincerity. Apologize for your role in what happened, and explain that you’re taking steps to stop the situation from repeating itself.
    • While it’s up to you whether you disclose your ADHD to people (especially at work), you can still be honest about the fact that you were having a moment of struggle and that this is an issue you want to improve on.

Next time you feel shame, consider using the CHAT method to tackle the source of your shame head-on instead of letting your shame-monster beat up on you. Move forward, and leave that monster in its cave.

Mike Legett

ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach