ADHD Shame – Where Does It Come From?

ADHD Shame - girl with purple hair looking worried as multiple hands point at her.

All About ADHD Shame


Hey friends, today I’m going to get a little vulnerable with you and talk about what some people call ADHD shame.  It is often served with a big ole side order of ADHD Guilt. 


It’s something I still sometimes struggle with, and I’ve been working on releasing it for a long time. If you have ADHD, I’m guessing you have (or have had) some of these feelings in your life.


What is ADHD shame? ADHD guilt? 


ADHD shame and guilt are feelings people with ADHD get when their ADHD symptoms cause them to be unable to do something in a neurotypical way.


I think for me I tend to feel shame when it comes to not doing something for *myself*. I tend to feel guilt if I feel like I’ve let someone else down.


Where does it start?


ADHD shame starts early, often in childhood. It often begins with the child knowing that they are not able to do some things, but unable to explain why. Parents expect us to be able to do certain things and other kids our age are able to do those things.


We often then feel ashamed that we can’t figure out why we are so different.


As we grow older and we realize our perceived shortcomings are impacting other people like our parents, friends, co-workers, or children, the ADHD shame turns into ADHD guilt.


It often feels like the harder we try, the worse it gets. Especially before we have an understanding of our ADHD brains and how they work. 


Then there’s the stigma


When I was a kid, it became obvious at some point to my teachers and parents that I was having trouble seeing. And so without any fuss or stigma, they got me glasses to assist in my ability to see and learn my school lessons. 


But when I lost things, missed assignments, talked too much, spun around too much, or generally had a hard time sitting still – I was labeled defiant, lazy, and oppositional.  When that didn’t work, the school took to blaming my family history of alcoholism as the reason I was suffering. 


Although ADHD was becoming a recognized condition, it had primarily only been studied in hyperactive boys. Boys were expected to “be boys” and a little “rough and tumble.”  Girls were told to “act like a lady.”


Our parents and teachers would (sometimes) unknowingly create that atmosphere of shame. I have many report cards where teachers wrote things like, “doesn’t live up to her potential” and “is disruptive” and “has trouble keeping friends” and most famously “Kat can’t keep her desk organized.”


It was embarrassing.  Mortifying, in fact. I hated that I had a messy desk. I wanted to keep track of assignments I had completed and turn them in. And I definitely wanted to have friends. 


Getting It Wrong


Parents, doctors, teachers, and even therapists suggest systems and rewards and all sorts of things that work for neurotypical kids. As we get older, the expectations get even higher. We become expected to do things that we are just not able to do.


Many times we were misdiagnosed. Even if we were diagnosed, if we didn’t yet understand our diagnosis, we begin to feel deep, deep shame about not being able to meet those expectations.


We feel like maybe we are stupid, or lazy, or somehow helpless. Things like getting to work or school on time, keeping track of appointments, following a task list of things to do, and emotionally regulate become giant sources of stress that often lead to anxiety.


Shame Plus Guilt = Anxiety


For me, the older I got, the more anxious I became. I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and some other ones. But still no one asked me about my ADHD diagnosis (which I did have finally in high school).


As an adult things like balancing my checkbook, keeping track of the kids’ assignments and appointments, and keeping a semi tidy house seemed to elude me. And maintaining any type of routine, schedule or full time paid employment was actually impossible. 


The shame built and then the guilt did too as I missed doctors appointments, or school activities, or didn’t have the tools to help my kids when THEY were diagnosed with ADHD.  It’s a heavy, heavy load to bear.  And we bear it for so long most often we don’t even realize we are living with it. I know I just internalized it.


I was in my 40s when I finally was able to get re-diagnosed, and actually treated. Suffice it to say our mental health system is totally absolutely broken. But since treatment, I’ve been suddenly able to see how much of my issues – and my anxiety – were born from ADHD.  I became so afraid of embarrassing myself or letting others down that I alternately over extended and was a people pleaser at the expense of my own mental health OR retreated from everyone and became an isolated hermit that was afraid to leave the house.


And Then There Was Treatment


Getting treatment has allowed me to use the tools I knew I had, but was unable to access.  And slowly, I am doing so. I’ve made such huge changes in my life I sometimes can’t believe it myself.


I’m learning more every day about who I am and why and how to love me exactly the way that I am.


Shedding 40+ years of shame? It’s a work in progress and doesn’t happen overnight, or alone.


I still have days I feel like I’m a fake, a phony, a lazy bum.  I still sometimes feel like no matter how much I give it won’t be enough. When I understand that one of my ADHD symptoms prevents me from doing something I still feel annoyed and a little embarrassed. 


BUT – I’m working on letting go of that shame, and it’s evil twin guilt.


I’m doing that by learning to give myself love and grace. By reminding the 8 year old Kat, and the 17 year old Kat and the 27 year old Kat the she kicked ass, she did not fail. She wasn’t lazy and defiant. Well, 17 year old Kat was perhaps a touch defiant. 


In addition to forgiving myself, I’m also embracing the superpowers that come with ADHD that are all mine. 


Using those unique parts of me to become my most bad-ass, authentic self possible.


If you have been struggling with ADHD shame, or guilt, please know that you are not alone. And you are enough. Just the way you are. You are not broken.  You are a fully whole and unique person with magic and super power.


If you need help blasting that shame away – there are coaches like me who are happy to help. We can work together to identify your strengths, maximize your goals, and establish your boundaries. 


If coaching is not accessible for you, or you just don’t enjoy that process, there are online groups, and books, podcasts, websites, and more. There are paid and free resources available everywhere. 


Speaking of free resources, come back later in August and I’ll have some tips on things to do to blast away that shame and guilt, embrace your strengths, and thrive with ADHD.


🌻Don’t Delay Joy 🌻

ADHD Affirming Life & Relationship Coach

Kat Sweeney, MCLC

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