ADHD shame spiral

The Dreaded ADHD Shame Spiral

Nick Dennis

Nick Dennis

Web Designer & Consultant

The ADHD shame spiral is a dangerous foe that rears its ugly head from time to time for most people with ADHD. For those of us with ADHD, everything can be going well, when just one or two minor things going wrong in our lives can seemingly spiral us out of control and our lives into anxiety and chaos. From the outside, someone with ADHD can seem to be creating this chaos for themselves. But for those of us living with it, it doesn’t seem to be in our control at all.

What is it?

One of the negative characteristics that many people with ADHD share is shame. At times it can be small and barely noticeable, at other times it can be overwhelming and almost too much to handle. If we let it get out of hand, it can quickly become a downward shame spiral that becomes nearly impossible to pull yourself out of.

But is it any wonder that those with ADHD learn to feel extreme guilt and shame? It’s estimated that by the age of 12, those with ADHD have received 20,000 more negative messages than those without the condition (source). For many with ADHD, they spent their childhood being reprimanded for being late, missing deadlines, not being able to sit still, and basically for being themselves. Many of them develop low self-esteem, and learn to expect failure from themselves. Or as William Dodson puts it:

“For many people with ADHD, shame arises from the repeated failure to meet expectations from parents, teachers, friends, bosses, and the world.”

ADHD brains work differently than “regular” brains, and people with ADHD tend to be really good at some things, and really bad at others. When the external world around you is telling you that it’s not ok to be yourself, it’s easy to feel broken. You are not broken. You just have a different “operating system” than most people, and need to learn how to play to your strengths, while avoiding the pitfalls.

On top of these external factors, many people with ADHD are extremely hard on themselves, internalizing their failures as part of their identity, while discounting the things the make them great. All of this adds up to a negative self-image that’s not really an accurate view of one’s self. Because of this, a few minor problems all at once can turn into a serious period of depression and self-loathing.

Shame Spiral Triggers

Understanding the sorts of things that are likely to contribute to the shame spiral is a great first step to stopping them.

  • Feelings of failure – Nobody likes failing, but those with ADHD are especially susceptible to feeling like a failure just because of “failing” at one small thing. Remember, failure is not an identity trait, it’s something that happened in the past. And past failures do not mean future failures. Additionally, those with ADHD can often feel like failures even when nobody else around them would agree with that at all.
  • Perceived rejection – Similar to failure, rejection can be especially devastating to those with ADHD, even when it’s imagined. Learn more about Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria.
  • Uncertainty – Those with ADHD don’t do well with uncertainty, which makes things like starting a new job, moving to a new city, or starting a new relationship especially dangerous ground.
  • Procrastination – Most people with ADHD have trouble starting or finishing tasks that they find overwhelming or dull. What can start as a little procrastination can quickly turn into a mountain of chores and tasks that feels insurmountable.
  • Emotional distress – Everyone deals with difficult emotions and situations from time to time, but people with ADHD have trouble regulating the intensity of their emotions.

Shame Spiral Warning Signs

The early signs that you are entering the ADHD Shame Spiral are innocuous enough; it may just feel like you are just unmotivated or fatigued. Paying attention to these signs is crucial, because you can start to fight back before it becomes full-on depression or starts to negatively impact your life.

  • Fatigue – Always tired, oversleeping but not feeling rested, brain fog, lethargy
  • Isolating yourself – Making no attempts to be social, general boredom with other people, or sometimes extreme social anxiety
  • Struggle to do simple tasks – Responsibilities and tasks that are normally easy become difficult and exhausting
  • Boredom – Normally enjoyable activities become dull or uninteresting
  • Lack of motivation – Anything that takes mental effort becomes too hard to do
  • Buildup of unfinished tasks – Feelings of anxiety or guilt when you think about your unfinished tasks.
  • Guilt – You begin to feel like a failure, and rather than face the feelings and tasks building up, you continue to withdraw
  • Overthinking – Feelings like fear and self-loathing get stuck in your head, and you’re unable to shake

How to stop the Shame Spiral

So now you understand what causes these shame spirals, and what the warning signs are. How do you fight back when you start to feel one coming on?

  • Spend quality time with people – The best thing you can do is spend quality time with people that bring you joy. That’s not always easy, but cultivating the right people around you is important. I’m an introvert but I’m at my happiest when I spend some time every day around people I care about.
  • Get outside everyday – Even if it’s just a walk around the block to get your blood flowing, a little exercise can change your whole outlook. Things like outdoor yoga or gardening can provide even more benefits, by getting you out into nature or exercising in a social setting.
  • Consistent sleep/nutrition/exercise routine – Self care is crucial for anyone with ADHD, and sticking to a healthy routine is a major part of this. Simple health improvements like more water, less sugar, or daily walks could be the difference between falling into a negative spiral and shrugging it off. 
  • Limited alcohol – For some people with ADHD (myself included), alcohol is a huge trigger and can lead direct to self-hate. Nothing throws off a healthy routine quicker than overdoing it drinking and needing days to recover afterwards. Drinking in moderation can be a huge step in the right direction, but some people with ADHD find that abstaining entirely is easier than trying to rely on their own self-control.
  • Read – Reading anything is great for you, and for people with ADHD it directly trains your “focus muscle.” Specifically reading about ADHD, self-esteem, self-hate, or anything that helps you better understand yourself, is even more beneficial.
  • Learn new skills – Try things you’ve always wanted to try, pick up old hobbies and relearn them. ADHD people need challenges, stimulation, and variety.
  • Write – even if it’s just random thoughts, or a journal you pick once in a while, it’s helpful to get the thoughts out of your head sometimes.
  • Don’t hide from the emotions – Write them down, or talk to a trusted friend who you think can relate. A therapist is even better, that’s what they get paid for.
  • “Life Inertia” – An object in motion stays in motion. An object at rest stays at rest. Nothing kickstarts movement in the right direction like completing a task and feeling good about it. Similarly, it gets harder and harder to start something, or just get off the couch, the longer you’ve put it off. 

Have you ever experienced the ADHD Shame Spiral before? Let me know in the comments what the experience is like for you, and what ways you’ve been able to combat it.


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Nick Dennis

Nick Dennis

Web Designer & Consultant

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