Navigating life with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can be difficult to say the least. Unfortunately, many people who experience ADHD are also prone to the shame that often accompanies it. In other words, it is easy for those with ADHD to allow their deficiencies to define them. For instance, instead of viewing a challenge with time management as simply an area for improvement, people with ADHD might view this tendency and all its baggage as a part of their identity.
Thoughts and beliefs such as “I am a hopelessly unproductive, lazy person” are common for people who deal with ADHD. After a while, difficulty managing time is viewed not as a challenge to manage but rather as a character flaw. Perhaps part of the reason for these shame-ridden core beliefs is that ADHD is often viewed as limited by age, while Adult ADHD frequently gets overlooked. As adults, we might tell ourselves to “just get it done” and dismiss the scientific evidence that ADHD brains are wired differently than their neurotypical counterparts (Rosier, 2021). As a result, those with ADHD often end up dealing with the double whammy of ADHD itself and shame, which can diminish their self-worth.
Adults with ADHD might even “motivate” themselves using shame. For example, suppose Allison has painful memories of being habitually late for school growing up. Years later, she might use those memories to shame herself by calling herself a “failure” while getting ready for work every day. She might recall times when people belittled her for her tardiness, leading Allison to now belittle herself when she is running behind schedule. Suppose Allison is then able to get herself to work on time each morning, which then reinforces this method because it seems to work. But at what cost? Sure, she found a way to arrive on time, but she did so by adopting a pattern of self-loathing. In her book Your Brain’s Not Broken, Dr. Tamara Rosier calls this type of motivation a “dirty emotional trick.” Here is another example.
Sometimes we learn the effectiveness of using anger as motivation because other people were angry with us. David told me about how his mother used to scream at him. “She was easily angered by my behavior,” he explained. He had worked with a counselor to realize that as a result, he learned to be motivated when someone was yelling at him. “When no one else was around to yell at me, I learned to yell at myself.” If there was something for him to do at work, he would muster all the anger at himself or others that he could in order to complete the task. “I’m just so tired,” he told me. “But the only way I know how to get myself moving is with anger.” (Rosier, 2021, p. 93).
To be fair, this type of motivation makes a lot of sense. After all, people are doing the best they can with the tools they have. However, unhealthy shame as a motivator often comes at a high cost, as we see in the examples above. Thankfully, there are healthier motivation strategies than these dirty emotional tricks for people with ADHD. Rosier (2021) provides some tips about where to begin.
Start by figuring out your own malicious motivators. What dirty emotional tricks have you used to motivate yourself?
Set an alarm for an hour from now. When it goes off, write down emotional tricks you were using or thinking about as motivators. Repeat. Notice patterns.
Commit to restricting your usage of these patterns. If you are like many with ADHD and find yourself struggling with self-worth, you may want to consider professional resources.
Enlist the help of someone you trust. Ask for feedback when they notice you using one of your emotional tricks (ex: by asking “Are you motivating yourself with anger right now?”)
Learn new tricks to replace the old ones. For people with ADHD, one idea is to use what Rosier (2021) calls the Solve-It Grid, which provides a framework for organizing different categories of activities or tasks. People with ADHD “instinctively classify activities as fun or not fun and how we use high-intensity emotions or low-intensity emotions to accomplish those activities. The Solve-It Grid will help us identify how we are categorizing a particular activity and to take charge of how we respond. After realizing how we think and feel about a task, we can use specific strategies to manage our batteries—our energy and efforts” (Rosier, 2021, p. 110).
Obviously, Dr. Rosier’s work in the area of ADHD contains more information than space on our webpage will allow. However, if this blog has sparked your interest in the topic of ADHD, I would highly encourage you to read her book that has been referenced throughout this post (see reference below).
A daily experience with ADHD and the shame that often stubbornly attaches itself to that experience can be overwhelming. If you are still reading this and it sounds all too familiar, my hope for you is two-fold. First, that you would consider the idea that your struggles do not define you. Perhaps your difficulty completing certain tasks in a timely manner has more to do with how you are wired than with who you are as a person. Second, know that when it comes to feeling stuck in cycles of ADHD-related shame, there is hope. If you decide you want professional counseling to be part of your journey in overcoming this cycle, we at Sequoia Counseling Center would be honored to walk alongside you.
Rosier, T. (2021). Your brain’s not broken: Strategies for navigating your emotions and life with ADHD. Flemming H Revell.
Ryan Woods, LPC - Associate
Supervised by Kristin King, LPC-Supervisor
My goal as a counselor is to help adults, adolescents, and children by providing a space to be heard, process life’s challenges, and develop the necessary skills to thrive mentally, physically, and spiritually. My overall approach to therapy involves cognitive behavioral methods (exploring one’s thoughts and beliefs relative to emotions and behaviors), as well as narrative therapy (engaging personal stories that view people as separate from their problems). I view counseling as a collaborative effort in helping clients to recognize strengths, identify needs, understand conflicts, discover new options, set personal development goals, and make informed choices.