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Child Development

Shame Spiraling And ADHD: What Is It & How To Combat It

February 2, 2023
Table of Contents

    While the general public understands more about ADHD than they used to, symptoms of ADHD and all of the challenges that come with the disorder are still frequently overlooked or misunderstood. This leads many people with ADHD to face persistent feelings of shame.

    Falling into what's referred to as shame spiraling can lead to low self-esteem and other serious challenges in people with ADHD. Sometimes, it becomes a vicious cycle of negative self-talk that's hard to get out of. However, it is possible to break out of a shame spiral and protect your mental health.

    In this article, we'll define shame spiraling, talk about the link between shame spirals and ADHD, go over common triggers, and review potential warning signs to look out for. Finally, we'll discuss how to stop a shame spiral and whether shame spirals affect kids as well as adults.

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    What Is Shame Spiraling?

    First, let's define shame. Shame is a painful feeling of distress, embarrassment, or humiliation that stems from awareness of one's behavior. All of us feel ashamed sometimes, but when you are in a shame spiral, the sensation goes on and on, acting as a vicious cycle. Shame spirals often start with one thought that makes you feel bad (e.g., "I was late again") and turn into a "spiral" when that thought becomes a continuous reel of negative thoughts. "I'm late again" turns into "I'm always late," "my friends hate me," and so on.

    Shame Spiraling And ADHD

    Failure to meet expectations from others, social mishaps, and daily struggles with ADHD symptoms, like forgetfulness and making mistakes that seem careless to others, may be familiar sources of shame for a person with ADHD. In many cases, these challenges influence the way a person feels about themselves. People with ADHD often struggle with emotional regulation and are more likely to have a diagnosis of both depression and anxiety disorders, which can contribute to maladaptive thoughts.

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    What Triggers Shame Spirals? 

    Knowing your shame triggers gives you the awareness to understand when you need extra self-care. Shame triggers you might notice include but aren't limited to the following:


    Moving, switching schools or changing jobs, and entering new relationships are all examples of uncertainty that may show up in anyone's life. Those with ADHD often rely partially on routines to manage symptoms, and uncertainty can bring up challenges for those with the disorder.


    Rejection-sensitive dysphoria is said to impact 99% of people with ADHD. While it's safe to say most people don't like rejection, rejection-sensitive dysphoria is more intense and is characterized by extreme emotional responses to real or perceived rejection of any kind.


    Often, people with ADHD procrastinate without intending to do so. In many instances, this is brought on by executive dysfunction, which might make it tough to start a new task. We receive many messages in the world about what makes a person successful, organized, or productive. Procrastination can lead not just to overwhelm or anxiety later on, but shame, too.

    Emotional distress

    When you're in a heightened emotional state, it can be more difficult to rationalize thoughts. If feelings of guilt, sadness, anger, or any other strong emotion takes you to a place where it’s tough to rationalize, or if you’re unaware that that’s what’s going on, it can lead to a shame spiral.

    Feelings of failure or disappointment 

    Like with rejection, feelings of failure or the sense that you have disappointed someone else can be magnified with ADHD. Negative comments may stick around in your head and spin when you feel shame.

    Lack of understanding

    Feeling misunderstood by others can be agonizing. Those with ADHD have brain differences that impact how we think, feel, act, and understand the world. Especially when ADHD symptoms affect behavior, functioning, or social interactions in ways that other people don't understand, feeling shame is common.

    Warnings Signs

    Knowing your warning signs can help you identify a shame spiral before it gets out of control. Here are some warning signs you might notice during or when approaching an ADHD shame spiral:

    Fixation on negative feelings

    Do negative thoughts seem to be on "replay" in your head? Are you fixated on past failures or have a sense of repeated failure? These experiences are shared by many of those who experience ADHD shame spirals.


    There is a difference between being aware of your faults and self-loathing. Self-loathing usually involves deep, painful feelings of disgust with oneself, which can activate a shame spiral.


    Sometimes, feeling shame and experiencing negative thoughts about oneself that come alongside can lead a person to isolate themselves from friends and other people in their life. Texts go unread and calls go unanswered, leading to more shame.


    Let's say you feel ashamed because you didn't answer work emails. You may start to avoid your inbox altogether due to guilt and shame, leading feelings of shame to "spiral." If you tend to hide or avoid things out of shame, it is something to take note of.

    Once you notice warning signs of a shame spiral, it's possible to break out. The question is, how do you stop a shame spiral?

    How To Stop A Shame Spiral

    What can you do to stop a shame spiral? When you notice feelings of shame, use self-compassion and try the following tips to help you stop a shame spiral in its tracks.

    Get outside

    One of the best ways to stop a shame spiral is to shift your focus to another activity, such as going outdoors. Getting outside is known to promote feelings of happiness, lower stress, and promote well-being. Even if you need to walk yourself through it step by step, direct yourself outdoors. Taking a walk outdoors is a simple activity, but it's perfect for times like these.

    Spend time with compassionate people

    Who makes you feel best and most like your authentic self? When shame arises, turn to those people. You can talk to them about shame, but you don't have to do that every time - sometimes, it simply helps to be around good people in your life. You may reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or even an ADHD support group.

    Have a consistent routine

    Consistent routines keep you on track. Build a positive daily routine with self-care activities, necessary tasks, and obligations. Make it doable, and don't hesitate to include something that makes your routine easier for you. Many people with ADHD benefit from checklists, calendars, apps, or timers to help them stick to routines, manage time, and so on.

    Routines include steps, which means that you can get back on track even if you veer off. There's no such thing as "too far off track" to get back on when it comes to a helpful daily routine. If you make mistakes, remind yourself that you're always learning and give yourself compassion.


    If you don't have a journal, consider getting one or downloading a journaling app. Writing out your thoughts is an excellent release. It can also help you notice patterns and cognitive distortions in some instances.

    Feel your emotions without judgment

    Distractions can be wildly useful during a shame spiral. That said, it is also beneficial or even necessary to let yourself feel your emotions first. Here is what that might look like in steps:

    1. Acknowledge the feeling. Identify one or more words that describe how you feel (e.g., ashamed, embarrassed). If you can't pinpoint an exact emotion, choose the closest term you can.
    2. Accept and validate the feeling. Accept the feelings that come without judgment and validate that it's okay to have big emotions.
    3. Remind yourself that feelings aren't facts. A lot of other feelings can come with shame, such as feelings of inadequacy. Remind yourself that (as an example) even if you feel inadequate, it does not mean that it's true. You feel this way right now, and that does not mean you'll never feel better. You will have positive feelings, and you will make achievements, both big and small.

    Can It Impact Children?

    ADHD shame spirals most certainly impact children as well as adults. Conversations about mental health are always important, and discussing feelings of shame can be crucial for kids with ADHD. Whether it's something you face yourself or not, you can teach your child how to cope with and work through feelings of shame in a productive fashion using the tips above.

    When you get to a point where you understand that a shame spiral is what you're experiencing, you can start to view it as a call to give yourself what you need, whether that is a soothing activity, redirection, or self-care in various forms. If it's your child who is encountering shame, pass this knowledge to them. 

    One of the most valuable things a child can have in this world is a parent who seeks to understand and support them, so know that you’re doing a great job by learning about this topic. Whether for yourself or your child, consider seeking help in the form of mental health therapy for feelings of shame that are ongoing or otherwise interfere with your or your child's life.

    Seeking Help

    Children, teens, and adults with ADHD and related disorders frequently benefit from working with a therapist. When you talk to a therapist, you can work through feelings of shame and find solutions to address the negative impact they have on your life. A therapist can also help with depression, anxiety, self-esteem, navigating relationships, and other concerns that frequently pair with shame. Remember, mental health professionals are there to help and have seen it all before, so there is no need to hold back. Being authentic is crucial in therapy, and you can move through the process at your own pace. To find a therapist for yourself or your child, search online, contact your health insurance company, or ask a medical provider, such as a pediatrician, for a referral.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.