“Shame Spiral Advice from the Counselor with ADHD Who Needs to Take Her Own Advice”

“Positive reinforcement, encouragement, and rewards help us create good habits; shame, criticism, and negative self-talk do not,” I say to a client, terrified that they see right through me and know that I’m actively beating myself up for falling weeks behind on paperwork.

I was diagnosed with ADHD at 24 years old in the middle of earning my masters in clinical mental health counseling. I had always been praised for my intelligence. At the same time, I struggled with not feeling good enough, partly because of my challenges with disorganization, getting things done, forgetfulness, and other executive function areas where I sometimes came up short. I felt like an imposter. Of course, I knew that I was a capable person (and who doesn’t have imperfections?) but knowing and feeling are two very different things.

Even after completing my counselor training, embarking on a self-healing journey, and achieving a greater understanding of ADHD, feelings of shame, self-doubt, and anxiety still come up for me – the same feelings I help my own clients navigate. There are days when Imposter Syndrome crushes me, and when the shame spiral gets the best of me. I’ve gotten better at taking my own advice during those tough times, and it does help. Take it from me: You’ll want to use these strategies, too.

1. Self-Compassion Always Beats Out Self-Criticism

In times of high frustration, dysregulation, and paralysis, you may have found yourself thinking, “Why am I like this? I hate myself!” I know I have when I feel stuck and worthless. The moments when I want to shame and criticize myself are the moments when I need love and self-compassion the most, I’ve learned.

Imagine taking a moment to talk to that part of yourself that’s stuck on the couch scrolling on TikTok for hours because one look at the messy kitchen sent you into freeze mode. How does that part of you feel? What does it need? Maybe some encouragement and validation? Say to yourself, “I see that you’re overwhelmed and feeling a bit stuck. That must be so difficult and stressful. I know that you want to get those dishes done – maybe listening to a good song and singing along will get you moving. Let’s give it a try!

[Read: Silence Your Harshest Critic — Yourself]

2. Be Proud of Yourself When Building Habits — and Prouder Still When You Restart

“This time will be different!” How many times have you said this to yourself after buying a new planner, signing up for the gym, starting a new school semester, and embarking on something new? If you’re anything like me, you’ll know that, inevitably, the newness fades, and so does the dopamine and the habit. You feel like a failure for not being able to stick to new habits.

But what if you just accepted that habit-forming is difficult, and that failing to stick to a habit isn’t the end of the world? I know when I start a new workout kick or cleaning schedule, I try to remember that that momentum will eventually fade, in large part due to how my brain works. This helps me let go of the shame around perceived failure and find a way to start the habit again in a new, engaging way.

3. Ask for Help. Don’t Hide Your Problems.

Shame shuts us down and tells us to keep things hidden. An antidote to shame is to be open about what’s troubling you. Acknowledge to yourself that you’re overwhelmed and exhausted. Talk about it over FaceTime with a friend. Tell a coworker that you’re behind on your work and make a plan to fix it.

When I was chronically behind on notes and documentation at work, the stress followed me home, affected my work with clients, and made me dread the next work day. It stayed that way until I talked to my boss and coworkers about it. I was able to make a plan with my coworker to “body double” every time we both had a free hour. My boss also checked in on me weekly, which helped me make realistic goals to get caught up. Will I still get behind on paperwork from time to time? Yes! But it doesn’t make me feel as overwhelmed and blocked as it once did.

[Read: “The Ta-Da List Is the Antidote to To-Do List Shame”]

4. Needs Are Not Rewards

“I’ll sleep when I’m done.”

“I don’t have time to read or journal when there’s still so much left to do!”

Denying yourself basic physical, emotional, and cognitive needs is not going to help you get things done faster. They are needs and should be treated as such, not as things you are only worthy of if you meet expectations. If I deny myself sleep to complete a task, it’s going to take me longer to complete it because I’ll be sleep deprived. If I don’t take time to journal, I’ll be too dysregulated to attend to what I need to. As a mental health professional, if I don’t take care of my own mental health, I am not in a place to help others. You are always worthy of giving yourself what you need.

5. Find What Works, Not What “Should” Work

“You should take notes in an outline.”

“You should use this planner every day.”

Who says? Have you considered that the things we’ve been taught about productivity and functioning may not be well-suited for our brain type or learning style? If you get work done faster by jumping from project to project instead of focusing on one thing at a time, keep at it! If you can absorb information better by moving your body, do it! No one can claim to know you better than you know yourself.

ADHD Shame Spiral Advice: Next Steps

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