8 Interactions That Trigger Shame in ADHD Partners

ADHD adults often carry a lot of hurt and shame with them.  Learn what these shame triggers are and you can significantly improve your interactions.  A recent conversation with five adults with ADHD and their partners highlights some of the issues.

The idea behind the conversation was to identify triggers that frequently led to feelings of shame for ADHD partners.  Here are a few:

  • Comments that sound like criticism.  Having a partner ask “why did you do that?” is okay when it was thought to be information seeking and a genuine question for clearer understanding, but a real trigger when it comes across as a reprimand.  “Why didn’t you…?” can trigger both shame and resentment.  Or, another way to put this – any comments that are part of ‘the constant critique’ where non-ADHD partners assess or comment upon whether an ADHD partner is doing things the ‘right’ way.
  • Memory issues.   Many people with ADHD know they have poor memory, so things that remind them of this, or question their poor memory, are difficult triggers.  (One ADHD man in the conversation noted that he feels “crestfallen or demoralized” when he forgets something, so to have his partner mention it, or be upset by his memory issues, adds to that.)
  • Impulsivity.  When you’re an adult you, and others around you, expect you to consider what you do before you do it.  ADHD impulsivity can lead to feelings of shame.  One man noted he feels shame about his impulsivity – he chooses to do something that “comes back to bite him in the behind”…and if his partner mentions his failure it makes him particularly angry at himself or her.  He would like to hold himself to a different standard…ADHD symptoms get in the way.
  • Parent/child interactions can cause deep feelings of shame…even if the ADHD partner initiated the interactions by playing a ‘child’ role.  As an example, one woman with ADHD noted her non-ADHD partner was ‘much better a doing things, so I tend to not do them.  He is very capable.’  This is a ‘child’ strategy in parent/child interactions that are still going on in this relationship…but when the non-ADHD husband responds with anger or controlling behaviors, it still triggers shame and hurt.  (More on this later!)
  • Money and earning power.  One man mentioned that being considered a ‘less than’ earner made him feel awful.  He feels he is earning what he can contribute and his wife is no longer the sole bread winner…that her sense that she was ‘supporting’ him were hurtful and demeaning.  People with ADHD do sometimes struggle in their careers, but it’s not just ADHD.  Sometimes, the personality and interests of one partner simply lead to lower-paying jobs (think teachers, artists, musicians etc. etc.)
  • Using ‘facts’ to delineate under-performance.  Non-ADHD partners often think about sharing ‘facts’ about situations as ‘straight-forward’ or (sometimes) helpful.  “You didn’t do the dishes this morning” is, indeed a fact…but it is not news.  ADHD partners hear these facts as another critique of something they did wrong and yet another signal of inadequacy.
  • Not completing tasks.  One man noted that for his entire life people have gotten angry with him for not completing tasks.  This person is a classic ‘starter’ or entrepreneurial type – with great ideas that others wouldn’t dare enact…but gets to about 80% done and then peters out.  Rather than focus on the benefits of being a ‘starter’ he has focused on the negatives of ‘not closing’ or finishing and this generates great shame every time he encounters it.
  • Not staying organized.  Or, as one emergency room doctor put it so eloquently, “if a 4 year old can learn to put his socks in the hamper at the end of the day, why can’t I?”

“Shame trigger points are like raw, exposed nerves.”

One of the most interesting parts of this conversation was just how aware ADHD partners are of their areas of shame - even if they don't share that with non-ADHD partners.  One said “an ADD person is very aware of the raw nerve areas…we try to protect and cover them up…but beat ourselves up when these areas are triggered.”

Think about when the dentist hits an exposed nerve…Think about feeling that way about shame...It’s no wonder that once feelings of shame are triggered ADHD partners hurry to lash out, run away, or hide.  Non-ADHD partners won’t have a very productive conversation with their partner this way, which means that avoiding triggering shame areas is an important strategy. 

What are the triggers of shame and hard feelings in your home?  Use this blog post as a way to start a calm conversation about it because learning what these topics are is an important part of changing your interactions.

Next time – strategies to heal or work around shame.