Trying to avoid feelings of shame is only human, but when it comes to adult ADHD, gentle engagement with raw areas can lead to significant gains. But how to do that, when shame feels so bad? These ideas, provided by adults with ADHD, can help both ADHD partners and non-ADHD partners.
The 8 Shame Busters
Assume good will. One ADHD partner noted that he “never assumes malice. I know that my partner does whatever she can to help. And everybody needs to do whatever they can to get better every day.” This fits in with my theory that observably working on the issues associated with ADHD symptoms creates a reservoir of good will in a non-ADHD partner. That partner cannot ask you to do more than try in the best and smartest way you can. Non-ADHD and "other ADHD" partners do well to approach areas that trigger shame responses carefully, making sure not to parent or try to control the ADHD partner. Sharing ideas that sound like criticism or education to affect change in ADHD partners does not help and, in fact, hurt.
Change the narrative. One ADHD partner beats himself up because he finishes about 80% of any project. His partner notes that his amazing ideas and willingness to initiate are what make him so successful. Ned Hallowell notes that there are ‘starters’ and ‘closers’ and often they are not the same people. Trying not to be perfect (in this case both a starter and a closer) is a really good thing. Sometimes journaling about the positive can help remove some of the negative thinking. In this case, focusing on the amazing ideas and accomplishments is more productive than focusing on not being a closer.
Accept. Along that same theme – allowing that you have physiological issues and they ‘just are’ helps a lot. It frees you to stop feeling so much shame, and start working on the issues in whatever way best suits you (in the memory example earlier, for example, accepting that memory issues are a way of life for you – helps you relax and allows you to focus on good things. With a math learning disability I know I’ll never be good at math so I tend to avoid it…but I know I’m a good writer so it doesn’t bother me. Same can happen with aspects of your ADHD.
Get out of parent/child. This remains a poisonous interaction. Couples that are still in it need to ‘reset’ to a non-parent/child relationship. The start to doing this is for non-ADHD partners to internalize this concept “I AM NOT AT ALL IN CONTROL OF MY PARTNER’S ACTIONS OR INTENTIONS AND I NEVER WILL BE. AND ANY TIME I TRY TO BE, I WILL END UP IN A WORSE PLACE WITH MY PARTNER.” This is a critically important concept. Parent/child interactions almost always trigger either shame or anger, or both.
Avoid… Non-ADHD partners should learn where their partner’s pain points are, and simply avoid them. No good comes from hitting a raw nerve, and if there are specific critical phrases you use that are common triggers, make it your responsibility to stop using them. (This is the same concept as avoiding ‘he said/she said’ fights…no good comes out of having them. Ever.)
Don’t Avoid. ADHD partners should stop retreating from the pain points, and acknowledge and accept them, gently learning to live with these areas…the goal would be to both set up support structures to help you get around the area of shame AND to learn to tell yourself ‘I feel this shame/pain now, but if I don’t engage with it, it will dissipate soon enough.”
Get support if it helps. As one partner said, hearing other people’s views and issues is helpful. Reach out to others (including therapists trained in ADHD or in support groups) about shame areas.
Learn to express feelings constructively, so you hold back less. In my Recovering Intimacy in Your Relationship self-study course I help couples (and particularly ADHD partners) learn to better identify and then express their own feelings in a way that their partner can understand and hear. This is an important part of being able to deal with your pain and shame – identifying the feelings that lie together with that shame when it is triggered and, once your relationship is calm enough, be able to express and address them.
Think patterns, not individual events. Many non-ADHD partners make the mistake of focusing on individual events or lapses. But think about it. Would you want your partner to comment or get upset every single time you made a mistake? Instead of focusing on individual events, non-ADHD partners should hold back and see if a pattern develops. If it does, then talk about the pattern at a time when the relationship is relatively calm (i.e. not in the middle of a fight.) This is the scenario that is least likely to trigger shame while also most likely to result in meaningful improvement.
A real life example for ADHD partners
Let’s say you feel shame at memory issues. When you forget something (yet again!) you feel shame and beat yourself up about how you should have done better. But if you have mindful awareness of that shame, instead, you can:
- Notice your bad feelings
- Tell yourself that they will disperse if you don’t engage with them
- Create a specific plan or structure to deal (over the long term) with the area creating the shame
Here’s what that plan in step 3 might look like:
- Learn to accept that the memory issues are physiological, not some sort of shortcoming in learning on your (the ADHD partner’s) part, and that memory issues will remain. An ADHD partner might gain this acceptance by journaling, mindfulness training, or working with a therapist about the impact of shame in his or her life.
- Create a memory structure for yourself – a great calendaring system that you use to stay on task; using workflowy or some other app on your phone to catch fleeting thoughts before they disappear; creating an alarm system to bring important things into the now. Make sure meds you are taking allow enough focus to capture ideas as they happen (if you don’t focus on a conversation at the time, then you have more trouble capturing and remembering it.)
- When you experience an emotional pain point, accept that it is there – acknowledge “that’s painful…but if I don’t engage any further with this pain I know it will go away again”
- CELEBRATE that you have come to terms with this issue and that you have created ways to deal with it.
You Can Diminish Shame
Shame is a difficult emotion to deal with…but using this combination of approaches can help you learn to move away from it and help your non-ADHD or 'other-ADHD' partner learn to interact more positively in the areas that feel most raw.