When Shame Stops Us

Aug. 5th, 2019

There’s a funny saying I’ve seen around the Internet: “I tried to be normal, once. Worst two minutes of my life.” It really resonates with me. I am pretty sure I only tried to be normal for about two minutes in my early teens before giving it up as a bad job. I’m not like most other people and will never be.

I was lucky enough to be raised in an atmosphere that the unusual was usual and not at all judged. Both my parents were later diagnosed with ADHD, so they couldn’t have passed for usual if they’d tried. The motto in our family was “If it works, don’t question it.”

One of my favourite stories of this kind of mindset was the time we were driving to a camping trip. My parents nipped sibling conflict on long drives in the bud with plenty of snacks, a portable DVD player, and dryer hoses mounted over the AC vents in the front of our minivan that fed back to us kids, otherwise parents froze while we baked. Our vehicle got a lot of odd looks as we drove through small Ontario towns but everyone inside was happy and that’s all that mattered to us. I recently saw hoses being sold on Amazon designed for that same purpose. My dad was ahead of his time, clearly.

One of my jobs as an ADHD coach is to pass this attitude along to my clients. Sometimes all of us need “permission” to do something, especially something weird. It’s difficult enough to find a strategy that works and then when that strategy turns out to be completely different than how “everyone else” does it, the weight of that shame can cripple us. It seems so much easier to do the usual thing, but the problem is if that way worked, it would have worked by now.

If the usual thing works for somebody, great. With me and my clients, however, that’s usually not the case. There are many elements of my life structures that are used by other people such as alarms, calendar, and shopping lists, but in my case they are usually changed in some way.

As far as I understand, most people use an alarm for one thing: to wake up in the morning. I set two alarms (one 15 mins before, one 5 mins before) for every calendar item I have. This gives me the transition time my brain needs. A lot of people write grocery lists. I also write a list of the food I’m planning to prepare (so when I go to eat a meal I know what’s available so nothing gets forgotten and expires) and a list of steps for when I’m cooking the food. A lot of people put their appointments in their calendar. I also include sleep, meals, cleaning, and other routine items because otherwise my brain forgets they exist and that they take up time in my day.

And you know what else? Being weird is a lot of work! All three of those examples take far more work than the typical usage.

So how do we embrace the unique ways we need to function?

A method that’s worked well for me is being certain, in my bones, of the necessity of it. In my case this meant being hurt over and over and over again by the decision not to do it the weird way. Eventually I just knew how vital that thing was and that certainty allows me to defend it from judgement (my own as well as other people’s). It becomes akin to people making ridiculous suggestions. Like if someone asked you to lend them a million dollars. Clearly that would be either impossible or intensely detrimental, so you’d say no without hesitation. When I know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that doing (or not doing) that weird thing will be intensely detrimental, I have no hesitation in defending it.

Another method of protecting that which we need to do is to limit our exposure to that judgement. Clearly this is not always possible, especially for those living with others in a situation where little control is possible. Where we can, though, limiting who can make us feel bad about what we need can be helpful. Maybe there’s a relative that we want to stay connected to, but also who brings us down. Perhaps reduce the number of times visits take place and meet in a public place where criticism is (hopefully) less likely.

Finally, examine where the judgement is coming from, because sometimes it is largely coming from ourselves. A frequent sentiment my client’s express is “I should be able to do ___”, which in this context I mean do something the “normal” way. Well, no, not really. Not all of my clients are diagnosed with ADHD, but that doesn’t matter. Whether or not someone can do something isn’t up for debate. It doesn’t matter what “should” or “should not” happen. The fact of the matter is that the other way of doing whatever it is isn’t working. And for me sometimes just knowing that is enough to start fighting for it.

What happens when it isn’t? What if there’s something that just keeps coming up, over and over, not changing? That’s when a professional with different training from mine is needed. Being “stuck” on things, like emotions of shame, are often indicators that therapy is needed. A qualified therapist (and I always advocate for a specialist in whatever diagnoses the person has) can dig through the old, the hurt, and the unmoving to enable us to move out of that cycle of shame.

What weird and wonderful ways have you found to function?