Have you confronted the ADHD guilt spiral?

Have you ever felt yourself wrestling with other people’s expectations? Do you allow those expectations to dictate your sense of self-worth and self-esteem?

The emotion of guilt is commonly associated to ADHD.


It can manifest in those affected by the disorder, but also in the parents of kids who have ADHD.

All of us feel guilt; but for some — the emotion is painful, acute, and difficult to shake.

Why is ADHD so closely entwined with feelings of guilt?

ADHD Guilt Spiral
ADHD Guilt Spiral: How to beat guilt and shame.

The ADHD Guilt Spiral

This summary of the ‘guilt spiral’ was posted over on the ADD Forums, and it got me thinking:

  1. You do not do what is “expected of you” or what you think is expected of you
  2. The person who expects something of you says something about it
  3. You feel guilty
  4. The guilt hurts so you resent the person or their “expectation”
  5. The resentment turns to anger
  6. Anger turns into being stubborn
  7. You meet even less of their expectations
  8. Loop back to #1

Hmm, ring any bells?

This cycle represents the dreaded ADHD guilt spiral, and it is familiar to many of us.

Guilt is a powerful emotion that can have an exaggerated effect on those who suffer from ADHD.

The inability to meet expectations, to let somebody down, to fail to be what we perceive somebody wants us to be (even when they don’t!)… creates a vicious cycle of guilt that can be difficult to escape.

Sometimes this guilt translates in to shame, an even greater burden to our self-esteem.

So, where does the problem lie?

There are two defining moments in the chain of events above:

  • You do not do what is “expected of you” or what you think is expected of you
  • The person who expects something of you says something about it

Let’s look at each.

Expectations and Guilt

The first event is our preconception of what is expected of us.

Expectations can be reasonable, unreasonable, but also entirely imagined.

Reasonable: You agree to meet for lunch with a friend and don’t show up. Your friend’s expectation to see you, or be told in advance that you’re not coming, would be seen as perfectly reasonable.

Unreasonable: Your friend expects you to be available to discuss a business idea over the weekend, but you’re busy. To expect you to cancel plans would be — in most cases — unreasonable.

Imagined: You bump in to a friend and she asks why she hasn’t seen you for several weeks. You go away thinking that your packed schedule has let her down; “I must be a terrible friend”. This would be an imagined expectation.

A good way to deal with expectations and the resulting guilt is to distinguish between the events accordingly.

Where the expectation truly was reasonable and you’ve let somebody down — apologise.

Where the expectation was unreasonable, recognise that you can’t please everybody. Not being able to meet a demand is no reason to feel guilty — especially if you communicate this.

Where the expectation takes you by surprise, or floats to the surface without the other person expressing it, ask if it was really an expectation in the first place.

Each of these scenarios can trigger unpleasant feelings of guilt for somebody with ADHD, but a healthy first step is to distinguish the nature of the expectations before you react to them — because that’s when they can unleash a painful chain of events.

Of course, this underestimates the difficulty of judging which expectations are reasonable, unreasonable or imagined.

The key is to work hard at reducing the number of imagined expectations — because the rest then become fairly self-explanatory!

Indeed, it’s the effect of our imagination that clouds the rest of our judgment.

How do you stop your imagination from ruling your emotions?

This is tough for everybody; and people with ADHD have it even harder.

There is one good option, but let’s first look at the next step in the guilt spiral.

Reacting to Perceived Attacks (or Passing Comments)

Here’s the second event:

“The person who expects something of you says something about it”

ADHD can make it fiendishly difficult to avoid a reaction in the present, whether it be emotionally or verbally expressed.

The spiral effect is amplified if you fail to control your initial reactions.

Why?

Because they have a re-enforcing effect. That’s why we call it a spiral.

Knowing you’ve reacted badly triggers guilt, which if not dealt with swiftly, can grow in to all kinds of passive aggressive behaviors.

The time to deal with a broken reasonable expectation (“Hey, you didn’t turn up for lunch!”) is in the moment: with an apology.

Likewise, unreasonable expectations are best assaulted head-on rather than left to simmer under the surface. (“Here’s my reason why I can’t…”)

You’d think.

My view is that while it can be tempting to react immediately, and stay a prisoner to the emotional voltage, it is better to take your time and get things right.

Taking a step back and a deep breath — detaching from the situation — can scupper the guilt spiral by removing all of the resulting steps:

  • The anger at perceived expectations
  • The resulting stubbornness
  • The passive-aggressive ‘revenge’ on further expectations

These are resulting emotions from an event that was initially handled badly.

Handle the event better… the rest of it goes away. The guilt spiral is averted.

If you don’t trust yourself to manage the emotional side of broken expectations and/or conflict; try instead to manage the process of stepping back. Give yourself permission to delay reactions.

(Your friend sitting at the empty lunch table might not appreciate this, but better to come back with the right response than the wrong response that escalates emotions.)

Give yourself time to think before you commit — time to digest the reasonable, unreasonable and imagined dynamics of the situation.

For this, meditation is one of the healthiest routines you can adopt.

Much has been said about ‘mindfulness‘ and the power it has for defeating negative emotions, like guilt, shame, jealousy.

I believe most of that is true.

Meditation is a brilliant habit.

The ability to step back from a situation, take some deep breaths and listen to the emotional voice inside — not judging, just listening — can have a profound impact on the way we carry ourselves, and the weight of expectations in our head.

Breaking the Guilt Spiral

It’s human nature to feel pangs of guilt.

The world would be a dangerous place if none of us encountered remorse, or shame, or the threat of such guilt on a regular basis. Can you imagine the resulting chaos?

Those with ADHD face difficulties in separating from the emotional shackles of guilt, or distinguishing whether it is truly justified at all. Feelings are amplified, absolutely.

We can’t live without guilt altogether, but we can take steps to avoid the so-called guilt spiral.

Key to beating the guilt spiral is to prevent the spiral altogether — by controlling the cause of the guilt, whether it be an event, or the perception of imagined expectations.

To resist immediate emotional reactions.

This is tough.

Really, really tough.

But it is a learnable skill.

What tips do you have for beating ADHD guilt? Would love to hear them!

How to Conquer the ADHD Guilt Spiral

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