Think about how you learned about habits when you were young. Did you learn that they were something you had to continually work on? Or did you learn that habits are eventually supposed to be something you shouldn’t have to think about? I’m guessing you learned habits, once learned, are supposed to stick around forever. If you’ve struggled with habit formation throughout your life, you likely got the message that there’s something wrong with you. Maybe you were taught that you’re not trying hard enough, or you’re not prioritizing the right things, or you’re just plain doing it wrong.
But if you have ADHD, this message is inaccurate. And it’s harmful. That’s because neurodivergent brains simply don’t work in the same ways as neurotypical brains do. As a therapist for neurodivergent millennials, I work with clients every day who want to understand why it feels so damn hard to form habits. There’s often a lot of shame beneath this question. Learning about the role of shame in ADHD habit formation can help you accept where you’re at, improve your self-worth, and figure out how to live a life that feels more fulfilling.
Forming habits when you have ADHD is tricky. Breaking the habit down into manageable pieces and incorporating external accountability can help you form habits. But it’s still a lot of work. The difficulty to form and sustain habits can add to mounting shame, negative self-talk, anxiety, and depression.
Unlike neurotypical folks, neurodivergent people have to spend constant energy on maintaining habits. This is especially true for habits that aren’t inherently pleasant or satisfying in some way (hello, dopamine deficit.) When your energy expenditure on mundane daily life tasks is so high, everything feels exhausting and draining. You get burned out more quickly. You’re more likely to procrastinate. And it makes living life that much harder.
Understanding how to sustain habits in the long run can help beat this cycle. This includes choosing your habits based on your core values, integrating habits into your daily life, and preventing boredom.
You aren’t wrong or bad or weak for struggling with habits. Your brain chemistry is just different. Try as you might, certain things are more challenging. The message that you aren’t good enough because your brain works differently is a lie, and it stems from pervasive societal norms like capitalism and hustle culture.
Forming sustaining habits with ADHD is inherently challenging. When you pile on additional stress, shame, and crappy cultural messaging, it’s a recipe for mental health struggles. ADHD itself isn’t the problem, though, and neither are you.
The real source of your burnout, depression, fatigue, and anxiety are the societal messages around things like:
The truth is that these messages aren’t real. An acceptable productivity practice for one person won’t be effective for someone else. Someone’s healthy behavior might be another person’s unhealthy behavior. These things aren’t black and white, despite what we’ve been taught. When you’re constantly told you’re bad or wrong for not living up to society’s expectations, it leads to internalized shame.
Shame exacerbates mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Shame is also a common byproduct of trauma. Trauma isn’t always one big and terrifying event. It can also be comprised of smaller, more continuous wounds, like a lifetime of receiving implicit and explicit messages that you’re not good enough. When you internalize the message that something is inherently wrong with you at your core, it impacts your experiences, beliefs, and emotions. It makes your whole life feel like a struggle.
Working to undo the internalized shame around habits and ADHD can help you become more aware of your own needs and more self-compassionate. It can also dial down your anxiety, shame, fatigue, and burnout.
Decreasing your shame around ADHD habit formation isn’t easy. It’s a process that involves things like acknowledging your struggles, learning new skills, and asking for support.
Acknowledging your challenges can be as simple as admitting to yourself what’s really going on. Admitting that you’re struggling is rarely easy, especially if you don’t know what to do about it. But it’s the first step in making important changes. You can also tell other people that you’re struggling. This often feels extremely vulnerable, and that’s okay. Reaching out to someone you trust can take the power away from something that otherwise feels like a dirty secret. It also allows you to ask for things that would make your life easier. This might look like explaining to your boss that you need more support in certain areas, like flexible scheduling or written instructions.
Learning new skills might look like:
These skills may not all directly relate to ADHD habit formation, but they do decrease shame by improving feelings of empowerment and self-worth.
Asking for support is another important aspect of decreasing shame and improving your wellbeing. You can ask your friends to lend an ear so you can vent. You can join a coworking group or find a workout buddy so you have external accountability. You can also seek out a therapist you trust to help you navigate the ups and downs of life and neurodivergence.
Your brain chemistry makes you struggle to form sustaining habits with ADHD. But ADHD by itself isn’t the problem – shame is.
You don’t have to cope with shame on your own. If you want support, I’m here to help you improve habit management, develop more self-compassion, and unlearn the negative (and untrue) stories you’ve learned about yourself. Together, we’ll help your neurodivergent brain thrive in a neurotypical world.
I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to get started.
Danielle is an anxiety therapist and perfectionism coach. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.