By guest writer Jackson McMahan
Everyone has experienced feelings of shame at least once in their life. Shame is, after all, how we emotionally respond to situations that lower our self-esteem, and everyone is vulnerable to this. That said, when it comes to neurodivergent people, their relationship with shame is a lot more complex than the one neurotypical people have.
For neurodivergent people, shame isn't just an occasional visitor; it's an uninvited constant that lurks in the shadows and waits to pounce whenever they deviate from what society deems as “normal.” This cycle of shame can be tiring and lead to mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.
In this blog post, I will spotlight this issue by contextualizing shame within a neurodivergent framework followed by discussing the challenges it poses to neurodivergent people and how they can overcome their feelings of shame.
Understanding Shame in the Context of Neurodiversity
Shame, at its core, is an emotion tied to a negative self-evaluation. It's more than just feeling bad about a specific action; it can lead to an intense sense of being fundamentally flawed or defective. This visceral emotion can be especially pronounced in neurodivergent people since they often find themselves at odds with societal norms and expectations.
In the context of neurodiversity, shame often results from perceived differences. It may come from social interaction difficulties in the case of autism, or focus and impulsivity challenges in the case of ADHD, or reading and writing struggles in the case of dyslexia. These examples of diverging from the norm often trigger feelings of shame, which subsequently reinforce a damaging narrative of inadequacy and failure.
The impact of shame on neurodivergent people cannot be understated. Persistent shame can lead to feelings of worthlessness, isolation, and despair. It can contribute to a cycle of negative self-perception that can be hard to escape. Additionally, it can be a significant barrier to seeking help, with people fearing judgment or rejection from the people who can help them.
Recognizing that shame is a common emotional response among neurodivergent people rather than a reflection of their inherent self-worth or value is an important starting point for addressing the issue. In the next section, I’ll discuss the unique challenges neurodivergent people face regarding shame.
Challenges Faced by Neurodivergent People in Dealing with Shame
Neurodivergent people often face unique challenges that can increase feelings of shame. One such challenge is the very nature of societal expectations and norms. These standards are largely based on the neurotypical majority and leave the neurodivergent minority feeling marginalized and misunderstood. This disparity can breed a powerful sense of alienation and shame as many neurodivergent people struggle to align with what's considered “normal.”
This sense of shame can be made worse by external factors such as stigmatization and misunderstanding from others. Despite the growing awareness of neurodiversity, negative stereotypes and misconceptions continue to exist in large numbers and often lead to prejudice and discrimination. This societal reaction can provoke feelings of shame, with neurodivergent people internalizing these negative perceptions and beginning to view themselves through a lens of deficit and deficiency.
In addition, how these challenges manifest can differ based on the specific neurodivergent condition. Some examples include how an autistic person might feel shame because of social interaction difficulties, how someone with ADHD might struggle with feelings of inadequacy coming from attention and impulse control issues, and how a dyslexic person might face shame related to reading or writing challenges.
This internalizing of negative societal messages can lead to self-blame, which further cements the cycle of shame. Neurodivergent people may begin to believe that they are at fault for their differences by citing their struggles as a personal failing instead of them having a different neurological perspective to the majority population. Viewing their struggles as a result of personal failings serves to strengthen the grip of shame and make it even more difficult to challenge and overcome.
By understanding these unique challenges, it’s possible to begin to dismantle the structures of shame that often trap neurodivergent people and create strategies to overcome them.
Strategies for Overcoming Shame
The journey toward overcoming shame can be challenging albeit profoundly transformative. The following list covers different strategies neurodivergent people can use to overcome their feelings of shame.
Recognize Feelings of Shame
Neurodivergent people can start overcoming shame by first identifying triggers and patterns that evoke shame. These triggers and patterns can be connected to specific situations, interactions, or thoughts.
Understand How Neurodiversity Applies to Your Shame
After discovering where shame comes from, you can apply the neurodiversity perspective to them to provide a new angle to view them. Understanding the role of neurodiversity in your experiences can help normalize these feelings and enable self-acceptance, reminding you that your differences are not defects, but simply part of your unique neurological identity.
Build Self-Compassion and Self-Esteem
Practices such as mindfulness, positive self-talk, and affirmations can help shift the focus from critiquing yourself to becoming more self-compassionate. Challenging negative self-talk and reframing thoughts can help dismantle the damaging narratives of shame and replace them with more empowering ones. Developing a supportive and accepting social network can also play a crucial role in this process, providing validation, understanding, and encouragement.
Seek Professional Help
Professional help and therapy can be extremely helpful for addressing shame-related issues as long as the therapist is neurodiversity-informed and -affirming. Various therapy options can be tailored for neurodivergent people, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness-based therapies. These therapies can provide tools and strategies for managing shame, encouraging self-acceptance, and building resilience.
Use Advocacy to Empower Yourself
Empowerment through advocacy can be a powerful antidote to shame. By embracing your neurodiversity and advocating for acceptance, you can begin to change the narrative around neurodiversity from one of shame to one of pride.
Sharing personal experiences with others can also help reduce feelings of isolation and shame, as well as raise awareness and promote understanding. Participating in neurodiversity advocacy and support groups can provide a sense of community, solidarity, and empowerment.
Overcoming shame is not an overnight process but instead a journey of self-discovery, acceptance, and empowerment. These strategies offer a roadmap for this journey and provide a beacon of hope and resilience for those grappling with the weight of shame.
Navigating the world as a neurodivergent person can be a complex journey, often marked by trials and tribulations that are invisible to the neurotypical eye. Among these challenges, the specter of shame looms large, casting a long shadow over the lives of neurodivergent people. Shame, with its destructive power, can leave deep scars by chipping away at self-esteem and producing feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy.
At the same time, it's important to remember that this does not have to be the narrative for neurodivergent people. As I have discussed throughout this post, there are multiple strategies and resources available to help manage and overcome feelings of shame. By acknowledging your feelings of shame, building self-compassion, seeking professional help, and advocating for acceptance, you can begin to rewrite the stories of neurodivergent people by replacing shame with self-acceptance and pride.
Self-acceptance and support are powerful antidotes to shame. By embracing your neurodiversity, you can transform your neurodivergent differences into strengths and turn what society might see as a weakness into a unique lens through which to view the world. And by supporting neurodivergent people, society can create an environment of understanding and acceptance, making space for all minds, in all their diverse glory, to thrive.