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Connecting Shame, the Fear Response and ADHD

In my last blog I wrote about shame being the true underlying emotion behind most angry outbursts and behaviors. People feel embarrassed so they lash out with anger, rather than admitting or expressing their real emotion of shame.

This connection is very clear in children labeled with “ADHD” and “Oppositional Defiant Disorder.” These children are considered to lack the ability to focus, pay attention and concentrate. They are impulsive, easily distracted and often hyperactive. Yet if you listen to what they say and understand the neuroscience of the fear response, you can easily see the emotional roots of shame to their reactions. As I’ve written before, these “disorders” are not mental illnesses, just the normal “fear response.”

Just yesterday in therapy one young man described the reasons he often leaves school or is truant. He reported that when he gets frustrated or fears failure on schoolwork, he doesn’t like that feeling. So to manage the shame (he didn’t label it as that) he daydreams, plays with his phone, or zones out. (This is the “avoidance” fear response.) Then if pushed by the teacher or under time pressure of a test, he bolts from the classroom or just doesn’t show up to school on that day (the “flight” fear response.)

His shame and embarrassment at potentially failing lead him to unthinkingly react with fear. Many kids with this “fear hijack” quickly react with the “fight” response by getting angry and being “oppositional.”

Of course, this young man has a mother who has been depressed and anxious all his life, he witnessed domestic violence, and has had other family instabilities. Childhood traumas slow or stunt the development of the cognitive areas of the brain, leaving the emotional or reactive parts of the brain in charge. He’s also had this fear response modeled by parents who became violent with each other. No surprise that when he feels threatened emotionally he is more likely to react with unthinking responses or impulsivity, rather than thoughtful problem-solving with an eye to the consequences.

Afterward he can state the consequences to his behaviors, as is usually the case with these impulsive kids. Yet in that survival mode of the fear hijack his cognitive abilities are narrowed and not in control.

Of course, his early traumas also make learning and memory development more difficult for his brain, leading to a label as “learning disabled.” So his family life has primed him for a life of misbehavior and academic failure that others will label as dysfunctional or maybe even criminal. All because his brain never had the chance to develop and to learn a thinking approach rather than an emotional response.

When you understand this connection, it becomes extremely obvious that what we need is not therapy and drugs (absolutely not!) for these children, but parenting classes and therapy for their parents years prior. It was their parents’ inability to manage shame in emotionally mature ways that started this whole mess.

2 thoughts on “Connecting Shame, the Fear Response and ADHD

  1. Dear Ms. West: Thank you for posting on the subject of shame and anger. I actually looked up the subject because I was interested in the concept of shame blocking anger (or at least the expression of it). As in many psychological principles, the response to the same stimulus can take opposite forms and I note that some people who have been blanketed with shame from early on essentially have little ego with which to motivate self-defense and therefore are unaware of and do not express anger. In the case of DV victims, that inability to feel or sustain anger makes it difficult to be motivated to escape the hurtful environment.

  2. You are exactly right. In my new work “Self-Acceptance Psychology” I write that people take three unhealthy responses to shame: Other-Blaming, Self-Blaming and Blame Avoiding. Self-Blamers give way submissively (to Other-Blamers) and lack assertiveness and self-protectiveness, as you describe. Shame is a strong and difficult emotion to manage, but gaining self-acceptance or self-compassion is one way to do learn to not be triggered to fear when shamed. Best of luck!

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