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ADHD, Shame, and Christian Spirituality

“We can have weights that we are carrying that are not sin, but they can hinder our movement forward.”

-Pastor Steve Hambrick


Those of us with ADHD tend to get stuck in difficult emotions, ruminating on distressing thoughts until we can find a creative solution. If the solution eludes us, we can enter cycles of despair and shame. But, we need not stay there. Our distress can be complicated when Christian teachings seem to conflict with our ADHD tendencies. (Hint: They don't have to.)


Let me start with a reminder that ADHD is simply part of the human condition. It has probably always been with us, we have just called it different things. 200 years ago, we called folks with ADHD “artists” or “great hunters” or “great athletes”. We are quirky, yes, but we’re highly gifted, engaged, and creative when we’re interested in something. It was only when we began expecting highly focused performance on boring, sedentary school tasks for extended periods of time that we began to label it “ADHD” or even a “disorder”. It’s normal, and it’s a trait that we can mostly manage once we realize we have it.


We can use lots of things to help us manage ADHD, just as we can address our problems related to thought and emotion with spirituality. For purposes of this blog post, I will stay within the bounds of my personal experience and discuss spirituality through the lens of Christianity. (If I knew other faith systems on a more personal level, I’d be discussing them as well. I honor lots of different faith perspectives in the therapy space.)  


A christian person with ADHD has a bag over their head representing feeling heavy shame

Let’s look broadly at spirituality for a second. “Spirituality” is a wide pursuit of awareness and awakening. It’s both an inward search and an outward search. It’s generally considered more all-encompassing than the word “religion”. Colloquially, "religion" is more associated with the format, rules, expectations, processes and rituals that are a subsection of spirituality. Religion helps to create communal morals and even gives us a sense of right and wrong. In the Genesis story, the first man and woman eat from “The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”. From this point forward, establishing what exactly is good, evil, right, and wrong would become a central theme woven into the texts that comprise The Bible. The result is a healthy concept: When we have done bad things, we feel shame. That shame motivates us to change our behavior in the future, maturing our moral understanding. But here’s the rub: ADHD predisposes us to get stuck in too much shame. We ruminate and brood on shameful thoughts, even to the point that we begin kicking ourselves not just for what we’ve done but also for having our distinct God-given, creative neurology! 


Have you ever felt judged or shamed by religious people for your ADHD traits? If so, join the crowd! It’s all too common to experience this. But, like so many things in Christianity, it comes down to what I’ve learned to call “the condition of the heart”. For example, think of the last time you did or said something impulsive that caused some trouble. Were you actively choosing to be disobedient to God, or were you simply unaware of what you were doing? Did you have intent to do what you did? Was it a willful choice? I think there’s a delicate balance to be achieved here. We can’t be dismissive of our actions and just assume that we are never to blame and therefore we can do anything at all under the guise of “impulsivity” and dismiss it as “just my ADHD”. BUT, we also can’t heap shame and despair upon ourselves for our actions to an unhealthy level, constantly kicking ourselves. At some point, whether in the moment or shortly afterward, our actions do become a choice. (Or, maybe the action wasn’t willful in the instant it first occurred, but repeating it likely becomes a choice at some point.)


Remember that ADHD is characterized by a lack of emotional regulation. Managing difficult feelings takes executive function, which we are often quite bad at.  Typically, we are up against the Default Mode Network (DMN) invading our efforts to regulate our emotions.  The DMN brings blame, shame, doubt, and regret, and it overwhelms us with emotion. Most neurotypical folks don’t experience this like we do. This is why they can be more focused and even more logical than we can. (shhh! Don’t tell my neurotypcial wife I said that!) 


So, did you catch that? We are predisposed to more shame! We are shame EXPERTS and most of us have gotten really good at it over the years. Thankfully, we can learn to recognize the DMN when it is wallowing in shame, and we can shut it down with a few fairly simple actions. (See earlier post.) Remember Dr Ed Hallowell’s teaching that your brain is “a Ferrari engine with bicycle brakes” When the Ferrari is on the shame road, we can learn to recognize it and pump the brakes.


Now let’s revisit the regrettable thing you did again. How did you handle the shame that you’ve felt? Did you allow yourself to experience a healthy amount of distress and then correct the action, or did you revel in it, ruminating on it at length? Did you experience emotional flooding? Most of us have heard the Biblical directives “take every thought captive” and “do not worry,” but these things are wicked hard to do! It helps me to remember that these instructions were given before there was academic psychology and to a much different society than ours with a different idea of the “self”.  My best guess is that the Hebrew culture did not take statements like these absolutely literally. (Every thought? Seriously?) In the Psalms we can find plenty of lament, and we can see the emotional intensity when the psalmist even desires to die to end his suffering. My guess is he wasn’t taking every single one of those thoughts captive as they occurred! [OK, Psalms occurs before Jesus and Paul arrived, but the overall idea applies.]


Let’s move on to Hebrews: “…let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Local pastor, Steve Hambrick, describes it this way, “Weight and sin are two distinct concepts. Sin is generally considered willful disobedience, but weight is more like cargo in a ship. We can have weights that we are carrying that are not sin, but they can hinder our movement forward.” Anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, doubt, and others are usually the weights carried by the ADHDer. We can stew on them, blame ourselves for their existence, and even kick ourselves for experiencing them. OR, we can recognize that they are part of our very normal human condition and part of our creative brain’s functioning. They can also be dealt with, coped with, addressed, managed, and understood. Doing so is part of our journey of faith. Remember, we’re not wrong, we’re just different. That’s completely OK. When the emotions surge, we can use our coping skills, exercise, observe our feelings without being fully given to them, and take back control. If you’re having trouble doing so, give me a call!


I hope this post has been informative and helpful. I specialize in working with creative professionals across Georgia who have Anxiety, ADHD, and/or High Functioning Autism. If you’d like to speak more about these or other types of issues, please give me a call at 770 615 6300. You can also schedule a session and learn more about my practice at www.altmancounseling.com I offer telehealth and in-person sessions. I am in-network with Aetna insurance and provide paperwork for filing out-of-network claims.

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