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What is rejection sensitive dysphoria?
By Bart Vulliamy

Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD or rejection sensitivity) is an affliction common amongst people with ADHD, autism, personality disorders and other mental health conditions.

RSD is the heightened emotional sensitivity to real or perceived rejection, criticism or feelings of inadequacy, causing overwhelming emotional and/or physical responses. This is not just limited to negative social feedback but also neutral feedback, meaning that the intent of the person from whom the feedback comes does not have to be negative for this to be felt. 

RSD is thought to be a result of emotional dysregulation, which 70% of adults with ADHD struggle with, or trauma, which 80%-85% of them have. “By the time a child with ADHD turns 12, they hear 20,000 more negative, corrective or critical messages than the average child who doesn’t have ADHD,” said Michael Jellinek, MD. This can lead to worsened mental health in adulthood and can make one further insecure or damage their self-esteem.

Rejection sensitivity makes friendship, relationships, employment and any social situations difficult. In the workplace, RSD can show up in interviews, performance reviews and in communication, giving the feeling of a hostile environment when it is not necessarily the case.

Everyone experiences RSD differently. It can come in brief, intense reactions to a specific trigger, or it can be experienced daily as a constant. No matter how rejection dysphoria is experienced, it is debilitating for social interactions. People with RSD can quickly become people-pleasers or social hermits to avoid feeling humiliated.

When in the workplace or in social situations, I’m what’s called a high-masking neurodivergent meaning that I can hide my disability from others. The flip side of this is that for every social interaction I use scripts and carefully curated responses to maintain this facade. Whether communicating face to face or electronically, the fear of saying the wrong thing uses a lot of energy. The crippling tendency to blame ourselves for any misunderstandings can also result in exploitation and bullying in group environments, such as the workplace.

Emotional dysregulation is another common symptom of ADHD and autism and is also one of the core criteria for adults looking to get diagnosed. Emotional dysregulation, by definition, is an inability to manage or regulate a person’s emotional responses. For people with ADHD or people on the autism spectrum who are constantly processing internal and external stimuli, this can be meltdown inducing.

This can look like explosive reactions to what may seem like minor setbacks/challenges. For me, failing a job interview and having the WIFI go down elicit the same level of crushing distress. Neurodivergent people who struggle with RSD tend to create coping mechanisms to combat the uncomfortable feelings of rejection. Perfectionism, isolation /avoidance, bullying, people- pleasing, overcompensation, addiction and masking can all be attributed to symptoms of emotional dysregulation.

I have personally gone through all the above because of my rejection sensitivity and emotional dysregulation. I react so strongly to stimuli that it quickly becomes unbearable to be around. The rare times I venture into the public, I wear sunglasses, headphones, a mask and long sleeves to limit the amount of unwanted sensory input and to avoid having to feel my feelings.

Rejection sensitive dysphoria is a debilitating aspect of neurodiversity. People with RSD are usually ashamed of their over-reactions and hide them so that they won’t be further embarrassed and thought of as mentally or emotionally unstable and therefore shunned from their social circle. Learning about RSD is another important step further in understanding oneself as a neurodivergent individual but also to learn to take better care of the people around us who are dealing with it. Each person will have their own needs. Learning to take them into account can mean a world of difference to someone you know who may deal with this.

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