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At home with my friend Rejection Dysphoria

When I first heard the term ‘Rejection Dysphoria’ I cried. It explained so much of what I had experienced through out my life. So much of why I had struggled to move forward with my career, home and relationship life. Struggled to step up and open out to the full potential of life. Struggled to be in a relationship, or to let a partner get close. Easily felt disempowered around others. When I first heard the term ‘Rejection Dysphoria’ I cried, long tears of a lifetime of struggling to fit in, of people pleasing, of never speaking up fully, of having my moments of shining brilliantly, then shrinking down again, fearful I couldn’t maintain consistency, fearful someone would see me and call me out or shut me down. An underlying assumption that I didn’t deserve a place at the table, conflicting with the inner knowing that I have important experience to share. Something yet to be understood and articulated, but there, calling me to come out of the shadows.

So I just stayed at a lower level than what I was capable of, where I didn’t need to face the possibility that my light, my ideas and visions, might be inferior or unworthy. Even though there were so many moments where I was encouraged, upheld and supported by others as I put my ideas and work out into the world, I still would shrink back down after the project passed, into a heap, and recover.  Each theatre or art project would require a recovery time of sometimes months. Months to recover from the sheer anxiety of putting myself out there into the spotlight for a moment. And then, slowly, I’d build myself up, fuelled by inspiration again, and work towards the next work. Oftentimes my projects, scripts and ideas, were never fully realised as the pain of rejection, which all artists feel to a point, would deter me from pushing forward, from claiming space for my voice, from allowing myself to be seen, and from trusting that I could elicit the trust and commitment from others to collaborate towards bringing them to life.

Now, through understanding this extremely catastrophic trait, I am feeling more and more empowered to step up and to share my experiences and my ideas. I know they are important to express in what ever form they come in, and I know they are helpful to others. This is why i am writing article. Because the shame often associated with RSD is so deep, it is important to normalise the experience, and let that shame be SHED.

AI image prompt: a theatre rehearsal for a play called ‘At home with my friend Rejection Dysphoria’

So what is Rejection Dysphoria?

What is commonly referred to as Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) is perhaps the least understood and most painful trait common to people on the ADHD spectrum. My understanding is the term was first coined in relation to ADHD, but is recognised also in ASD, Borderline Personality Disorder, bi-polar, anxiety and trauma conditions, where it might be referred to as ‘Rejection Sensitivity’. It is extreme sensitivity to rejection, which is so painful and triggering, it can evoke a heightened shame response to perceived failure and criticism.

It is not a diagnosable condition but rather a trait which can also be described as a type of emotional dis-regulation, where the rejection sensitivity evokes such a strong reaction that emotional regulation becomes very difficult. I believe there is an intersection between RSD and trauma and the two interact. Someone who has trauma will find it more difficult for example to manage and regulate their RSD, and sadly, even to acknowledge it and look into it. I know that I avoided it for years and years. It was too painful.

There are varied views on what causes RSD, including:

– it being solely related to genetic brain structure and completely unrelated to trauma and only treatable with ADHD medications

– that it is a condition related to the challenges people on the ADHD and other neurodivergent spectrums (including those acquired such as trauma based conditions) have in managing social dynamics and impulse control, leading to them misinterpreting social situations as rejecting or critical

– that it stems from trauma and basically is undiagnosed CPTSD

So you could say there is a ‘spectrum’ of views about RSD 🙂

If you search the term Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria you will find various views and takes, from peer reviewed sites, pseudo scientific sites, and from the personal blogs of those living with the experience. My focus here is to draw on my own experience to reflect on the plethora of information and my relationship with my own mental health professionals and GP.

To me, where RSD comes from doesn’t matter. As someone with both an ADHD and CPTSD diagnosis is there a line? I can’t stand it when these traits which are so challenging to live with are invalidated and not supported because they are not related to a ‘genetic diagnosis.’ If you experience RSD it is very painful and debilitating regardless. You may not realise what is happening and feel deep shame about it, while perpetuating cycles of alienating yourself and others because of perceived rejection. It’s an awful self fulfilling cycle which can result in aggressive or passive aggressive behaviour, narcissistic  behaviours and self sabotage, all further alienating the person.

My mother, who was undiagnosed autistic and ADHD with trauma, had RSD very badly, the poor thing. She used to come into my room and say that my friends didn’t like her and were turning me against her. She was obsessed with this over a number of years, repeatedly entering my room, disrupting my homework, with her worry about not being liked by my friends. And probably, she was right. Because this trait, out of any neuro-divergent traits, is the one which makes you bloody unlikeable!

It can be experienced through intense insecurity in relationships, sometimes extreme feelings of jealously, intrusive thoughts, feeling not good enough to receive success or to be in high level positions, and not good enough to have a successful business or any enterprise. Feeling that the universe somehow has it in for you. Intense fear around speaking up in a group, of leading others, or sharing ideas or thoughts, and acting with arrogance and narcissistic type behaviours which are a defence against feeling inferior.  It is not surprising that people who experience RSD, whether through a trauma distortion or through a genetic neurodivergence, struggle in their relationships, careers and in general lives.

But this not mean that people who experience RSD are not able to transform their lives. We totally can! Don’t believe anyone who says you can’t, please! I am thinking about the psuedo-science site ADDitude here, which even goes so far to say that Dialectic Behavioural Therapy (DBT) doesn’t work. Yet many health professionals suggest treatment like DBT and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) for RSD. I personally have experienced a huge transformation in my life, by understanding this condition (where I think DBT and CBT are useful), identifying when it arises, and by using various tools to expand beyond the limited thinking patterns which RSD entrapped me in. The list of tools is endless really. And it’s taken a years of healing and practicing, from even before I knew about RSD. You can experiment, and I am happy to share some of the things I am finding useful. But the point is that you do not need to stay stuck in the RSD loop.

As I said, when I first heard the term Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, I cried.

And that crying was very, very healing.

I have cried many tears through the process of understanding myself more, accepting these traits, forgiving my behaviours in the past which came from my unhealed self trying to protect itself, and changing the patterns of belief I deeply held which told me I am not worthy in all sorts of ways. Crying was an incredibly important part of the process for me to start with.

And now I am starting to really feel ‘at home’ with the ol’ familiar RSD when it raises it’s head. I see it. And because I know what it is, I can name it. And I am no longer controlled by it- as much. I actively practice choosing not to believe the RSD voice. I am kind to it, but I no longer believe it. I see it as trying to protect me. Like a frightened parent who knows nothing of the world and tries to keep it’s child locked up inside out of fear. And each time I choose not to believe it, and I have a success of some sort, the RSD has even less hold on me.  

I tried theAI image prompt ‘an illustration depicting a curly haired woman sitting in her house on a comfy couch with her companion Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria” and this was the result:

I next tried the prompt: ‘an illustration depicting a curly haired smiling woman sitting in her house on a comfy couch with her companion Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria’ and this was the result. Weird. Hehe.

I will no doubt have fear arise as I share this article. Every time I share an article or new writing or performance work, the anxiety and fear triggered by my RSD arises. I feel very exposed.  But I am getting bigger than the RSD. Bigger than the fear. It is still there. The fear doesn’t go away. It stays the same. But we become bigger than it. I am bigger than my RSD and I get bigger and bigger than it each time I open my heart and expand myself. And writing about it helps.

BTW I am reminded of this reel below which I found last week on Instagram. It is about the pipeline between autism and narcissism. This resonates so much with me, especially about my experience of my mother growing up. But also, of the impact of RSD on someone who is undiagnosed. And how easily this can start to look like narcissism. Instagram would not let me imbed the video, so instead I found the creator’s account on TikTok. Your bad Instagram, more views to TikTok. Please note, I am not endorsing this creator’s channel or work at large, I am just sharing this video which I really resonate with, except the first couple of lines, about autistic girls being drawn to narcisstic partners. That is sort of irrelevant to what she is talking about in my view. Well, I guess it’s a hook. But good on her for making this video.

So, this brings me to the question:

How to make a workspace safe for neurodivergent people?

Understanding the RSD trait I think is important in creating neurodivergent safe spaces. In my area of theatre and the arts, there has for long been the cliché of theatre being ‘gossipy’ and indeed, I have myself in the past experienced colleagues gossiping about others during lunch breaks, complaining or speaking about people behind their backs. I have also been guilty of it in the past, and I regret it. I think people do it as a way to bond with others, sometimes to garner ‘support’ or to make oneself feel ‘superior’. But this is incredibly unsafe behaviour for neurodivergent people. Even just witnessing gossipy behaviour can make us freeze and trigger the deep fears of RSD, of displeasing others, or of being ‘targeted’ or ostracised. I even had a tutor, a well known and respected artist who regularly sits on panels, approach me when I was an undergraduate uni student, and tell me they didn’t like another student who I was doing some creative work with at the time. That student was very talented, and I now know experienced trauma in her childhood, and she probably displayed some traits which were quickly judged by this tutor. Sadly or not, I don’t know, but my friend didn’t continue down the creative path. Was it because of this tutor’s opinions? No, of course not. But the lack of support and judgement can be felt very very strongly by those who are ND, and they can immediately feel unsafe and can indeed shut right down. But also, this act from the tutor impacted me, triggered my fears of being judged, and created the sense in me that the arts are a judgemental place. We don’t need that.

AI prompt: A tutor whispers to her favourite student that she doesn’t like a third student who stands alone in the distance- how ridiculous right!

Don’t complain about and belittle others because of their odd behaviours. If we want to create an ‘inclusive’ and safe space for people, including brilliant ND thinkers and creators, we need to drop the judgements, recognise the traits, and create a space which understands the traits and oddness which can come from ND’s, including the RSD trait, and start to hold space for the bluntness, the oddness, the innocence and the terror experienced by those on the spectrum. If we can’t hold space, then there is something we ourselves need to heal. I will be forever grateful to those who have held a space for me, before I myself understood my traits, who didn’t judge me, who believed in me regardless of my obvious struggles and fails and supported me, even when I myself may have questioned why they would. There are so many of you. You are angels.

This AI image prompt: A person with a great ideas sits at a table, around their head is a halo, their colleagues sit around the table listening joyfully to the person explain their idea. I think the halo in the left image is hilarious! Does it represent the neurodivergent brain?

Let’s create a space of understanding and support for ND’s and those who live with trauma, who experience the terror of moving into an unknown space, of sharing their voice and ideas, knowing that rejection is an incredibly painful thing to experience for them, and yet they are there, showing up, with possibly odd and left of field ideas and most definitely with a strong moral compass. Listen to them. And consider giving it a go. Even if it seems weird. Because you never know which of those left of field ideas might be the thing which rockets the project to success.

Thank you for reading. I am about to enter into a rehearsal period for my next work The Swallows. What timing to be thinking about this! Yes, there are flashes of RSD, but it’s a way for me to practice again getting bigger than it.

If you would like to support my work, check out my shop, follow me on sos med etc etc. Thank you!

  1. I love this sharing. What a great piece. Thank you Sandra. You’re very talented. I too have had a lot of healing from an intense assumption of not being supported, and rejected. I am learning to hold space for the feelings and let them move through and just be in love. More and more I develop a knitting that the universe is a benevolent place and interactive being, in which we experience all sorts of things so that we can heal and grow wiser through the experience. I know the conclusion of rejection was ultimately my own in some previous moments of space and time, and that kind of harsh judgement felt like rejection, and I believed it – and this created future moments of experiencing this over and over again, as beliefs do. Each one is an opportunity to feel his that feels and let the judgment in carries go. It feels real but only because we believe it. There is a way to transcend it, as you say. To expand in our hearts, as our heart, and love, accept, allow, feel the pain and fear and judgment accessed – to let it go-flow .. release like a a cloud dissipates as the sun shines through. Á
    I agree, as you say, it takes practice. All the steps takes practice. 10,000 hours it takes to become completely naturally competent at anything, to become unconsciously competent, where you can do it automatically without having to think about it. Like moments of brilliance enacted effortlessly in the flow

    Thanks for sharing Sandra. It’s very helpful, clear, insightful and wonderfully conveyed. You’re a wonderful example. I love you

    • thank you Simon for sharing your experience. So many people experience this and I found it such a relief to hear it named that I wanted to talk about it. I agree, the more I focus on my heart the less I am swayed and affected by the intrusive thoughts which are RSD. thanks again

  2. Thanks for helping me to expand my knowledge Sandra. I find IFS helps me manage my fear of rejection and hyperarousal to rejection. Caused by trauma. I’ve now started talking to my “manager” to soothe fears and distress.

    • Thank you Tania for reading. Ah, yes I don’t know much about IFS but have heard of it. I will look into it, thank you!

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