Emotions & Shame

How Fear of Failure & Rejection Keep Us from Trying New Things

Rejection sensitive dysphoria is a byproduct of ADHD that can cause a paralyzing fear of failure. Here, learn how to build the emotional regulation skills needed to overcome self-doubt and try new things

Most people with and without ADHD have experienced failure. But for those of us who have ADHD and rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD), the risk of trying your best and failing is a threat so painful that it feels unsafe.

RSD is one of the most disruptive manifestations of emotional dysregulation — a common but often misunderstood symptom of ADHD, particularly in adults. RSD is a brain-based phenomenon that is likely an innate feature of ADHD. Though the experience of RSD can be painful and even traumatic, it is not thought to be caused by trauma.

Fear of Rejection

Just about every person with ADHD experiences rejection sensitivity, says psychiatrist William Dodson, M.D. He says that what triggers this pain is the perception, real or imagined, of being:

  • Rejected
  • Teased
  • Criticized
  • A disappointment (both to important people in our lives and to ourselves when we fail to achieve goals or live up to expectations).

[Self-Test: Do I Have RSD?]

According to Dr. Dodson, the resulting emotional pain can feel catastrophic to some people with rejection sensitive dysphoria. After an episode, it can take a while for someone with RSD to get back on their feet.

Emotional Regulation Skills

RSD only compounds the emotional dysregulation problems that make it difficult for people with ADHD to manage their moods and cope with painful emotions. These tips may help improve emotional regulation:

  • Learn to identify triggers and underlying feelings to handle a similar situation differently next time.
  • Create strategies, like deep breathing and mindful meditation, to deal with strong emotions.
  • Find a stress-busting activity, such as exercise, pet therapy, or puzzles, that works for you.
  • Surround yourself with supportive people. Avoid negative individuals and situations.

Afraid of Failure? Try These Coping Tips

Some people living with ADHD and RSD shield themselves against failure by giving up, unless quick success is guaranteed. If this sounds familiar, use these tips to help you counter a fear of failure:

  • Clarify priorities. Base them on personal values, strengths, passions, and needs.
  • Shed the “shoulds” — the expectations we have of ourselves or the self-talk we’ve adopted from our interpretation of other people’s expectations of us, which can be limiting ideas or rules we impose on ourselves. These “shoulda, coulda, woulda” thoughts may come from years of feedback we have internalized and experienced as intense criticism.
  • Commit to a decision. Living with ADHD means a lot of time and energy is spent worrying about making the wrong decision and failing. Yet in most cases, just about any decision can be adapted into a useful and productive one.
  • Let go of trying to have it all. The drive for what you perceive as successful can lead to a debilitating depletion of time, energy, and money, as well as failure.
  • Stop comparing yourself to others, creating separation and isolation. Think instead about where you were 10 years ago and where you are now. Acknowledge your successes and how far you’ve come.
  • Visualize obstacles. Walk through some possible ideas about how to overcome them.

Life is a journey and we’re happiest when we’re on it, not when it’s over. Relish every moment.

Fear of Failure: Next Steps


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