Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Q: “I Can’t Handle Rejection. Will I Ever Change?”

The emotional pain of rejection sensitive dysphoria is real and agonizing. But your responses to rejection follow a pattern. You’ll have to start new patterns – or ways of thinking and behaving – to reduce the effect that rejection has on your ADHD brain.

Red balloon fall on cactus needle on pink background. Danger or protection concept. Rejection sensitive dysphoria concept.
Credit: Getty Images/Lazy_Bear

Q: “How can I learn to deal with rejection when rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) and ADHD are in the picture? All my life, I’ve been told that I’m too sensitive and that I take things too personally. I acknowledge that my intense sensitivity to rejection holds me back – from friendships and relationships to climbing the career ladder and other opportunities – but how can I cope when my emotions and fears feel so raw and extreme?”

RSD, as you know too well, causes extreme emotional pain. Whether or not the rejection has actually occurred or is strongly perceived, RSD makes it difficult to recover from criticism. Many people with ADHD look at social situations through the filter of past experiences of rejection and exclusion, which further fuels rejection sensitivity.

In part, RSD is tied to fears of embarrassment or of letting down others, and to concerns that mistakes will cause others to withdraw their love, support, or connection to you.

Many folks in your position try to discount their emotions in an attempt to overcome RSD (denial only makes them stronger though), or they avoid situations where any semblance of criticism could occur. These strategies never work because you can never please everybody all of the time. Rejection, negative feedback or judgments are inescapable parts of life. Instead of relying on avoidance or the negative expectancy that fuels anxiety, understand that your responses to rejection follow a pattern. Your goal is to create new patterns of responding, thinking and behaving to reduce both the perceptions of rejection and the reactions when it actually occurs.

Here are some tips for how to improve coping skills and manage the effect that rejection has on your ADHD brain.

[Get This Free Download: Understanding Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and ADHD]

1. Remember the times you persevered despite discomfort. If you are reading this, there’s great news. You’ve survived everything that life has thrown at you, including all the terrifying and uncomfortable moments. RSD threatens to erase those memories of triumph and tries to convince you that the pain of rejection is unsurpassable. Make it a habit to recall moments where you persisted in the face of fear. Write some of these down in your phone or journal so you can go back and remind yourself of your courage. Over time, the unbearableness of rejection will subside.

2. Identify your strengths. Focus as much as possible on what you love to do and what you do well. You are NOT the sum of broken parts. You are MUCH, MUCH more than that. Make a list of qualities or talents you like about yourself. Write these down as well. Then transform them into affirmations for those challenging moments. “I am brave; I am creative; I take risks; I keep trying.”

3. Do a “happy and a crappy.” Each day, name a few good (happy) and not-so-good (crappy) things that transpired. This practice will teach you to de-emphasize negative thoughts and shift your attention to what’s working.

4. Be a “STAR:” Stop, Think, Act, and Recover to manage big feelings, especially during unpleasant interactions. Pausing will also help you accurately gauge a situation instead of speaking out of turn or rushing to a conclusion.

[Read: How Does RSD Really, Actually Feel?]

5. Your sensitivity is a positive. Unfortunately, (and it looks like you’ve experienced this) many people are quick to negatively label and shame sensitive individuals, which does nothing to help RSD. What does help RSD is embracing sensitivity and the good that comes with it. Say: “I am sensitive, which means I feel things deeply and connect to people in special ways.” Wear sensitivity like a badge of honor.

As you form new patterns, they may feel strange or awkward. Practice self-compassion. We have all experienced (and will continue to experience) rejection and hurt in life. When things don’t go the way you hope, take time to regroup, and treat yourself like you would a child with a skinned knee — with care and kindness.

How to Deal with Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and ADHD: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Start with ‘Hello’: How to Reduce Social Anxiety and Foster Connections” [Video Replay and Podcast #395] with Sharon Saline, Psy.D., which was broadcast on April 6, 2022.

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