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Will I Ever Overcome the Agony of Criticism?

“When I started the Ph.D. program, I assumed that the forgetful, inattentive aspect of my ADHD would be the most difficult part to overcome. I was wrong. It was my fear of — and the pain of — criticism from others.”

I’m completing a Ph.D. in history. It’s been a long, increasingly expensive, and emotionally taxing process. There are few things in this world I want more than to achieve this goal that I’ve been working toward since I started my undergrad education in 2005. Only one task stands between me and those coveted letters after my name: dissertation defense.

Academia is founded on criticism. A crucial and unavoidable part of this process is receiving feedback from my committee. So, I recently sent out an email requesting necessary revisions so I can be done with this. This is time-sensitive stuff. To defend my dissertation this semester, and avoid additional financial expense, I have to implement the feedback to get the project ready for defense. So, when responses to my email started coming in, I hurried to open them so I could see what my mentors said.

Not really. I was terrified of the content of those emails. Despite my intense desire to complete my degree and the ticking clock on defending this semester, I spent hours, if not days, working up the nerve to read what my advisors think of my work. This was followed by hours, if not days, of recovering from the criticism they provided, no matter how constructive, no matter how kindly it may have been offered.

The Surprise of RSD

When I started the Ph.D. program, I assumed that the forgetful, inattentive aspect of my ADHD would be the most difficult part to overcome. And it has been difficult — sitting through classes, reading boring books, and consistently attaining and maintaining a level of focus and concentration necessary for this work. But I’ve spent the last 15 to 20 years developing strategies to overcome these challenges of ADHD. So instead, my greatest challenge is something I didn’t know existed until a couple years ago: Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD), the intense emotional discomfort and pain I feel due to criticism or rejection (perceived or real) from others.

RSD is a disabling feature of ADHD. Like all other aspects of ADHD, it’s a feeling that everyone feels at various times. Yet the frequency, and intensity of these feelings, separate these feelings from typical responses to perceived rejection. It is difficult to find words to describe the intense emotional discomfort that rejection or criticism produce. As with much of my experience with ADHD, it is when I research and see how intensely this can affect people that I realize how fortunate I am to experience a version of it that is manageable.

[Do I Have Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria? Take This Test]

The Pain of RSD

Almost all teens and adults with ADHD are more sensitive than others to perceived criticism, and nearly a third report that this is the most difficult aspect of ADHD to live with. While RSD is not ubiquitous — like inattentiveness, forgetfulness, impulsivity, and the features most commonly associated with ADHD — it is, for me, the most painful symptom.

RSD can dominate people’s lives, driving them to please and impress those around them. Or it can produce the opposite effectt, leading individuals to withdraw from social interactions. When it is internalized, its effects range from low self-esteem to suicidal ideation. When it is externalized, it often results in intense and inexplicable anger directed at the source of the rejection.

Those of us with RSD are more sensitive to criticism, often perceiving it where none exists. Yet, it is not always imagined, since most of us grew up labeled the “problem child,” receiving more than our fair share of criticism from those we looked to for approval. It can degenerate into a self-fulfilling prophesy, with our sensitivity to criticism causing us to act in ways that draw the very criticism we fear.

For me, RSD often manifests as general anxiety, caused by a subconscious fear of embarrassment. It also results in my feeling that those in my life me don’t like me as much as they seem to (pretend to). The feelings can be acute. The knowledge that I am overreacting does nothing to alleviate the crippling agony that criticism can produce, especially when it comes from a source that is important to me and touches on important subjects.

[Use This Free Resource: Understanding Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria]

The Way Forward with RSD

Which brings me back to those emails, written by people I respect and admire, written about a project into which I have invested so much of myself that it feels like an actual part of me. That reluctance to confront the criticism contained in these messages suddenly makes a bit more sense. Soon, I will tear off the bandage — a metaphor that seems so inadequate in describing the intense, personal, emotional discomfort I feel.

If I’m lucky, it will turn out to be a good day, and I’ll be able to set aside that pain and feel inspired to improve my dissertation. If it’s not a good day, I’ll take my embarrassment and my certainty that, no matter what they say, these folks are deeply disappointed in me. I’ll climb into a hole somewhere while I go through the routine of pain, embarrassment, anger, and eventual acceptance.

Assuming I can overcome the sense that I am simply not good enough to do this — the feeling that this perfectly ordinary struggle to bring a dissertation to defense is a sign that my reach has exceeded my grasp — I’ll sit down and write. If I go through this process enough times, I will soon defend and earn a Ph.D. in history. It will be worth it.

Overly Sensitive with RSD: Next Steps

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