Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

How Does RSD Really, Actually Feel?

“The initial feeling of RSD is as if you’ve been punched in the head and are struggling to regain consciousness. You then deny that it is affecting you, but your brain goes blank, your body paralyzes and, as if by the force of a volcanic eruption, you plunge into an abyss of infernal pain and fear. That is only the beginning. Nothing derails the power of RSD.”

Violence against women concept
Violence against women concept

Stabbing knives, white-hot rage, and debilitating fear are all descriptions used by ADDitude readers to convey the unseen and often unappreciated power of RSD — or rejection sensitive dysphoria. RSD is the term used to describe extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception (not always the reality) of criticism and/or rejection. At its worst, RSD can imitate a full, major mood disorder complete with suicidal ideation — and practitioners are only beginning to recognize and address it.

In a recent survey, ADDitude asked adults with ADHD to describe how their RSD feels and how it impacts their lives. Responses confirmed that RSD is a serious, debilitating psychological phenomenon. If you’ve suffered from RSD, share your experience in the Comments section below.

How Does RSD Really, Actually Feel?

“Some rejection hits like a physical punch. The air leaves my lungs because of the hurt. Other times I feel this all-consuming humiliation. Or a fierce frustration and anger at myself. If I’m blindsided, I feel like a sad, confused little girl, thunderstruck in my bewilderment. I’ve even lashed out like an injured animal, cornered by the pain and wanting to dish it back out. These varied reactions can be accompanied by tension headaches, instant fatigue, nausea, tightness in my throat or chest. Sometimes I can shake it off, while other times the funk it puts me into can leak over into the next day or even week.” – Anonymous

“Anytime someone critiques an interest of mine, it feels like a dagger rips through me, especially if the critique comes from someone I care about. Their rejection can pretty much shatter my interest and leave me feeling empty.” – Anonymous

“My partner and I both suffer from RSD, and any difference in opinion is a potential pit of despair. My hyperactivity makes it incredibly painful to be patient with his inattentive symptoms. His silence and emotionless demeanor feel like knives. Medication helps, but clear boundaries and humility help the most.” – Anonymous

[Could You Have Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria? Take This Test]

“When I feel I am being criticized, especially by my husband, I get very angry – I see red. Now that I know why this happens and that we have a name for it, it’s a lot easier for us to know how to handle it together. He now appreciates that I don’t have the ability to resolve it in the moment and lets me be alone for a bit to calm down.” – Anonymous

“If you close a door on me, if you reject me, if you dismiss my feelings, I can’t control my reaction. It turns from frustration into white hot rage so quickly that I’m liable to throw something or break something. It’s incredibly embarrassing as an adult and I’m in therapy working on the anger.” –Anonymous

“RSD feels like constant failure, and then being criticized for feeling like a failure if I express any of my emotions.” – Anonymous

“Criticism usually triggers feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness. I immediately feel disconnected from the person who criticizes me.” – Anonymous

[Watch This Video: Why You Feel Rejection So Intensely]

“The initial feeling is as if you’ve been punched in the head and are struggling to regain consciousness. You then deny that it is affecting you, but your brain goes blank, your body paralyzes and, as if by the force of a volcanic eruption, you plunge into an abyss of infernal pain and fear. That is only the beginning. Nothing derails the power of RSD.” – Anonymous

“Due to many real and perceived rejections in my life from friends, family and co-workers, I have become scared to start any new friendships or group activities. I no longer volunteer to do things at church as I struggle too much to remember to get the tasks done or to attend the meetings. My family helps me out by reminding me and forgiving me when I forget.” – Anonymous

“Any sidelong look or shared smirk between people in a group conversation feels like I’m being made fun of, and most corrective feedback feels like, ‘You are not good enough. This is how you have failed.’ I know intellectually that these worries are irrational, but the thought only occurs to me after I’ve already felt the emotional sting of perceived rejection. I feel like I’m walking on eggshells around new acquaintances because I’m constantly trying to figure out what they want.” – Anonymous

“I understand rationally that my partner is not rejecting me when he doesn’t want to come to the Sunday market with me, but my emotions get easily out of hand. I feel like he doesn’t want to spend time with me, that I don’t matter, that I’m stupid for asking, that I’m uninteresting and dull, etc. It’s exhausting.” – Diana

“It is humiliation, followed by self-berating, and I feel it as a nauseous anxiety in my stomach. I anticipate it all the time when I have to present ideas at work, and in social situations I tend not to express my thoughts or feelings.” – Wendy

“It feels like my heart drops into my stomach and I’m completely taken out of the moment.” – Anonymous

“When I am criticized for a simple mistake at work I become extremely emotional and cry. It has been so humiliating that I have quit jobs.” Anonymous

“Every single time is like the very first time you got rejected as a child.” – Anonymous

“It’s a punch in the gut and a kick to the head while you are writhing on the ground. The parts of me that others miss I take care of by beating myself up for leaving myself vulnerable to them in the first place.” – Eric

I often misunderstand what people say and become defensive or angry. I feel like they are talking about me and laughing at me. I butt in at inappropriate times and say something irrelevant that pops into my head because it feels urgent at the time. My relationships have been affected by my outbursts and perceived insults.” – Anonymous

“The slightest change of expression or hesitation can feel like a slap in the face, whether it is real or perceived. For years if my husband tidied the house I perceived it as criticism, even though I knew he was meticulous before we married. He has had to walk on eggshells to avoid the minefield of my easily hurt feelings. I struggle with people-pleasing and am constantly analyzing the behavior of coworkers and supervisors for signs of their judgment.” – Anonymous

“RSD feels like searing regret, shame, embarrassment, and failure. At the slightest hint of disapproval, I crumble. I feel so inferior and I want to hide from the world – it’s safer that way.” – Anonymous

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria and ADHD: Next Steps

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4 Comments & Reviews

  1. When this happens to me I feel like someone gripped my heart and stopped it. I get a tightness in my chest and sometimes numbness in my face. I get very protective as if I’m being attacked and so my responses can range from fight (lashing out), flight (I just want to get away) or freeze (I go blank and don’t know what to do). I feel like RSD has motivated a lot of actions in my life and I wish I had realized this sooner as I could have saved myself a lot of hurt.

  2. Before knowing there was a term for it, I called it “debilitating rage.” It is as much physical as emotional, the first thing is that my heart begins to pound so hard it feels like being hit in the chest and I feel the pulse throughout my body. Everything tunnels in slightly, losing peripheral vision. My muscles tense so much that afterwards I often have knots in my shoulders and back, even soreness in my hands or thighs from clenching up. There is an overwhelming urge to hit something, to release the adrenaline and to take action to release the pent-up internal violence into something external. I have broken knuckles hitting a tree, a solid oak door, a metal street sign. I broke a toe once kicking something.

    But the real problem is what comes out of my mouth, I will say things I do not actually believe in an attack on whoever is there. Afterwards I am always left wondering why I said the things I did. There are even times when other people tell me something I said that I do not remember saying at all, and usually something particularly hurtful to others.

    It is triggered by any number of things. One thing I notice is that if I am caught in a little fib it means nothing, but if accused of lying when I am telling the truth that will cause it to explode. I have social anxiety and so when I am in situations where I am uncomfortable, the longer I am there the more likely it is to strike. And because of that I will often have the feeling built up and things that were not done or said with any ill intent or criticism will be misinterpreted and I will erupt anyway. Although, those are the ones I can kinda/sorta feel coming–however it can come on suddenly and unexpectedly even when I am in a great mood, if my brain interprets the thing as an insult or criticism. It is like anything that might make me uncomfortable instead turns into instant hot shame which only lasts for the barest fraction of a second before burning into white hot rage.

    But of all of this, the worst part is who it is that triggers it, and who receives the brunt of it. A stranger can say mean things to me and it will be as nothing, because I have no emotional investment in their opinions. No, it is the people I DO care about the most that are the ones who can trigger it so easily. It is like my fear of disappointing them or losing them causes me to worry too much, overreact in ways that triggers this and then I lose them anyway. I have lost numerous relationships because of this. Hard to blame them, really.

    And after everything has exploded out of me I am left imploded, feeling crushing shame and depression lasting for up to several days. Or longer. Maybe always.

  3. Constantly apologizing for my perceived mistakes or irritations to loved ones. My closest friend counted one day how many times I said I was sorry (when I hadn’t done anything wrong in his opinion. Not including like bumping into someone and apologizing or something like that.) and from like 8 am to 2 pm it was over 20 times.

    Ill apologize for stuff like someone telling me “oh man I’m tired today” and I respond “I’m sorry” so they’re like Why are you sorry did you keep me up last night? No? So y be sorry?

    Also, if anyone around me, especially people I’m close to/loved ones (it’s not as severe around like acquaintances/coworkers) seem to be upset/annoyed/angry or any sort of negative emotion I immediately assume I have caused it and apologize. Then i try to make up for “what I did wrong”. Even if they explain qnd reassure me its nothing to do with me and go so far as telling me why they’re in the bad mood (like something happened at work or whatever) I still apologize and/or try to “fix” the issue. It’s frustrating for both sides cuz I feel bad n try to fix something I’m unable to fix and they feel like they can’t just come to me to talk or vent cuz I’ll always assume blame and attempt to make it better.

    This is legitimately the most severe issue or symptom of my adhd that is the most debilitating thing in my life. It really ends up causing negative consequences probably 1000 times more than any of the other symptoms I deal with and causes the most strain on my personal relationships or has ruined personal relationships so I can’t understand how it isn’t an actual symptom or diagnostic thing for adhd.

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