Emotions & Shame

It’s OK to Cry — and Other Lessons from a Sensitive Mom with ADHD

The diagnostic criteria for ADHD includes nothing whatsoever about the crushing rejection we feel from a single comment or missed invitation, the overwhelming emotions that send our hearts racing and then sinking, or the shame all of this causes. Here is how I experience these little-known ADHD symptoms, and how I manage it all.

Tornado of emotions associated with ADHD
1 of 12

Emotional Hyperarousal and Rejection Sensitivity

I'm a mom. I have ADHD. And I’ve got the two symptoms everyone’s just starting to talk about and understand: emotional hyperarousal and rejection sensitivity. While it’s great for us to know why we feel the way we do, it doesn’t help us to, well, stop feeling it.

I can be a tornado of emotions, and I often feel rejected at the slightest word or hint of criticism. This is hard for me, hard for my spouse, hard for my kids, hard for my friends, hard on the Target cashier when I’m weeping in self-checkout. But it’s okay to feel the way we do. What’s not okay: suppressing our emotions and trying to soldier through life with a brave smile. Sometimes, you just have to cry.

Broken clock symbolizing bad communication
2 of 12

One: Spousal Rejection

Living with us can be difficult. Being married to us can be even harder. Being married takes hard work, and that hard work includes accepting criticism — and requests — with an open mind once in a while. Like, “I need you to listen more,” or “Please take the garbage out tomorrow.”

These seemingly innocuous statements can send us into spirals of rejection sensitivity. We feel not that we need to listen more, but that our spouse is saying we’re terrible for not listening enough. The garbage? An accusation of not taking it out last week, or shirking our responsibilities in general. We feel rejected and horrible. Our spouses feel baffled.

Danger unstable cliffs
3 of 12

Two: Emotional Hyperarousal — When You’re Married

Feelings of real or imagined rejection bring out sometimes paralyzing emotional hyperarousal. We’re dumb, we’re stupid, we’re lazy, we should fall off a cliff and — you get the idea.

We want to curl up in a ball and cry because someone asked us to take out the trash. Or we get really, really, really excited about something that might happen, when we probably ought to be a little more cautious. Our spouses get understandably annoyed as the cycle repeats. The anticipated thing doesn’t happen. We look and feel stupid. We hide from the world... until the next big, shiny promise. No wonder we get misdiagnosed so often.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria?]

Rejected toy - emotional turmoil of parenting
4 of 12

Three: The Emotional Turmoil of Parenting

Kids say whatever the heck pops in their heads. That might mean your four year old gazes up at you and says, “Mama, I wish you were Daddy.” Or your kids ask too many times when Daddy is coming home (Not that you counted. Okay, you did). Or they want your spouse to put them to bed instead of you, or they just sit next to your spouse instead of you. All of these small transgressions can make you feel massively rejected. Which makes you feel not only like your kids don’t love you, but that you must also be a terrible parent. It’s a lose-lose.

A spiderweb symbolizing ADHD emotionality
5 of 12

Four: You Can’t Pretend Everything Is Fine When It’s Not

And clearly you are a terrible parent, because you’re not supposed to show excessive emotion in front of your kids, right? But you cry running errands when you realize you messed up the application to your kid’s summer camp and now he can’t go. You yell cuss words at the driver who nearly sideswiped you — on the side with the car seat. You seethe loudly at your mother-in-law. You burst into tears at the sight of a destroyed playroom, or scream when you see a spider. Emotional hyperarousal can make it hard to be the stereotypical “good” parent. But remember: it’s healthy for kids to see you deal with your emotions. The trick is learning to do so in a healthy way.

Hot faucet - turn off emotions
6 of 12

Step One: Recognize Your Emotions

First, acknowledge that you’re going over the top. That doesn’t mean you have to stop — you can’t make yourself miraculously turn off your feelings — but rather verbalize it. Say out loud, “I feel upset because that driver almost sideswiped us. I feel scared and afraid and that makes me angry, and so does the idea that someone would drive that way.” Or you could try, “I am crying because this playroom is so messy and I feel despair that it will never get cleaned unless I do it, and I do not want to do that.”

At least then your kids will know what’s going on, and won’t be scared or confused by your emotions.

Silly sad emotions
7 of 12

Step Two: Talk About Your Feelings

Dealing with rejection can be harder, because it always involves two people: the person feeling rejected and the person supposedly doing the rejecting (often, unintentionally). The first step, again, is to recognize that feeling of rejection. Sit with it a second. Then try something like, “Mama is so silly! When you did/said that (sat with Daddy, asked for Daddy, etc.), it made me feel so sad. It would help me a lot if you said you love me!” (with the last part delivered in a giggly voice or a monster voice). That way, you get the assurances you need but without being a scary, manipulative meanie.

[Free Download: Understanding Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria]

8 of 12

Step Three: Don’t Assume They Understand

Use the same tactics on your spouse — but be a lot more frank and honest. First, you need to make sure they understand about emotional hyperarousal and rejection sensitivity. It can be a lot to take in, so give them some good articles to read, and make sure you arm yourself with specific examples from your life. “Remember the time I...” is a good way to start a conversation. That way they can see real-life instances wherein your ADHD has caused you to do, say, think, and act certain ways.

Release bad emotions like balloons
9 of 12

Step Four: Consider Therapy

To move forward, you have to learn to see when you’re in the midst of rejection sensitivity. And that can be really, really, really hard. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help a lot. So can other types of therapy, including the dialectical behavioral type. Basically, any time you feel that someone has criticized or rejected you, you need to learn to stop. Feel your emotion. Then think, “If I said that to someone, would I mean for them to feel what I’m feeling?” The answer is almost always no, because you’re basically good — and you have to assume that of others. Then, the hardest part: learn some effective ways to let go of that feeling.

Reassuring hugs from friends
10 of 12

Step Five: Expose Your Feelings to the Light of Day

In the beginning, especially with your spouse, but even with other adults in your life, it helps to say something like, “My ADHD gives me rejection sensitivity. Right now, what you said (repeat it) is making me feel (vocalize the feeling). I don’t think you mean for me to feel that way, and it would help if you reassured me.”

Yes, you might feel like you’re talking out of a self-help book. But when another person verbally assures you that they didn’t mean to make you feel like a horrible person, you’ll feel a lot better. Much better than if you miserably clam up (my defense) or lash out.

Rollercoaster of ADHD emotions
11 of 12

Step Six: Stop Shaming Yourself!

Emotional hyperarousal? That’s a roller coaster we can’t get off. Psychologically and neurologically, we are just not fully in charge. But we can learn to recognize when our emotions are running haywire (“Do other people react this way?”).

You can learn to accept that your emotions are running wild, that the running wild is valid and okay and acceptable — not somehow wrong or bad. And that you are not wrong or bad for feeling them. Only then can you try to control how you react to those emotions. You might not be able to stop crying in the Target checkout line. But you might be able to see more clearly that the problem is temporary, and assure your kids that everything will be okay.

Your ADHD toolbox
12 of 12

Step Seven: Forgive. And Move On.

Emotional hyperarousal and rejection sensitivity are two of the trickiest ADHD symptoms for many of us. We can manage the spaciness and lateness and messiness and executive functioning issues, but when it comes to the emotional side — well, most people just don’t know about or understand it. Your psychiatrist might not even understand the link between ADHD and emotions, which makes this side of our brain difference even more difficult to manage. Many of us are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders when we’re really suffering with our ADHD. It can be hard. But knowing that others struggle too can be liberating. And so can having some tools in your toolbox for when those heady emotions strike.

[Free Webinar: How ADHD Shapes Your Perceptions, Emotions & Motivation]

6 Comments & Reviews

  1. Thanks for these personal descriptions of behaviors so many of us have experienced. It helps a lot to be able to recognize our unsettling behaviors and know others have the same experiences.

    When I badly needed some help with my rejection overreaction problems 20 years ago there were no books out there for the general public. I decided to write ‘Don’t Take it Personally! the Art of Dealing with Rejection.’ I did figure out that rejection is connected to taking things personally and focused on this aspect.

    Because in my private practice I work with many couples and realized a how helpful a book with couples stories about overreacting to perceived rejection and how taking things personally was contaminating their relationships would be helpful.

    And each time I write, I find I’m helping myself continue to grow past my own rejection and self-rejection struggles.

    I’ve worked with ADHD clients for 35 years and have always intuited there was an especially hyper-sensitive perception of and reaction to rejection.

    Then I started wondering about me. Recently I asked to be tested for ADHD and just as I guessed, I sure am!

    I find the most helpful way to make changes in our behavior is to make a choice to make a change. However we really can’t change behavior unless we are aware of it. After all if we have blind spots, we really cannot decide to change our behavior if we don’t see it. It’s pretty hard to think things through when we are feeling the overwhelm of rejection.

    It’s exciting when I’m coaching clients and workshop participants and they are able to step back from their feelings of shame and humiliation and begin to make choices about the messages they are telling themselves!

    I call it “walking alongside yourself, mindfully noticing what just transpired, choosing to go back to the fork in the road and start down a new path.” And mindful means ‘without judgement.”

    I adopted a motto for my self as a reminder: “Self-respect instead of Self-reject!”

    Elayne Savage, PhD

    1. I have the very same problems and bad! I was diagnosed with adhd 22 years ago at the age of 34. I still haven’t found an answer to these problems. I’ve cried because I don’t have anymore ideas of what might help.
      I’m crying with you!

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I had no idea “hyper arousal” was a term/diagnosis. I just sort of thought I was crazy all these years. This will help me so much to explain my emotional reactions to my husband.

  3. A good post. It is also important to seek help, as this can lead to very significant relationship problems. A spouse can feel as though they can’t bring anything up because then they don’t get to actually deal with an issue, without having to first deal with the RSD. I have seen this destroy a lot of good things. It can also lead to extremes that involve kids or spouses being scared of you. While important to understand the emotional perspective of the one with ADHD/RSD, it is also very important to understand that it needs to be managed in a way that supports all members of the household in a positive way.

  4. I see a lot about people having to explain their crying. Growing up I was taught it’s not okay to cry. But what I also learned is when you’re upset, yell. My emotional hyperarousal is all about anger. It’s how I express my upsetness.

    Now, I’m 55 and I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t get diagnosed until I was 47. I don’t medicate or therapize. I know why I get mad, and I try to explain it. But you can’t undo it. You can undo crying. It’s not necessarily hurting anyone else (as long as you can explain why it happens.) But anger can’t be explained away. And even if I know why it happens (now. because even after being diagnosed I didn’t know about RSD until last year), it’s taken its toll on my now-broken family already. 🙁

  5. I enjoyed this article, but I feel there’s a real danger in lumping in every symptom we have with the ADHD diagnosis. I have ADHD myself in addition to bipolar 2 disorder and I have worked in mental health for 20+ years.

    My own personal opinion is that ADHD is a disorder of cognitive processing, which yes can and will always impact emotions, relationships and our ability to manage them. But as pointed out so often here, there are so so many co-morbid disorders re: emotion regulation, and it can greatly muddy the waters to say these are part of ADHD. There’s good reason why many emotional and relationship challenges are not part of ADHD diagnosis, it’s because they are usually side effects/ impacts of the disorder and not inherently part of its pathology. The same can be said of many other cognitive processing disorders, and it’s often the support we receive early in our development years and our early understanding of our challenges that defines the extent of the impact on our emotional development… So nurture much more so than nature.

    All of that said, it could equally be the other way around… Where emotional development and challenges can impact our processing… The difference is that the processing issues resolve themselves when the emotions are managed, but the same can’t be said of the other way around… I.e. treating ADHD does not necessarily resolve the emotional challenges… Especially when the chemicals in the brain which control mood are out of sync, and so should therefore be assessed both separately and combined with ADHD overlap.

Leave a Reply