ADHD Trait: Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

I begun 2021 by having a lowkey mental breakdown.

Yesterday was my first critique with my virtual writing group. My first writing critique ever in fact. I was very nervous but also excited! There’s no faster way to get better at writing than to get some criticism from fellow writers. Unfortunately, having been called “prolific” and “massively talented” back in the days of creative writing for high school may have inflated my ego a bit. Being able to CLEP out of English composition without taking any course or reading a textbook made me feel as if my understanding of grammar rules and everything related to it was rather solid. Reaching 10 patrons on Patreon who were willing to pay for my writing (!!!) made me think I must really be rather good at this writing thing.

I expected some notes about tense switching – it’s an issue I have. I knew that I spent more time telling rather than showing, though I wasn’t entirely sure how to fix it or whether it was really that big of a problem. I anticipated the helpful criticism of my writing – especially since I had invited them to be savage with it – but I also thought I’d receive a compliment or two on my more cleverly worded sentences or perhaps they’d say they really felt the emotion of the panic attack I wrote. Panic is a close friend. I know how to write panic. Or so I thought.

About halfway through the critique, I regretted asking them to be “savage”.

The beginning of my mental state beginning to unravel

But I detached effectively and got through it. Thank God they sent me their own notes since mine started to take a dive. Once the meeting was over, I went with Nicholas to Best Buy so he could pick something up. He slapped my hand at one point – not hard, not to be hurtful or aggressive, just a light tap to get me to move my hand – and I stormed out of the store without a word. I got Dunkin Donuts so I could eat my feelings even though I was legitimately so depressed I had no desire to eat. Which is a pretty alarming sign – my usual depression requires lots of sugar and trash; my severe depression requires starvation. When we got back, I sat down at my PC and read the documents with their notes. By the time I read, “I think the chapter would benefit from a complete rewrite,” I crawled into the fetal position in my bed and began to cry until I ran out of tears. Then I forced myself to watch some TikToks in an attempt to make myself feel better but as soon as I stopped, I just cried some more. Nicholas and I went out to smoke a cigarette and he talked me out of my hole some but not before I cried a little bit more.

After several hours of this, I finally reached a point where I felt like I would eventually be able to tackle rewriting the chapter and continue writing in general and not simply wait to die. I acknowledged how necessary and helpful the criticism was – how they spent their time giving me this incredible gift of insight and problem solving – and I was grateful. But getting to this point was extremely difficult. And before the night was over, I ended up lashing out with an old borderline personality disorder (BPD) trait – the subconscious sabotage, in the form of a “damned if you say ‘yes’, damned if you say ‘no'” kind of question posed for my husband – which resulted in me sobbing to the point of utter and complete fucking exhaustion. I cried more in a twelve hour period of time than I have since… well, November, to be fair. I’m sensitive, okay?

All throughout this experience, I could hear my rational mind like a tiny demure voice in the back of my head saying, “It’s just a critique. You asked for this. You need this. They gave you exactly what you asked for and your writing is going to be much better as a result. You should be grateful.” Unfortunately, this voice was drowned out by the emotional burn victim that I am who absolutely does throw herself face-down in her bed in a fit of melodrama, thank you very much.

I get it. This is not normal behavior.
Unfortunately, neither Royal nor I are “normal” and instead are absolutely prone to melodrama.

Now that I’ve had a good 24 hours to go through the gambit of emotions, I’m looking forward to – okay, no, that was a bold-faced lie – I’ve accepted the necessary task ahead of me and intend on beginning my chapter’s rewrite this week. I am looking forward to how much better it will be thanks to their feedback, even if I feel immensely daunted and really fucking talentless at long-form fiction writing. Though what I said to them prior to submitting it for critique has remained true all throughout this process – nothing they say could ever stop me from writing. It never crossed my mind to give up on being a novelist (though I’ll admit, I did consider completely scrapping Mirror Walker and trying it again ten years in the future when I’m better at long-form fiction).

So what does this have to do with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Well, after my delayed diagnosis at 21, I started to learn that there were a few things I had blamed on my BPD or anxiety that actually were rooted in my ADHD. The most heinous of these is without a doubt rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD).

Most people are aware of the term “dysphoria” in relation to gender dysphoria, or, at least, that was the case for me. Dysphoria however originates from a Greek word that means “hard to bear”. Which works pretty well as a blanket definition in both these cases. As it relates to RSD, rejection – or anything perceived as such, like criticism, makes the person with this particular set of symptoms feel as if they’re being completely rejected. Up to 99% of people with ADHD are more sensitive than the general population to rejection, though it won’t necessarily manifest as severely as it does for me. I’m inclined to think my other disorders help in intensifying this particular issue.

According to the OG WebMD, people with RSD may:

  • Be easily embarrassed
  • Get very angry or have an emotional outburst when they feel like someone has hurt or rejected them
  • Set high standards for themselves they often can’t meet
  • Have low self-esteem
  • Feel anxious, especially in social settings
  • Have problems with relationships
  • Stay away from social situations and withdraw from other people
  • Feel like a failure because they haven’t lived up to other people’s expectations
  • Sometimes think about hurting themselves

In the above instance, I absolutely and 100% felt like a failure not just due to failing to live up to the expectations I assumed my writing group had for my writing but more so because of how I failed to live up to my own expectations. Yesterday, I considered cutting myself for the first time in… a really long time.

Why the intense overreaction? If you suffer from RSD, you can thank your nervous system for this set of symptoms. After perceiving rejection, it starts a stress response that pumps out a parade of “you suck” chemicals. Of course, if your body is already stressed, (say you’re living through a pandemic, you haven’t seen your family and friends in months, your seasonal affective disorder is starting to kick in, you haven’t been sleeping well, you lived through a failed coup with the knowledge that often a failed coup is followed by successful coups, I could go on), you’re more likely to have this reaction. Managing stress the best you can helps. Medication can help as well. If this is something you’re interested in, I recommend setting up a telemed visit with your primary care physician to discuss it. Though, I’m of the opinion that the best treatment for pretty much every behavioral-based issue is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), or a mix of both.

The good news is that it’s pretty short lived at least. Obviously, in my case, I got over it by the time I woke up the next day. This is a pretty helpful indicator of whether you might be suffering from RSD or something else.

If you’re capable of taking criticism on the chin, kudos to you. It was a huge challenge for me in my career and I wish I had heard about RSD sooner; it would have helped me understand where these feelings were coming from and maybe pointed me in the right direction in dealing with them. If nothing else, I wouldn’t have felt so immensely alone in my inability to easily stomach rejection. This is what compelled me to share this experience with you all today – this is a relatively poorly known phenomenon that I hope becomes more widely known. With any luck, it might just help someone reading this to know they’re not alone, either.


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