I didn’t intend for this blog to turn into ruminations on hindsight and ADHD, but I feel that this topic is so important (and fascinating) that it deserves its own post, so, here we are.
I first heard this term on reddit of all places, in a random thread about emotions. A fellow made an offhand comment about how he, along with many people with ADHD suffer from “RSD”; he explained it as a debilitating disorder. I took notice because at the time Allyn was just starting ADHD treatment, and he can be a pretty emotionally reactive person. I say can be because honestly, at his core, he’s not reactive at all, and he has the typical, “learned” (forced?) Western-male ’emotional restraint.’ I know it sounds strange, but his emotional reactions often seemed to go against his own nature and personality, as though they were out of the blue. I had always chalked this up to trauma or carbs or whatever, but I started researching.
To save everyone a google, “Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) is an extreme emotional sensitivity and emotional pain triggered by the perception — not necessarily the reality — that a person has been rejected, teased, or criticized by important people in their life.” Just like when studying ADHD symptoms I was so focused (hyperfocused, you might say…lol) on demystifying Allyn that I never considered those words in relation to me.
Here are some more symptoms:
Rejection sensitive dysphoria is the pain felt by those with ADHD when faced with criticism or failure. More accurately, it is their perception of being rejected. People with RSD might be easily embarrassed and anxious, though their impetuosity and practice hiding their sensitivity might make it difficult to detect.
They overreact to slights in all sorts of ways, sometimes having a meltdown, becoming enraged, depressed, or even suicidal. Some overachieve and people please to avoid criticism, ignoring their own desires and goals. Many create self-imposed limitations, avoiding new or challenging situations and relationships. A few become cruel and distant to others in order to avoid attachment and risk rejection.
These episodes of depression and anger might be brief and, unlike bipolar disorder, tend to be based on events rather than cycles. Still, other disorders, such as borderline personality disorder and post traumatic stress disorder, manifest similar sensitivity and reactivity.
To be honest, I’m not sure how medically accepted RSD is–most of the literature on it seems anecdotal and very new, and penned by one particular doctor (which doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it just means…there’s not a lot of info there) but my doubts were assuaged when I read the hundreds of comments on multiple articles exclaiming relief and disbelief and all sorts of triumphant “aha” moments, because these sufferers finally had vindication and a name for their specific and undiagnosed struggle.
So, take anything I say with that grain of salt if you are looking for a diagnosis. I don’t know what treatments are available for it and as of yet I haven’t even mentioned it to my therapist or doctor. I do plan to, but in the meantime it’s all online self-led research. I read hundreds of personal stories and just about every webpage that exists on the subject. A lot of it fit Allyn’s ‘out of character’ reactions. It seemed so alien to me, me the person who is the textbook “fuck ’em” personality and has no reservations about being vocal and standing up for myself. I don’t expect everyone to like me and don’t blame them when they don’t. This also describes Allyn, by the way. Yet his disproportionate level of guilt, sadness, self-hatred, and other negative emotions following an objectively mild argument or disagreement are absolutely indicative of RSD.
I guess I best visualized this as a random black hole that could suck Allyn in anytime there was a misunderstanding. Oddly enough, that’s another trait he shares with my dad, although Allyn’s signature emotional response tends to be sadness while my dad’s is complete white-hot rage. This is really disorienting to me, someone who already has a fair share of a) unpredictable emotions on her plate and b) what she thought was a thorough understanding of someone’s psyche. Needless to say in the past I haven’t handled Allyn’s about-face emotions well at all. As I said, it was disorienting and for someone with PTSD, an abrupt character change doesn’t get processed easily.
Telling Allyn about RSD and seeing his relief and excitement (which is mirrored by all ADHD sufferers I’ve seen on forums) further gave credence to the phenomenon. For both of us, it seemed to make it instantly easier to deal with. Instead of taking on every abrupt reaction with no guidance, he or I can say, “Is this the dysphoria?” It kind of took the power out of the emotions. Maybe not in every instance of course…but overall, I’d say it has been like applying ice to a burn for him.
So, we’ve known about RSD for awhile. Fast forward to me being diagnosed with ADHD. I wondered, do I have RSD too? Almost immediately I dismissed the idea. Nahhhhhh, I was sure (as sure as I was that I didn’t have ADHD for 31 years…) that I didn’t give a rat’s ass about rejection. I have been known to go out of my way to offend, in fact, so who has room for rejection? I convinced myself that I wasn’t as ‘sensitive’ as Allyn when it comes to others opinions of me. However, I do share the same tendency to get sucked into a black hole again traits I share with Allyn and my dad. After a snap argument in which I went to the black hole, I really started analyzing.
Nobody cared less about rejection than my dad. Where I would offend, he straight up rejected society and anybody and everybody in it, living off the land and on his own terms. He is one of those ‘door shut’ people, and so am I. I had been certain that for years, my snap reactions were the byproduct of cautious, aggressive and necessary conditioning to cope with people. I grew up apart from the modern world and didn’t, and still don’t, fit into it exactly right…so over the years I thought I knew my reasoning for my own “get out of my life” snap decisions. Again, I was trying to cope with the strange, shitty nature of people. But wasn’t my dad? …I don’t claim to know all the mysteries of my dad’s mind, but I know that he took great offense to perceived insubordination or someone ‘brushing him off.’ In reality, he taught us to grow up being a bit snobbish. (Sidenote: I’ve always known that and I thoroughly embrace it; I don’t see it as inherently bad or necessitating change. Just an observation)
Anger is used to mask a deeper, more complex emotion. Allyn didn’t use anger to mask his–he showed his sadness or disappointment and rarely had rage to hide it. I was cringing when I realized the signature anger of my father and I were just those other emotions under a facade of rage. How I overlooked this for so long, I’m not sure, but it finally struck me that our causes might be the same, despite drastically different reactions.
Now, too, it was time to backpedal and look at why I treat people the way that I do. I have dysthymia–chronic, lifelong depression–but it has little bearing on my ability to create and maintain wholesome relationships or, alternately, balk at rejection. I can’t blame depression for being so hard on people or being a snob. I’m lucky enough that people see the ‘eeyore’ in me and still want to hang out. Rather I just didn’t “deal” with anything negative in my own circle of friends. If it happened, you were out, just like my dad.
Was it possible I was one of those “cold” types who just shut the door in the faces of people to avoid rejection in the first place? RSD is described and felt as sudden, heartbreaking rejection and pain. It’s like biting on sugar with a cavity, but emotionally. I certainly have felt those feelings, and never questioned them as a lot that’s happened to me has been heartbreaking and painful.
However, I’ve also certainly overreacted and put blame on those who maybe gave me a gentle nudge instead of throwing me out the door. Just like the horror I felt over realizing AH CRAP I HAVE ADHD….it was the same thing. AHHHH C R A P I HAVE RSD.
Allyn and I react completely differently in the face of perceived rejection. He gets upset, sad, guilty, and could probably write an amazing emo song in his mindset. I get enraged, boorish to an extraordinary degree, insulting, and in some cases threatening or violent…more along the lines of a metal song. I have to make the point that I rarely show this behavior, but I feel it frequently. In some friendships or relationships I felt it daily.
And I now understand that in order to avoid even feeling it, much less showing it, I have put a very hard limit on what I allow others to see of me. I have no doubt that this is all mixed up in my learned behaviors in foster care and beforehand, but the fact remains that it’s a defense mechanism to guard against perceived rejection. I have no doubt it’s connected to the same fear of failure that all those with ADHD relate to. I’m sure a good portion of it is related to PTSD as well. Regardless, the ‘dysphoria’ aka the painful, all-encompassing emotion, is there and I have learned over time how to shut people out enough to avoid feeling it.
The potential good news is that can give really vivid, concrete examples of my dysphoria, which might be helpful to anyone else going through this, or even to people in my life who wonder why I act like a fucking luantic sometimes.
For me, I’ve noticed that the most intense suffering occurs when three criteria are met. One, I have to actually care about the person doing the so-called rejecting. If it is a random guy on the street booing at me, dude, so what? (Most of us are like this to a degree, I’d imagine.) But the second element is that I have to feel unsure of myself. If an inkling of self-doubt is in my head, I absolutely will not lower myself to the realm of possible ridicule. The third and final element is perceiving rejection from someone knowledgeable/able in whatever situation we’re in. In other words if I don’t know how to play tuba and you don’t know how to either, we’re both stupid idiots and I can laugh about mutual failure. For me, the inferiority of feeling stupid next to someone capable is so infuriating even imagining it has me flustered.
A good example of avoiding this feeling is when I got my armed license. I not only practiced at home with an airsoft pistol, but I also set up a private lesson with a weapons instructor the day before to have a knowledgeable edge…had I not done that, I was put at ease because other than a few veterans, most of the people in our group were weapon novices. I felt fine at the range despite knowing next to nothing about being a licensed carrier. All of the setup ensured I wasn’t around people I cared about, I didn’t have any self doubt, and nobody there was going to point me out as the stupid one. Maybe I’m a prideful bitch, but what could be praised as being ‘thorough and prepared’ could also be taken as being ‘hyperaware and insecure and willing to go the extra mile to avoid ridicule.’
So, the examples of an RSD reaction.
I am not a physically strong person and I err on the side of “that looks dangerous.” I had a set of daredevil friends at 18 years old who liked to cliff dive into a particularly rocky and unpredictable river. The first time we went, I peered over the edge–hard no. My friends gently chided me and encouraged me until I literally EXPLODED into a fiery rage and even almost fifteen years later, I remember how angry and hurt I felt over this. I was furious. Why did I need to jump off the stupid rocks? Why were they making fun of me? Why didn’t they accept me? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t just fucking jump? The objective situation was them saying “hey Alex, jump! Yeah, it’s fun!” and then after seeing my further discomfort, they were happy to drop it and do their thing while I sat there, fuming. So you can see the three elements: I cared about my friends opinions of me, I had self-doubt, and they were capable where I was not. What a disaster.
Another example concerned an attempt at creating music with another friend. Again, if I feel comfortable doing something–teaching, writing, EMT stuff–I won’t hesitate to jump in and take the lead if I need to. But singing and music is something I dabble in and that’s it. But my friend was more educated and talented and clever and as far as I was concerned, had high expectations of my talent. The overwhelming black hole and fear of rejection swallowed me up and I couldn’t get a peep out.
I think I disassociated for like half a day during this dysphoria. This was a situation where I cut off the opportunity for embarrassment, but a bit too late, after the recording was supposed to happen. On top of the fear of ridicule of my lack of knowledge and ability with music, I got to feel a secondary wash of ridicule for cancelling the plans after they were made. Ever just want to set yourself on fire? But it had the three elements: caring about someone’s opinion, lack of self-confidence, and being around someone competent.
My final and most recent example: Allyn and I went to a trampoline park, and as I said I’m not very physical. I can jump, but that’s about it. Allyn is over there doing flips and backflips and begging me to come into the nasty gross foam pit. First of all, when I look at it, all I can imagine is toe jam and kids drool. Secondly, self doubt was surfacing. Here is this awesome, physically inclined, backflipping person I care about egging me to do something actual children do, and I am instantly about to explode in anger.
At least this time I mentally told myself I was being a dumbass, and to try and squelch my own anger I just took the real physical leap, into the foam pit. NATURALLY I got stuck. I couldn’t pull myself out because a) fat and lazy, b) postpartum, weak body, c) I was emotionally compromised and could longer maintain control of this vessel. I also think my intense panic at the germs/snot/pit of death played a factor. Excuses aside, pick as many as you like, but the added humiliation of painfully (and might I add, near a panic attack thinking of the germs and pee and missing teeth in this pit of disgustingness) and slowly exiting the foam pit while everyone else was jumping and laughing sent me into the most outlandish rage that goddamn trampoline park has ever seen. So there was my dysphoria again, a Vesuvius before anyone knew what was happening.
I am all for being vulnerable now and then. I like doing scary things, hell, I jumped off the Stratosphere twice. I lived in a foreign country on my own. I swipe my card without knowing my balance. I’m not a wimp or a coward. I absolutely live for courage and find it a more bedazzling trait than most others. I think one of the most beautiful things about this journey with Allyn is learning that we have oddly synchronized disorders and aren’t as different as we initially believe; however, I fight vulnerability every goddamn step of the way and probably always will.
I will admit my mistakes and apologize for them, but only on my own terms, where I know the limitations and expectations won’t turn into something that I’m unfamiliar with. When I sense the unfamiliar territory, I waft out of the scenario like a gentle breeze has carried me to safer, higher ground in which I can be a rightful snobby know-it-all. I’m not saying my way is best, or that I shouldn’t work on it…again, just observing the person that I am.
The good news is identifying all of this has led to the same reaction as Allyn. Instead of getting mad at a friend over a perceived slight, I’m able to identify this devastating emotion and just put my phone down instead of lash out with a scathing reply to whatever (usually innocent or teasing) remark sent me on the warpath. As I said it doesn’t take the pain away, but it is like ice on a burn. I can deal with the sense of rejection and feeling stupid until it fades on its own, without escalating the situation the way I have most of my life. At least that’s true for a lot of these snap reactions. I’m still working on this and I find it fascinating, pathetic, and hilarious that I’m in a period of deep self-discovery brought on by someone else’s diagnosis. Regardless of circumstance, it always feels good to learn something new about yourself, and have a new instruction manual on how to proceed, even if you have to write it yourself.