RSD – Are You Sensitive to Criticism?

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Do you hate any kind of rejection? Maybe from family, friends, managers, teachers? Does even the slightest change in tone, or little eye roll have you feeling completely hurt and send you into a spiral of negative thoughts? Everyone has negative experiences of rejection sometimes but, if you’re often feeling overwhelmed by rejection, or it affects your daily life, it’s possible that you have Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (or RSD). Read on to find out more.


Often common amongst Autistic or ADHDers (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder), rejection sensitivity can rule someone’s life. Classed as a sensitivity to rejection or criticism from another person, RSD can have a dramatic effect on a person’s life experiences and self esteem.

I’m sure we all have memories of when we were told off as a child, or maybe as an adult – it probably didn’t feel great. However if you have RSD, it won’t just feel bad, it can feel acutely painful. And, not only that, but it can actually feel as if all someone’s love and respect for you has been withdrawn in that very moment.

Crucially with RSD it might not even be a real rejection. It can be just perceived. How many times have you seen people whispering to each other and been absolutely convinced it’s about you? Often it’s quite likely not about you but you’ve perceived it as a rejection. If you have rejection sensitivity then this is likely to be an experience that stays with you. Even when the rejection is only perceived, your nervous system still reacts as if it’s real.

It can trigger a spiral of negative thoughts about the situation and yourself. A spiral that’s hard to get out of and you might relive the situation again and again. It might cause you to ask questions like “What’s wrong with me? Or “Why can’t I just let it go?”

This merry go round of anxious and negative thoughts can dominate your mind and be utterly exhausting

And considering that, as an example, a child with ADHD will experience approximately 20,000 corrections or negative comments by the time they’re age 10, there can be a lot of rejection experiences to relive (Jellinek, 2010)

Your Brain’s Coping Strategies

Your brain is incredibly clever. Once it perceives a threat, your brain will find a way to protect you to keep safe. Even if the threat is not a life or death situation, your brain will still put in mechanisms to try to stop it happening again.

So as a way of coping with the painful feelings around rejection, your brain will develop ways of coping. You may overthink every interaction and start to expect rejection everywhere. If your brain can be hyper vigilant to rejection like this, you won’t be surprised when it happens and you get hurt.

Another common coping mechanism is avoidance, where you may do everything you possibly can to avoid feeling that hurt again.

If you’re a student in school for example, you might start skipping lessons or making up excuses so you don’t have to risk the possibility you might be rejected.

Or conversely you might work incredibly hard to behave impeccably, becoming a perfectionist, never daring to put a foot wrong. If you can always get it right then you won’t be rejected.

Although this “good” behaviour sounds really positive, in reality it can lead to exhaustion, anxiety and ultimately burnout as you try so hard to please others and not be rejected. And of course it’s not realistic to always get everything right. We’re all human and, over time, even small mistakes can seem really scary and create an anxiety loop.

In adulthood this “please others” mentality continues. With the threat of burnout ever present, it can also lead to you ignoring your own needs and putting yourself last in order to make sure you’re not rejected. Your sense of self is then likely to be affected and lead to a general lack of trust in yourself.

Relationships, friendships, work life; everything can be affected by RSD. You might push people away to avoid getting hurt.

It is becoming increasingly common for adults to be diagnosed with ADHD and autism in later life, particularly women for whom it may have gone unnoticed due to their ability to “mask”.

And lots of people don’t realise they have RSD – they may just feel there’s fundamentally something wrong with them and this can have a massive effect on self esteem. Whereas in reality, this is a recognised condition which often co occurs with a neurodivergence (autism, ADHD, dyslexia etc). For some, it can be a big relief to find this out.

And similarly, for some parents of children who seem to take any rejection so badly, it can be a relief to find out there is a reason.

So, what can you do about it?

Self Awareness

The first step is to improve your self awareness. Once you’re aware that this is potentially an issue for you, you can start to understand yourself better. If you haven’t considered whether you are neurodivergent before, you might like to do some reading on the subject. There are even some basic online tests for autism, ADHD and dyslexia that give you an indication whether it’s worth pursuing. The National Autistic Society and ADHD UK might be good places to start.

Many of my clients express a feeling of relief after getting a diagnosis of (or self identifying with) autism or ADHD. Past events that have become lodged in the brain start to make more sense when looked at through the lens of neurodivergence.

Exploring RSD itself can be enlightening and helpful for self awareness. For instance, RSD can often emerge in a variety of ways.

As a neurodivergent person you may have often grown up feeling misunderstood a lot. Perhaps feeling like people misread your intentions or that you somehow always missed the mark. This leads to feelings of rejection where you blame yourself for always getting it wrong.

One way these experiences can manifest is as an urge to clarify everything you say – to make sure you’re being heard correctly. Maybe following up your email with another one or two to explain more fully, or speaking more words than may be necessary to get your point across. Perhaps you’re often remembering something you should have said after the conversation. If you’ve had years of misunderstandings, awkwardness and a feeling of not being heard, this can easily translate into the need to clarify.

What’s Your “Stuff?”

in order to build further on your self awareness it can be useful to think about what is your “stuff” and what is the other person’s in an interaction or relationship. So, for example, if you accidentally bumped into someone and got shouted at, how much if that is actually your responsibility? It was an accident, that you’re sure of. But still the feelings of rejection, guilt and even shame can be intense. So what is your stuff and what is theirs?

Yes the other person may be upset or angry, but their rejection is not actually of you in your entirety. They may have made incorrect assumptions about your character based on that one small event. So then their rejection is actually just of how they perceive you in that fleeting moment.

On top of that, think of what might have been going on for them that day? Maybe they’d just had an argument, or a bad day, or felt ill or just grumpy? This (their stuff) would mean they’d likely have less patience and it would distort their view of the situation and cause them to have more of a reaction to you.

When you start to break it down you can sometimes begin to rationalise what was going on. It won’t make the feeling of rejection go away, but it can help reduce the number of times you go over and over the experience in your head.

Expectations

Set reasonable expectations of yourself. You can’t make everybody like you all of the time. Remind yourself that people make mistakes and it doesn’t reflect on you as a person. This image from @the.chronic.couple gives you some useful things to remember when you suffer from RSD.

It can help to build up a store of positive things about you and your life that you can look back in and remind yourself what kind of person you are. This can link to gratitude practices which are helpful to bring more positivity. Have a look at my 5 Ways Gratitude Can Help You for more inspiration.

Counselling

Having experienced many small (or larger) rejections over a lifetime, RSD can leave many people feeling confused, overwhelmed and even shamed.

This is where counselling can be especially helpful. Generally the way to tackle shame is to bring it out into the open. In a safe space, the relationship between client and counsellor can be explored and reflected on. When a rejection is felt by the client, the counsellor can gently explore what is going on, and look at how healthier coping strategies could help reduce the intensity of RSD in other relationships.

Talking to someone about your past experiences can help to reduce the overwhelm and confusion and exploring what a potential neurodivergence might mean can be useful too.

I wrote an article on Therapy and Neurodivergence which gives some more insights on how counsellors can best work with people who are neurodivergent. I also have an article on Diagnosis/Assessment What now? which may help you if you’re at early stages of looking at neurodivergence.


Amy is a counsellor specialising in neurodivergence and the founder of Newglade Counselling. She has created a team of neurodivergent counsellors who work online and face to face around Canterbury, Kent. Amy also provides parent support sessions, clinical supervision and delivers training in therapy and neurodivergence. For more information about our services contact us here


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  1. Christine Daire

    Hi there! This article could not be written any better! Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept preaching about this. I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a great read. Many thanks for sharing!

  2. Christine Daire

    Hi there! This article could not be written any better! Looking at this article reminds me of my previous roommate! He always kept preaching about this. I will forward this post to him. Fairly certain he will have a great read. Many thanks for sharing!

  3. Melanie

    This article has been hugely helpful and I think it describes both my children and me (we all have ADHD and my son has also been diagnosed with Aspergers).

    I wish I had known about this when my children were young as it would have changed my parenting style and I think made us a happier family and my children less anxious, but better late than never and I will try and Interact with my children with this in mind from from now on

    1. Anonymous

      I’m so pleased you found it helpful and thank you for sharing 😊 Amy

  4. Melanie

    This article has been hugely helpful and I think it describes both my children and me (we all have ADHD and my son has also been diagnosed with Aspergers).

    I wish I had known about this when my children were young as it would have changed my parenting style and I think made us a happier family and my children less anxious, but better late than never and I will try and Interact with my children with this in mind from from now on

    1. Anonymous

      I’m so pleased you found it helpful and thank you for sharing 😊 Amy

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