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ADHD and Rejection Sensitivity


What is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria?

Rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD) is extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by the perception that a person has been rejected or criticized by important people in their life. It may also be triggered by a sense of falling short—failing to meet their own high standards or others’ expectations.


When this emotional response is internalized (and it often is for people with RSD), it can imitate a full, major mood disorder complete with suicidal ideation. The sudden change from feeling perfectly fine to feeling intensely sad that results from RSD is often misdiagnosed as rapid cycling mood disorder.


Rejection sensitivity is hard to tease apart. Often, people can’t find the words to describe its pain. They say it’s intense, awful, terrible, overwhelming. It is always triggered by the perceived or real loss of approval, love, or respect.

People with ADHD cope with this huge emotional elephant in two main ways, which are not mutually exclusive.


1. They become people pleasers. They scan every person they meet to figure out what that person admires and praises. Then they present that false self to others. Often this becomes such a dominating goal that they forget what they actually wanted from their own lives. They are too busy making sure other people aren’t displeased with them.


2. They stop trying. If there is the slightest possibility that a person might try something new and fail or fall short in front of anyone else, it becomes too painful or too risky to make the effort. These bright, capable people avoid any activities that are anxiety-provoking and end up giving up things like dating, applying for jobs, or speaking up in public (both socially and professionally).


Rejection sensitivity is part of ADHD. It’s neurologic and genetic. Early childhood trauma makes anything worse, but it does not cause RSD. Often, patients are comforted just to know there is a name for this feeling. It makes a difference knowing what it is, that they are not alone, and that almost 100% of people with ADHD experience rejection sensitivity. After hearing this diagnosis, they’re relieved to know it’s not their fault and that they are not damaged

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