January 20th, 2021

Accepting Yourself ADHD and All: Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

I was diagnosed with ADHD and Auditory Processing Disorder when I was five years of age. In school, I approached tasks differently and found it hard to start a project and stay with it until I was finished. I was known for being quite the daydreamer. I also struggled to manage my emotions and would have legendary tantrums (I had quite the reputation in my family!). I would become frustrated when trying to focus my attention in school, and I was keenly aware when my classmates would finish their work before me. Even though I would hold it together in the classroom, I would meltdown at home when faced with even minor problems.

“My emotions were so intense, and I found it difficult to put my thoughts into words.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned coping strategies to manage my emotions, but the intensity of these feelings really hasn’t changed. By middle and high school, like most kids, I became more aware of and concerned with others’ perceptions of me. I became particularly sensitive to criticism directed at me. In retrospect, this included perceived criticisms that in reality were probably innocent comments.

Even now, when I feel as if I’m being criticized, it can be overwhelming. I can move quickly to the edge of tears, a heavy weight sinks into my gut, and I fill with self-doubt. In the aftermath of these moments, I have to fight spiraling into a mindset of shame and fear – shame about mistakes I’ve made in the past and fear that I could make more mistakes in the future.

“These were all struggles that I kept to myself because I didn’t know why I suffered, and I had no idea that many others with ADHD shared similar experiences.”

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) is a condition that causes extreme emotional sensitivity to being criticized, whether that criticism is real or perceived. Although this mental health condition is gaining more attention, it is still relatively new and is not included in most diagnostic manuals. This means that there aren’t “official symptoms” that certify that someone has RSD, but there are symptoms that are heavily associated with having RSD. Some of the symptoms are setting ridiculously high self-expectations for goals along with heightened sensitivity about potential rejection.

Experiencing pain and heartbreak from rejection – even an invented rejection- can lead to sudden emotional outbursts, negative self-talk (sometimes thoughts of self harm), low self-esteem, self-sabotage or being your “own worst enemy,” and avoidance of social situations or situations that may trigger those unbearable feelings of rejection. People with RSD describe this emotional pain as a short, intense burst, like a “stab or punch” to the chest.

Researchers have discovered an association between RSD and ADHD, especially Emotional Dysregulation. Even though this area impacts many people with ADHD, it has sort of been put on the back burner because it is challenging to research an area that centers around an individual’s subjective experience, especially for adults with ADHD.

“The criteria for diagnosis for ADHD fits well with children who are 6-12 years of age, but as children grow older, ADHD can affect them in ways that are not as widely acknowledged, such as the impact on emotions, thinking styles, relationships, and trouble with sleep.”

Personally, information about the impact of RSD resonates with me. As a college freshman who is living on her own for the first time, I can attest to experiencing these issues. I have struggled with balancing responsibilities and interests. I can become so involved with my school work and other obligations that I don’t get the sleep I need, have 3 weeks worth of laundry all over my floor, and forget to tend to important relationships in my life. This can have a terrible effect on my mood and productivity. My quick reaction is to be extremely critical of myself, anxious, compare myself to others, and feel like a total failure. Together, this vicious cycle and its effects can make me feel like I have no control over my life, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Although I do struggle in some ways, there are also many areas in which I thrive. My ADHD has allowed me to come up with unique and creative solutions to problems.”

For example, I use artwork, color, and visual symbols on my calendar to keep track of assignments. I also thrive in creative environments and love to collaborate with others and create projects. I’m an Acting major, and when I’m involved in a play or musical, or I’m inspired to create, that is when I am most focused and feel the most free. When I am triggered by perceived criticism, although my emotions feel intense and uncontrollable in the moment, I have found that contrasting the situation with the bigger picture helps. I have found I can reassure myself that life will go on and mistakes will help me grow.

“Even though we cannot magically snap our fingers to make our problems disappear, we can learn to manage them and adopt healthy habits to make the problems shrink.”

These can range from establishing a good morning routine to keeping a gratitude journal. Perhaps it’s listening to music, exercising, or practicing yoga. Medication can help as well. Keep in mind that every person is different, and each person’s journey to self-acceptance is unique. Two sayings that I’ve learned in theatre keep me motivated and provide a healthy perspective: “You can’t move forward if you’re looking to the side.” and “Fail Forward.” In the end, accepting yourself can be one of the most challenging of personal journeys; it is a long and winding road to loving who you are.

This blog was written by Lizzy Arnold, one of NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council members.

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