Living with Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Will I ever overcome the agony of criticism?

Rain Marie // Community Relations Manager

It is 8:00 am and I am sitting in the corner of my stuffy Grade 12 English class anxiously waiting for my teacher to return the results from last week’s exams. I feel like I don’t deserve my seat in the classroom. When I was nine, I was moved from my public elementary school to a gifted charter school after my occupational therapist (OT) thought it would better serve my needs. Everyone attending the school had been through mandatory IQ testing to see if they belong in gifted education, and there I was, not done the testing, feeling as if I got a free pass into a school where I don’t belong. I feel like school was never easy for me.  

I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Dyspraxia at the age of 5. As a female-presenting person, I was very lucky to receive my diagnosis at such an early age. This is unlike the experience of most female-presenting people, such as Claire Brnjac, Capilano Courier’s Arts and Culture Editor, who mentions that she was officially diagnosed with ADHD when she was a junior in high school. She was late to the game getting diagnosed, and only really got started after a school therapist suggested it due to her failing marks. 

Even with the benefits of an early diagnosis, I also experienced social isolation. At age six, I was taken out of class to visit a school OT for the first time. While the other students sat in class and learned about addition and subtraction, I sat alone in a room matching colours with shapes. These are the kind of activities you would expect to be given to a toddler. This was the beginning of my personal experience with rejection. I didn’t see myself as ADHD or Dyspraxic or even just a student with different needs; I saw myself as the names I heard yelled at me by the other students: annoying and attention-seeking. 

ADDitude Magazine, an online news source on ADHD, defines Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD) as an “intense emotional response caused by the perception that you have disappointed others in your life and that, because of that disappointment, they have withdrawn their love, approval, or respect.” The same sinking feeling of shame a neurotypical person may feel from rejection, or something as simple as getting called out for speaking out of turn during class, can feel like a life-shattering event to one with RSD. We begin to learn to apologize ferociously for any mistake, and avoid any situation that might bring rejection. Many people with ADHD experience ostracization growing up, both prior to and following their diagnosis. Capilano University (CapU) student Danae McLean describes their experience: “I thought I was a misfit, despite having friends. I don’t know how much of that was regular playground dynamics, anxiety disorder, or ADHD making me think everyone didn’t like me.”

Doctors and psychiatrists are only starting to recognize the ways in which cisgendered male-centered medical practices are preventing women from getting the diagnoses and support they need. Due to the way female-presenting people are socialized from birth, they may present with different behaviours that are not encapsulated within a diagnosis based on a masculine standard. Women are more likely to suffer more with symptoms of RSD, anxiety and depression, and the constant pressure to be perceived as “normal”. Brnjac comments on this phenomenon: “It’s not a secret that we [female-presenting people] get diagnosed less often than our male counterparts… I know more women getting tested now in their early twenties than I did when I got diagnosed at 17.” Unfortunately, this is the reality for most female-presenting people with ADHD. Our innate desire to fit in and not be perceived as weird or different causes us to mask our symptoms. Often when we go and seek a diagnosis later in life, it’s overlooked when it doesn’t match the textbook definition of what ADHD looks like in men.

“Masking” is a skill that many neurodivergent people unconsciously learn and is a common practice in women with ADHD. From a young age I learnt how to mimic the body language, facial expressions and speech patterns of my peers without ADHD in order to avoid rejection and social isolation. Now, I study acting professionally. What is acting if not complex mimicry? While pursuing acting in the Acting for Stage and Screen (ASAS) program at CapU, I learnt that the acting world is full of female-presenting people like me. In my conversations with fellow ASAS student McLean, I discovered that many people who face struggles with inadequacy and rejection turn to the arts as a place where they can thrive and feel confident in their achievements and failures. 

Coping with rejection without the constant feeling that one misstep can turn the entire world against you is, in my experience, a lifelong process. It involves learning what sets off those feelings of rejection, and how to take a step back from these triggers before continuing forward. “I always think people are mad at me. I have to remind myself to take a breath and re-evaluate to avoid being toxic to my loved ones. I often reach out to friends separate from certain situations or altercations and say ‘hey feeling down, need affirmation’ and I have friends who come to me for the same thing,” describes McLean. Some simple strategies for coping with RSD can be reminding your peers of your specific need and, as Brnjac reminds us, the importance of “Learning to sometimes just look. […] I’ve learned that I can do anything for one second—I can open that email and look if I just force myself to. Just rip the bandaid off; it’s always not as bad as I was fearing.”

For students seeking an ADHD diagnosis, those just diagnosed and those who have lived many years with a diagnosis, remember that there is always someone out there who will listen. Despite the fear that we may receive more rejection or be perceived as weak for seeking help, people are generally far more open and accepting than we give them credit for. You are not alone in your journey with acceptance of rejection, there are always people out there ready with open arms to support you and provide accommodations for you.

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