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E39. ADHD and Rejection Sensitivity

Welcome to ADHD Crash Course! Today we're going to talk about rejection sensitivity. Many people with ADHD deal with extreme sensitivity to rejection. In fact, there is a term that's been coined that refers to this in people with ADHD by Dr. William Dodson. It's Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria or RSD. A lot of people in the ADHD community will talk about RSD.

They're referring to this really extreme response to not just rejection, but the perception of rejection and that people with ADHD often perceive rejection in all kinds of places where it's not intended, it's not being delivered to them, but they're going to pick that up in their environment due to this sensitivity.

I know for me, I heard that all the time when I was growing up; I was too sensitive, I was oversensitive. What happened for me, what happens for a lot of people when you get that kind of feedback that "you're too sensitive", that you're too much in that way, you learn how to mask that. You learn how to cover that up in order to be better received socially.

I think there's a couple of factors here. The most obvious is this emotional regulation piece that we talk about frequently, these heightened experiences of emotion. It doesn't feel good for anyone to be rejected. Nobody thinks that's a good feeling.

But with ADHD, sometimes the intensity that we experience things can be almost unbearable. And I've definitely had many people describe this dynamic with rejection sensitivity, that it is unbearable, it's almost like a physical pain, what they go through, even when they just perceive rejection.

Then you also factor in that many people with ADHD grow up receiving more negative messages. I just read something that said that by age of 12, we're looking at 20,000 more negative messages than your neurotypical peers. And the research shows us that ADHD most definitely impacts relationships in children and adults. It impacts social skills, it impacts relationships, it has some pretty far-reaching effects on how we relate and interact with people. So, there is a reality that we're probably getting more negative feedback as well.

We may understand a couple of the reasons that contribute to our likelihood to have this as ADHD brains. But what do we do about that? What do we do with this? How do we work with our brains to manage RSD / rejection sensitivity and navigate rejection, whether it is intended or just perceived.

A good place to start is tools that help us regulate emotionally. I've spoken about this before in several places, and I believe one of the best places that you can start when it comes to emotional regulation, especially if you're new to doing some of this work, is starting with body- based strategies.

I have a free sensory training on my website that actually gives training on how to use sensory strategies for regulation, that has one of the body based strategies that you can use to help change your nervous system level. And I think I mentioned in that training, and I want to talk about that here, is that when you are at a very heightened nervous system level, when you that big fight flight freeze, and fawn, fawn is the other one, especially for us people pleasers and maskers...when you're in those nervous system states, you are off line.

That means you're not available for things like reasoning, logic, some of the other thought work that we do when we're trying to work with something like rejection sensitivity. So, the first step is really getting yourself in a more regulated state and the second step is working on some of those thoughts and working on stretching some of those thoughts.

Anytime you have a situation where you're perceiving rejection and you're interpreting someone's behavior, their intention behind their behavior, you're doing a lot of interpreting. There's lots of possible ways that this can be interpreted, any one behavior. Now, I can give you dozens of examples between my own personal experience, my kids' experience, my clients' experience, but I'm going to choose one from my family and one of my daughters when she was younger.

She was in a new school and it was hard making friends. She was on the quieter side, slower to warm up. It was hard for her to make friends. And there was an acquaintance that was kind of becoming a friend who invited her to go see her concert, this friend's concert. My daughter was excited about that and wanted to go support this new friend. We went to this concert and in the lobby, they had a place where you could buy a little candy for the performers and you could write a note.

My daughter labored over whether she should do this, whether it's weird, whether it would be well received, and she finally said "Hey, let's just go for it" and congratulate this person on their performance. So, she paid her a couple of dollars for this candy gram and it was sent back to her friend. And of course, she didn't see her because her friend was still performing. The next day at school, she thought her friend might mention something, say something, the friend said nothing. And the friend never did say anything.

Now, probably a lot of people would feel a little self doubt here and kind of wonder what happened. Maybe some would want to clarify, ask the friend if they received that. Maybe some would just let it go, you know, might roll with it think it's no big deal, the person forgot about it.

With rejection sensitivity, you spiral on this, then it becomes really over analyzing second guessing yourself and attaching a lot of meaning when you don't actually know the meaning. So, she really struggled with this, with the possible reasons that this person didn't acknowledge her gesture.

And so we played around with this. You know, of course, as her mother, watching her struggle socially, I was not like a completely neutral third party. I felt that rejection for her and I felt like "oh, man, that's disappointing for her". So together, we just kind of talked about, "hey, what are the possible scenarios here that can be behind this?

You know, maybe she just felt weird, didn't know what to say. Maybe it didn't get to her or maybe it was given to another child with a similar name. Maybe she just forgot, maybe she really hates candy. We worked on being flexible in our thinking, this cognitive flexibility, where you're just "trying on" some different interpretations. What I've found, personally, is that it doesn't work if you only give the best possible, you got to give the full range, got to give yourself the full range to choose from.

If your first instinct is that this person thought it was really strange and creepy that you gave them a candy gram, put that one down as one possible interpretation. Don't just stuff that away and refuse to acknowledge that that's where your brain went. But list all the possibilities. And when they are all listed out there, when you go through all of them, the most negative one, the highest rejection one does look less likely. You know, give it its space, let it be there, because that is where your brain, a lot of times, goes. But then give it other alternatives.

It was weeks later that this friend ended up mentioning this to my daughter and asked her, kind of hesitantly, "Did you send me a candy gram at my performance? Because I could make out one letter, but couldn't make out the whole name and I felt kind of weird asking you, because what if you hadn't sent it to me, and that would make you feel uncomfortable..."

So, even though my daughter and I came up with half a dozen possible explanations for what was behind that situation, we did not come up with that one. And that is very frequently what happens, there's an explanation, often, that is much, much gentler than the one that our mind is going to jump to.

So number one is get yourself to a more regulated place, choose something to help you with your emotional regulation. Number two is try on some possible explanations other than the one your brain goes to first, if it goes to a rejection scenario first. And number three, is connect and clarify.

Another option for my daughter's situation was to just ask this friend, "Hey, did you get this thing?". They would have been on the same page weeks earlier. And that can be hard if you're dealing with rejection, if you already are ready and primed for rejection, being vulnerable. Asking for clarification and taking that risk of connection can be really tricky. But, especially if you're having a hard time getting okay with some of the possible scenarios that your brain is coming up with, and some of these more generous explanations, that's just not working for you, getting clarity can really help.

I know I've mentioned this in another podcast as well, but Brene Brown talks about using this strategy with her spouse: if they're in an argument or she's getting irritated, their go to response to each other is "What I'm hearing you say is____" rather than just responding and assuming the intention behind that person's comment.

Very often,what we find is that when we present that to people, "What I'm hearing you say is this", we're wrong. We have it wrong. We've interpreted it wrong and it gives them a chance to say "Yes, that's exactly what I meant to say" or to say "That has nothing to do with what I wanted to say" and communicate. It gives a chance to clarify the message that we want to deliver.

So, wrapping up; sensitivity to rejection, sensitivity to perceived rejection is a very real, very difficult thing for many people with ADHD and there are things that we can do about it. These are not all of the things, these are just a few things that I can suggest that you do. These are things that you can work on to help navigate RSD if this is a hard thing for you.


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